Archives for April 2013

Music for Naked People

Piano Girl Robin Meloy Goldsby revisits the neighborhood sauna. This time around, they’re playing her song.

An unidentified model and Sauna Guy.

An unidentified model and Sauna Guy.


It’s ten minutes to noon at Mediterana, a pastel-colored award-winning sauna and wellness spa located in Bergisch Gladbach, Germany, about twenty minutes from my front door. Mediterana, with its spacious gardens and multiple thermal pools, saunas, and steam baths, hosts up to 1000 guests a day. For me—a middle-aged health-obsessed woman—having this place so close to home is like having Disneyland in my backyard. Spending a day here offers the bargain-basement equivalent of a mini-vacation to the south of France, a Spanish island, or a Moroccan beach. For thirty-eight euros (about fifty dollars), I can show up at nine in the morning, sweat, soak, soap, and sleep the day away, and emerge in the evening feeling like I’ve peeled off a couple of years. Amazing what a little exfoliating can do.

Today I’m meeting Andrea, my friend and the resident director of the Mediterana. Her expert  team of employees has put together a sauna ceremony called “Piano del Sol,” which features solo piano music from two of my recordings. “Piano del Sol,” a twelve-minute sauna odyssey with music piped through an expensive sound system, takes place five times a day. We will attend the noon ceremony, and, along with thirty other naked people, listen to my piano music and perspire. I’m not sure how I feel about this. I’ve been known to sweat while listening to myself, but usually it’s while I’m playing and wearing a black evening gown. I feel naked enough when performing, actually being naked seems like one naked too many.

Right now, I’ve covered myself with a plain white bathrobe and a pair of flip-flops. I pace on a lavender-lined path while waiting for Andrea to show up. Guests of all shapes and sizes—don’t get me started on that theme—carefully hang their fairy-cloth designer robes on wrought-iron hooks attached to Moroccan-tiled walls. One by one, naked as the day they were born, they open the door to the Candle Sauna and meander into the heat.

Andrea, the busiest gal in the sauna biz, careens around the corner at one minute to noon. She is wearing a pink bathrobe—not her normal workday uniform, but an appropriate costume for onsite inspections of the dozens of ceremonies and aromatherapy sessions offered at Mediterana.

“Woo,” she says, glancing at the clock on the wall. “Just made it. Busy day!” It’s not easy to look professional and stylish in a fluffy pink bathrobe, but she manages to exude an air of complete confidence. I am fascinated by her job. I can’t imagine working for a multi-million dollar business where all of my clients were buck-naked.

“You ready?” she says, shedding her robe and revealing a plaid cotton wrap around her mid section, discreetly covering all of her private parts.

“Hey!” I say. “What’s that? You get to wear a towel in there?”

“Yeah. I’m the boss.”

“Oh great,” I say. “But what about me? The featured piano player?”

She laughs. I laugh. I take off my robe. I’m at ease in the naked sauna these days, but only when I can be anonymous. Because they’ll be playing my music, and because there’s a framed poster with my photo hanging next to the sauna door, I feel a little, uh, exposed.

“Wait a minute,” I say. “The sauna guy conducting the ceremony isn’t going to introduce me or anything is he? I mean, he’ll just turn on the music and conduct the ceremony and no one will know I’m here, right?”

“Hmmm. I’m not sure,” Andrea says.

“Okay,” I say. “But if I have to stand up and take a bow I’m going to die. I draw the line at naked bowing. As Ellie Mae Clampet would say, ‘It just ain’t dignified.’ ”

“Who’s Ellie Mae Clampet?” she asks. I guess The Beverly Hillbillies never made it to Germany.

“Never mind,” I say. “Let’s go.”

