Some people travel because they want to relax, others because they want to meet new people, or shop, or eat new and unusual food, or pursue a hobby like, say, rock climbing in as many different places as possible. I travel because I am a collector. Not of any material object, not of interesting people, not of photographs, not of frequent flier miles.
What I collect are strange facts and experiences that somehow delight me, for reasons that I cannot fully explain, but one characteristic that they seem to share is that they suggest questions, questions that can create portals of inquiry that I can then spend countless hours mentally wandering through, musing over, researching, and maybe eventually writing about.Writing is great, of course — it’s how I make my living, beyond which, I care about writing and literature deeply – but if anyone who ever has in the past bought my writing or is thinking of doing so in the future can avert their eyes for just a second, I will now confess that writing is not really the point for me.
The point, the pleasure, comes from the is the process of thinking about the delightful facts that I’ve learned – and writing happens to be a convenient way for me to do that.
An example: I’ve just written about an experience I had in Baden Baden, Germany, for World Hum, called Naked, with a Passport. It was worth the trip to Germany just to go to the Friedrichsbad, an Irish Roman bath that Mark Twain once frequented. And okay, it wasn’t exactly fun to have made a faux pas while butt naked, but life is a comedy to those who think. By the time I’d buttoned my jacket I was laughing at myself over it.
I walked to a café and while I sipped a very strong coffee, I realized that I’d captured something for my mental cabinet of wonder, a big prize: a great big juicy question. As a culture, Germans are known for order, for rule-making and rule-following, not so much for letting it all hang out. And yet these waters were nudist, something I usually associate with a kind of hippy dippy liberality. And come to think of it, my other travel experiences with being the most immodest in spa situations were in countries where public modesty among women were prized. (I’m thinking of the ayurvedic spa experience I talk about in the story, and also my experience in a Turkish hammam.) How did that evolve? Why? What’s naked, anyway?
I spent about a month, in between other projects, and then several weeks concertedly, researching that question. And oh, did I enjoy traveling in this portal of inquiry!
I burrowed into the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders to learn about disorder # 302.4, exhibitionism — among a group recognized as difficult to diagnose “across culture or religions…complicated by the fact that what is considered deviant in one cultural setting may be more acceptable in another.”
I read about the Finnish sauna, the Russian bania, Islamic hammam, the Japanese mushi-buro, Mexican temescal, and the American Indian & Eskimo sweat lodges. I found a study called “Letting it All Hang Out” which explored why women would willingly flash their breasts in exchange for beads during Mardi Gras. I read about sex tourism in Sultry Climates, and pondered “the modern tourist’s prerogative to sample countries without having to cope with any of their awkwardness or ugliness, without being vulnerable to them or dependent on them…as tourist we are kings for the day, able to enjoy the sense, lost since childhood, of a world that exists to gratify our desires.”
I read about early Christian baptism rituals, which were stark naked and co-ed prior to the onset of body shame, and I read about how Christ on the cross became customarily clothed in a sleeveless tunic, or a colobium.
I read fables where lost children who were raised by “savages” or animals retain their clothes as symbol of their humanity. And I read about how the first western explorers reacted to the different standards of dress among the populations they encountered. “The body surface was — and still can be — a central terrain on which battles for the salvation of souls and the fashioning of persons were waged through sartorial means,” writes Adeline Masquelier, in Dirt, Undress and Difference.
Almost none of this was directly useful in the essay I was assigned to write, in fact, much of it was actively unhelpful, because I wanted to cram in as much of what I’d learned as possible – why should I horde such delights as knowing the word colobium? I realize that sensible writers who care about things like “hourly rates” and “efficiencies” would think this all an awful waste.
But I don’t, because these investigations are the other side of my travels, the mental journey that follows the physical one.
My trip to Germany would have been incomplete if I had not been able to read Sweat, a book published in 1978, which included this wonderful excerpt from the travel journal of Sir Robert Ker Porter, a British artist and a diplomat who visited a Moscow bania in 1809 — and which I now share with you:
“We beheld the waters that rolled from under their foundations filled with naked persons of both sexes who waded or swam out from the bath in great numbers, without any consideration of delicacy or decency…to say that they did not blush would be to belie them, for certainly their skins were of the brightest pink: but it was a spontaneous glow, not the sensitive flush of shame; for they look around with all the sang froid of females fully appareled. And in this Eve-ish state with a wooden pail in one hand and a huge bunch of umbrageous birch twigs in the other, they descended the steps down into the river….”
Alison J. Stein
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