**

It seems fitting that my piano career has taken this rather unconventional turn. I’ve performed live in fancy-pants concert halls, castle cocktail lounges, embassies, third world countries, and roadside dives. My recordings have been used occasionally in television and film productions, but they also have been played in hospitals and schools, funeral homes and birthing rooms, hotel restaurants and furniture store cafeterias. As far as I know no one is playing my music in elevators, at least not yet. I like to think—and hope—the songs I compose and perform are relaxing without being mind-numbing, meditative without being boring. I live with two sophisticated teenage pop-music-experts and a jazz-bassist husband whose nickname is the Chord Doctor. The three of them keep me from falling into a New Age tedium pit. I admit to having tendencies in this direction, so I’m lucky my kids and the Chord Doctor patrol my practice sessions like an in-house harmony task force, making sure I don’t write anything that sounds like whale song or subliminal chimes.

Everyone in this house has a few suggestions about how to make my music hipper. In a nice way, they let me know when I’m too boring, too lackluster, too monotonous.

John: “Maybe you could add a b9 to that F#7 chord.”

Curtis: “That bridge needs some kind of groove. Try this. And play it faster.”

Julia: “Have you heard the new Ludovico Einaudi soundtrack? You should go in that direction.”

When I’m smart and feeling open-minded, I listen to their tips.  When I’m stubborn I don’t. It’s composition by committee. I end up with a kind of Meno-Mom-Meets-Meldau fusion that, in the best-case scenario, chills people out while they shop, heal, sleep, or think. I write music, record it, and release it into the world. Who knows where it will end up or how it will be used? I like to think that what I record belongs to me—and during the creative process, even with the input of my in-house advisory team, it does. But once it’s out there? All bets are off. It could end up anywhere at all. Anywhere.

Not long ago, on a storybook-perfect Christmas morning at Schlosshotel Lerbach, a castle guest—dressed to the hilt in mink and velvet—charged into the lobby and zig-zagged through the crowd to the piano.

“Merry Christmas, Frau Schnitzler-Herkenrath,” I said.

“Merry Christmas,” she replied. Then, right there in the midst of all the German Christmas cheer—we’re talking gingerbread, mulled wine, candles, and real chestnuts roasting on a real open fire—she burst into tears. I abruptly stopped playing my joyous version of “Hark the Herald,” stood up, and hugged her.

“Whatever is wrong, Frau Schnitzler-Herkenrath?” I asked.

“My father died last week,” she said.

I had known her father. He was a sweet old man with a winning smile. Detlev—that was his name—had a chronic dripping nose. I would dodge the drips while he stood over me at the piano and showed me American business cards he had collected in the early thirties, before the war. He kept the cards in his wallet, held together with an old rubber band. In halting English, he would read the addresses to me and ask if I knew any of the men. I always suspected there was something more to the story, but our conversations never progressed to the point where I felt comfortable asking.

“I am so sorry, Frau Schnitzler-Herkenrath. You must be very sad.”

“He was a day short of his ninety-seventh birthday. When he took his last breath he was listening to your music.”

I paused for a moment. “Really?” I said, halfway hoping this wasn’t true.

“Really,” she said.

I sighed. I knew she meant this as the highest compliment, but still. I gave her one more hug, perhaps a tad less sincere than the first embrace. Frau Schnitzler-Herkenrath composed herself, dried her tears, and went off to eat the Christmas goose.

I stayed at the piano. I got a little weepy and nostalgic, thinking about old Detlev, with his stack of antique business cards and drip-drip-dripping nose. The last thing I wanted to do was play “Jingle Bells.” My husband, on a break from his jazz gig in the castle Brasserie, came to meet me in the lobby. He noticed my blotchy face and smeared mascara.

“What’s wrong?” he said. “It’s Christmas! Joy to the world! Deck the halls!”

“Detlev Schnitzler-Herkenrath died last week while listening to my Songs from the Castle CD.”

Really?” he said.

“Really,” I said.

Silence.

“Huh,” said John. “I wonder which track did him in.”

**

Back to the sauna.

Maybe my melodies will help the naked folks relax and unwind. Maybe the songs will help cleanse away the effects of too much stress, too much gin, too little sleep. Maybe they’ll like what I play, maybe they won’t. I just hope they won’t die while they’re listening. I really hope they don’t dance. If there’s anything worse than naked bowing, it’s naked dancing. I don’t know. Hope this, hope that. There’s a lot of hope in this essay. But maybe that’s what making music is all about.

We enter the sauna. About thirty very toasty Germans sit or recline on tiered wooden benches. They look pretty relaxed. They look hot. I mean that in the traditional sense. Hot, as in warm.

A3_2

I clutch my towel to my chest. The towel is a critical accessory in the German sauna. Skin is not allowed to touch any part of the wood. To comply with this very strict rule, you need a very long sauna towel, or you need two bath towels capable of stretching the length of your body. Getting your feet, your butt, your head and your arms all lined up on the towel can seem like a round of naked Twister.

Not that anyone is looking, but I doubt I’ll be recognized in here. In the photo hanging outside I’m cloaked in black velvet, spackled with M.A.C. Studio Fix, and photo-shopped. In here I’m stripped bare, clean-faced, and well worn. I look around carefully. Nope. No one cares. I wrestle with my towel and get all of my body parts situated on a lower bench. Better to stay on the bottom—reaching the higher benches involves stepping over other people, which I refuse to do without underpants. Plus, it gets really hot up there.

Andrea lounges on one of the top benches, but she is a sauna pro and can take the heat. I eye her wrap. Because everyone else is naked, the wrap gives her an air of authority. I never thought I would covet an orange plaid cloth (with fringe!) that looks like a North African dishtowel—but I would give anything to be covered up right now.

At the stroke of noon, Sauna Guy enters the room and closes the door behind him. Like most of the employees at Mediterana, Sauna Guy is pony-tailed, buff, tan, and looks like he never breaks a sweat. He carries a huge wooden bucket of ice. He adds a few drops of aromatherapy essential oil to the ice and places it in a large Moroccan metal bowl—suspended from a pendulum in the center of the wooden ceiling. He sets the pendulum swinging back and forth over the sauna rocks. The ice drips onto the hot stones and sizzles.

We have only been in here for forty-five seconds and it already feels like it’s 1000 degrees.

What better time for a little music!

“Good afternoon ladies and gentlemen, and welcome to the Piano de Sol sauna ceremony. The ceremony will take approximately 12 minutes and will be divided into two parts, featuring two solo piano recordings composed by American musician Robin Goldsby.”

Sauna Guy seems a little nervous, but I’m sure it’s because Andrea, his boss, is in the audience. By the way, Sauna Guy is also wearing one of those plaid dishrags. He has it wrapped around his waist like a loin cloth. It’s a look.

“We’ll be enjoying lavender, lemongrass, and eucalyptus essential oils during the ceremony. You’ll have the chance to leave the sauna between songs. Otherwise, please remain seated. And please remain silent.”

This is new for me—I like the idea of a guard in a loin cloth who forces people to listen, sit still, and not talk.

The music starts. The ice pendulum drips. The rocks sizzle. Sauna Guy parades around the room, majestically waving a large flag. This circulates the scented hot air, wafting it into our faces and melting away the stress of the day. I can’t decide if this experience is ridiculous or wonderful. Maybe a little of both. Once again—this happens to me about twice a week here in Germany—I feel as if I’ve been kick-dropped into the middle of a Mel Brooks film.

My neighbors on the lower bench take deep cleansing breaths. Inhale. Exhale. The first song, “Flying, Falling,” comes to an end.  Sauna Guy opens the door for a moment, but no one leaves. I’m sweating like a Schwein and would like to flee but I can’t run out on my own recorded performance, so I stay put. My second song, “Magnolia,” starts. Because I recorded the damn thing, I know that it will play for exactly four minutes and fifteen seconds. Inhale. Exhale. I float into the music and listen, halfway expecting to hear careless phrasing, places where I should have listened to the Chord Doctor, or slipshod technique. But it all sounds okay to me—not great or glorious, but somehow perfect for this particular moment. At one point, I even forget I’m listening to myself.

No one dies. No one dances. Everyone sweats, but that’s to be expected. I do not have to take a naked bow—the applause at the conclusion of the ceremony is not for me, but for Sauna Guy, who has expertly guided us through our twelve-minute easy-bake musical ritual. I collect my towel and file out of the sauna with the other naked guests. I’m hungry for cool air. I’m relaxed and naked and one of the crowd. I’m—dare I say it?—hopeful.

**

The Mediterana Wellness Field.

The Mediterana Wellness Field.

Bonus Naked Story! (Something extra from the Goldsby Archives)

In 1994, when I first moved to Germany, I wrote a long story about my first visit to the naked sauna, called “Naked.” I learned a valuable lesson from the publication of this piece, mainly that success in literature often involves including the word “naked” in the title. David Sedaris found this out with the 1997 publication of his hysterically funny book, Naked. My pal Robin Spielberg is publishing her first book, a memoir called Naked on the Bench: My Adventures in Pianoland. Watch for it this fall. With a title like that, she can’t go wrong. 

Anyway, I’ve been getting mileage out of this naked sauna thing for a long time.  In case you’ve never read the first piece, here it is. Various forms of this essay have appeared in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette (1995), Expatriate Living (2005), and, most recently, in my book: Waltz of the Asparagus People: The Further Adventures of Piano Girl (2011). Happy reading!

Naked

Excerpted  from Goldsby’s book,  Waltz of the Asparagus People (Bass Lion Publishing)

I’ve always been a big fan of the sauna. A good sauna can relax you, clear your head, and make your skin look great. And all of this for a mere fifteen minutes of sweating. Not a bad deal, when you think of it. I would love to go to a sauna right now, but I’m tangled in a web of German red tape and boxed in by stacks of moving cartons crowding our new apartment. I’m busy trying to unpack music books, learn how to pronounce unbefristige-Aufenthaltserlaubnis (the German version of a green card), and teach my son how to say danke to the cheese lady at the local market. A neighbor, sensing my need for a time out, tells me that the very pretty Sülztal Family Sauna is right up the hill from our home. I’m ready.

In Germany saunas are for naked people only. Bathing suits are verboten. Fine. But I’m an American woman. I’m fond of Lycra tank suits in dark colors, preferably with invisible lace-covered support panels. These days I worry that my six-pack looks more like a one-pack. A naked debut in public should be left to those on the prettier side of middle age.

Or?

One of the great things about moving to a foreign country is getting a chance to discover just how brainwashed we are by our own customs and traditions. The Germans pick wild mushrooms from the forest and eat raw pork for supper with no worry of falling into a trichinosis-induced coma. A lot of Americans—who would never ever touch a wild mushroom, let alone eat a piece of pig meat that hasn’t been cooked in a blast furnace—eat peanut butter and bacon sandwiches and deep-fried Twinkies served on sticks. After just a few months in this country, I can see the German catalog of odd customs is just as wacky as its American counterpart. The trick, I suppose, is to figure out which American habits to toss and which German habits to adopt. Maybe the sauna would be a good place to start.

I’ve always worn a damp bathing suit in the sauna, because that’s what we do in America. Never once, as I stepped into the tiny sauna at my New York City health club, did it occur to me that wearing a sticky garment in a sweatbox might not be a great idea. Maybe naked would be better. It would certainly be more comfortable. With this in mind I set off for the sauna. My husband stays home with our young son, who yells on my way out the door, “Get NAKEY, Mommy.”

I enter the Sülztal Family Sauna—an oasis of tranquility tucked into a corner of meadow next to the Autobahn. I pay my fee for a day pass, tuck my hang-ups in the locker with my underpants, put on a bathrobe, and step through the heavy wooden door into an airy room filled with fountains, pools, and sunlight streaming through generous windows. There are men everywhere. Old men. Young men. Naked men. Water, water everywhere and not a gal in sight. I thought this was supposed to be a family place. The last time I saw this many naked men was at the Continental Baths, a gay men’s health club in Manhattan that offered cabaret entertainment (Bette Midler! Peter Allen!) on the weekends. But most of those guys wore towels around their chiseled waistlines. The guys I’m looking at now, thick-bellied and heavy-balled, are not wearing towels. They stroll aimlessly, the way men do when visiting the home improvement center on a Saturday afternoon.

I try not to stare, really I do, but I’ve got a front-row seat at the Penis Parade, and it’s a spectacle I’ve never seen before. These guys have other remarkable features, I’m sure, but all I see are penises. Fat ones, skinny ones, dangling and dazzling, the long and the short of it. Who knew there were so many varieties? And look! That penis marching toward the waterfall? It’s wearing a little hat.

Flip, flop, flip, flop. The sound of the naked men’s pool shoes flapping on the tile floor slaps me back to reality.

Brauchen Sie Hilfe?” says a middle-aged man with a friendly penis. I mean smile. I have no idea what he’s saying. In addition to my lack of German-language skills, I am also suffering from hysterical deafness.

I put on my very best face, the one I once wore when asking for assistance at the Chanel counter at Saks Fifth Avenue, cinch the belt on my bathrobe, look him in the penis, I mean eye, and say, “I am lost. Where is the door? You know. Door. Go outside.” I am speaking in a very loud American Indian voice, the one I use when I think I’m talking to non-English speakers. I sound like Tonto.

“You are standing right next to it,” he says, in perfect English. “Here, allow me.” He is a gentleman with no pants on. He opens the door and I step through.

Olive trees and eucalyptus line the curved paths that wind through the landscaped garden. If it weren’t for the naked men and the crisp November air, I’d feel as if I had entered a Provençale fantasyland. Or Oz.

Germans love fresh air, even when they’re naked and the temperature is cold enough to stun a polar bear. I walk through the garden, shivering. I sneeze. This is ridiculous. I’m at a place that specializes in heat, and I’m out here freezing my ass off.

Hey, look at that guy there. The one with the blond penis, I mean hair. Well, that too. He looks like Sting.

I follow Sting because he looks like he knows where he’s going. He jumps into a pool, and I continue on the circular path until I’m back at the entrance to the main building. I spot the steam room and peer through the glass door. Two women. No men. This I can handle.

I look over my shoulder to make sure no one is staring, remove my bathrobe, yank open the door, and enter the steam room. The two naked ladies acknowledge me with a hearty “Guten Morgen.” In Germany, when you enter a bakery, the waiting room of the doctor’s office, or a sauna full of buck-naked people, you are required by some mysterious code to shout out a greeting. Then you sit down and completely ignore everybody until it is time to leave, at which point you walk to the door and shout out a spirited goodbye. This custom can be particularly daunting for a foreigner. Especially a naked foreigner.

Guten Morgen!” I yell back at them. Silence. I sit. I wait. The steam hisses and covers us in a translucent fog. The mist airbrushes my stomach wrinkles and the voices in my head are quiet. It’s peaceful in here, a rain forest without the forest. Okay, maybe it’s a tad too warm. Just a tad, but I’m coping.

The two other women stand and stretch. Before leaving, they turn on a hose and spray off the bench for the next guests. What a nice country, I think.

Auf Wiedersehen,” they shout.

Auf Wiedersehen,” I respond. I’m one of the crowd now. No one would ever guess I’m American. I’m just another naked Frau out for a steam.

It feels so luxurious, so decadent, being in this huge steam room all by myself. But warm. Very warm. Some might say hot. Boiling hot. Jesus Christ. Time to get out of here. I teeter toward the exit. Just as I reach the door, two barrel-chested men barge into the steam room.

Guten Morgen!” they shout.

Guten Morgen!” I say. Now what? If I remain standing I’m fully exposed.

I sit down. I cross my arms and my legs, hiding my private parts by turning myself into a human pretzel. I’m sweating like a Schwein. If I don’t get out of here soon I’ll faint. Shit, shit, shit. Worse than having these two guys see me naked in a steam bath would be to wake up in a German Krankenwagon with nothing on. Or what if I die from the heat and end up in the Nakey Morgue with a coroner making snide comments about my lack of muscle tone?

Enough.

Just as I’m about to flee, I remember that I’m obliged to spray off the goddamn bench. I grab the hose and turn on the faucet. The hose flies out of my hands and sprays one of the men in the face with cold water. He yells. The hose—which has a life of its own—writhes on the mosaic tiles like a snake in an Indiana Jones movie. I hit the floor and crawl around—buck-naked—wrestling with the hose as it jerks up and down.

So much for dignity.

Fuck fuck fuck fuck fuck sorry sorry sorry. I slide back toward the faucet. As I turn off the water I hear the men muttering something about foreigners. There goes the neighborhood, I imagine them saying.

I do not spray off my seat, and I do not shout a cheerful “auf Wiedersehen” as I drag myself out the door. I lean against the cool tiles of the shower area, gulping at the fresh air. For just a second, I forget that I’m naked. I notice my skin is as soft as a baby’s behind. A middle-aged baby, but I’ll take it.

**

I learn to love my neighborhood sauna. I experience one minor setback when I turn on the automatic “back massager” in the outdoor cold-water swimming pool. It unleashes a powerful stream of water that catapults me like a nude Scud missile to the other side of the pool, right in front of the folks having lunch on the terrace. By the way, when the weather is warm, many of the diners are also naked. I haven’t yet mustered up the courage for nakey dining. Somehow drinking a cup of hot coffee while topless doesn’t seem like the wisest choice.

My husband now enjoys the sauna as much as I do. He has become an expert in the Sauna Step-over Technique, a tricky procedure that involves lifting one’s leg and stepping over other naked people. Some folks recline in the sauna, and the step-over is the only way to get to the higher benches. Without the benefit of a bathing suit, or, at the very least, underpants, this can be difficult to master while maintaining a sense of decorum. Years will pass before I’m brave enough to attempt a step-over—I learn to look for a person with closed eyes, step lively, and try not to cough.

A decade after my first sauna experience I visit the brand-new Mediterana Sauna in Bergisch Gladbach, thirty minutes from my front door. Recently the Mediterana was voted one of the best spas in Europe. A day trip to this place seems like a mini-vacation. I’m particularly fond of the Himalaya Sauna, a golden-rose underground cave lined with 100 tons of healing salt crystal. The aromatic Candle Sauna offers a romantic view of the lake that borders the Mediterana property. The Rose Temple sauna smells like an English garden in mid-June. Heaven. It is the opposite of New York City.

During the regularly scheduled Mediterana Aufguss sessions, the sauna boy—muscular, shining with sweat, and wearing a plaid loincloth—comes into the sauna, drizzles a magic potion over the sauna rocks, and swings a towel over his head to circulate the aroma. There’s a Greek God vibe to the routine, and some of these guys put on quite a show. Very quickly I learn to lean back so I don’t get hit in the face with a wet towel.

Our kids, before they reach their adolescent years, will occasionally accompany us to the local sauna. Every so often I’ll catch a glimpse of them wandering around naked with all the other naked people, and I’m stunned by their innocence and lack of modesty. They seem so European. Still, with two American parents, I don’t imagine they’ll be picking wild mushrooms or ordering the pork carpaccio at the local Kneipe any time soon.

I’m at home in the German sauna now, even though, deep down inside, I still feel slightly embarrassed—and very American—when I enter the land of the unclothed. I’ve stopped staring at penises, chasing hoses, and flinging myself across swimming pools. I don’t know why the naked sauna was such a big deal for me in the first place. No one stares, no one cares, because naked, we all look pretty much the same—vulnerable, fragile, and flawed. Every so often I run into one of the gorgeous people, a Sting look-alike or a supermodel or a champion figure skater. We avoid eye contact and sit together and sweat. German or American, we all carry the weight of our nakedness, light as a feather, heavy as the past. Maybe it’s a burden worth sharing.

“Get nakey, Mommy!”

Yes. Why not?

**

 Robin Goldsby’s new CD, Magnolia, is now available for pre-order from Amazon and iTunes (Release date May 7th). Goldsby is the author of three books: Piano Girl: A Memoir; Rhythm: A Novel; and Waltz of the Asparagus People: The Further Adventures of Piano Girl. Goldsby lives outside of Cologne, Germany, with her husband, jazz bassist John Goldsby, and their two kids. Most of the time Robin is fully clothed.