For the sake of clarity, I’ll say right now that’s not a euphemism. ‘Getting comfortable with’ is exactly what I mean, and it’s surprising.
I’m from Alaska, a state in the US that extends so far North on our planet, a full third sits within the Arctic Circle. We aren’t as close to the North Pole as parts of Russia, Canada or Greenland, but take a firm 4th, and as you might imagine, we don’t spend a lot of time in the water. The Pacific Ocean may bring fish and look very attractive, but the Encyclopedia Britannica estimates the average surface temperature in the north at 34° F (1° C). In water temperatures of 32.5°F – 40°F, you will reach a state of unconsciousness due to heat loss in 15-30 minutes. So what is the point of all this depressing water knowledge? Simple, we don’t spend a lot of time in the water because:
At the risk of being over dramatic, it means death.
So, precisely 1 year and 3 weeks ago today, I stepped off the plane in Keflavík, got dropped off at my Airbnb, and sat clutching a cup of tea, staring owlishly with jet lag at my eager hosts. “We hope you love Iceland!” Mmmmm. “Do you speak any Icelandic yet?” Ah, no. “How do you like it so far.” Well… “Was the flight alright?” Mmmmm. “I hope you’re not too tired!” Well… “What should we do tomorrow?” Wha? “We’d love to show you some of Reykjavík!” Uh… “I know, lets go to the pool! You can sit in the hot pots and relax; they’re all geothermal you know.”
Hot Pots? Yes please.
The next day saw me getting ready to go to the pool with my new swimsuit; the first one I’ve purchased since I turned 16, as I’ve certainly never worn one out. The lady of the house knocked on my door. “I’ve just remembered, we had an American stay with us before.” Is that a good thing? “It’s just that when we took her to the pool, she got really upset.” Why? “Well, she didn’t realize you’d have to undress.” Like in her swimsuit? “Well, you have to undress completely in the locker room, and then shower off before you can put on your swimsuit. When she showed up wearing hers and had to take it off she was pretty upset. I just wanted to tell you in case you didn’t know.” Sure, thanks for telling me. And then I closed the door, undressed, and took my swimsuit back off.
American prudery is a pervasive stereotype.
When I find a particularly good study about it, I’ll add it’s findings in, but for now we’ll have to stick with my personal experiences. When I go through TSA airport security, and that’s a whole separate post, a female security agent pats down my wrists and ankles. If one isn’t there, I must wait until someone emerges from the bowels of the airport. When I fell in a theatre and split the skin across my shin open, I hobbled to the bathroom while the resident First Aid guy went for the kit. Upon seeing that I couldn’t get to the cut without taking off my jeans, he went to the other side of the building to look for a woman to help me, while blood soaked through the fabric. Lastly, at every pool I’ve ever been to, you put your swimsuit on at home, re-dress, and rinse off at the pool. When you get out, you wrap yourself in your towel, shower off, and then hide in a bathroom stall while you struggle to extricate yourself from the wet fabric without slipping, touching the dirty floor, or doing permanent damage to your elbows as you flail around.
We arrived at the pool in Iceland, and I vowed to be calm, collected and play it cool.
I have never seen so many naked people in my life.
For context, I had never even seen my sister naked, outside of unremembered toddlerhood, until she came to visit me in Iceland and we went to the pool together. On this fateful day in Iceland, I watched my host like a hawk, while trying not to seem like I was watching her. When she picked a locker, so did I. When she shook out her towel, and set aside her swimsuit, so did I. As she started undressing, I looked at the ceiling, the floor, anywhere, while I started pulling up my shirt. My breathing quickened; I felt hot and clammy all over and slightly dizzy. I’m certain my blood pressure skyrocketed, but somewhere in between removing the outer layers, and before the gauntlet of underwear, I realized something remarkable and absolutely alien.
Absolutely no one cared that I was getting naked.
Boys and girls up to the age of 6 ran wet and giggling through everyone’s legs as harassed looking parents tried to towel them off. Women across the way smiled at me as they shivered, toweling off their wet hair. Old ladies in their 70’s and 80’s walked towards the shower room with flowered swim caps and towels slung over one arm, navigating the slippery floor carefully in their rubber bottomed swim shoes. There were naked people everywhere, and the only person who was wasn’t completely at ease was me.
I was twice in a pool locker room in the US where a girl or two took off their bathing suit in the shower, wrapped themselves up in a towel, and proceeded to change next to their locker. One tried to change under her towel, and several older women pointed out where the bathroom stalls were, glowering whenever the towel slipped. Another took her towel off completely, and the room went dead silent. After she left, I remember one of the mothers saying
‘What is she thinking? There are children in here!’
I am very glad to say my experience in Icelandic pools has led to triumph. On that first day, I lady’d up, swept off the rest of my clothes, tossed my towel over one elbow, and marched myself off to the room of spraying shower heads. I washed all the instructed areas, carefully highlighted in helpful cartoon signs, and then wrestled myself haphazardly into my swimsuit under the flow of water. I walked down the wet stairs in my suit, gasped when the outdoor air hit me, then sunk myself chin deep in geothermal hot water to watch clouds roll across the sky.
It was the most satisfying pool experience of my life.
Since then I try to go to the pool a couple of times every week. I’ve swum in pouring rain, dusting snow, wind that made six inch swelling waves across the water, and under a blazing yellow sun that made me think the sea water pool might be nice. Never again. I’ve also gone out with friends on camping and hiking trips to the hot rivers that crisscross Iceland. You strip in a giant, moss covered, lava rock plain, and then wrangle yourself into your suit. I’m proud to say I’m usually the most comfortable non-Icelander there. And if I ever end up at a pool in the US again, I’m walking naked through the locker room. I assure you it’s not because I’m so confident in my body, or because I want to make people feel uncomfortable, but I have experienced what it feels like when you’re not terrified someone might catch a glimpse of your anatomy. And no, that’s not a euphemism either.
Half the population in this world has all the same parts I do, and the other half still knows what everything looks like.
If you come to Iceland, and it’s a truly remarkable place, go and visit the local pool. It’s cheap, and full of glorious hot water that doesn’t smell like chlorine. In addition, know that you will need to strip buck naked, wandering around in a sea of ladies who are also, ahem, in the nude. Don’t try sneaking into the shower in your swimsuit though. Iceland doesn’t pour chemicals in their pools, they only filter and clean the water, so if a local sees you trying to get out of the nakedness, they’ll be thoroughly disgusted at your lack of hygiene and report you to the staff. The staff will then call you out of the pool and make sure you really do wash.
And do you know, in the the year I’ve lived in Iceland, I had to buy a new swimsuit? I wore the first one out.
As a side note, I really love the Encyclopedia Britannica. It distributes knowledge like a cornucopia serves up food. If you don’t have any yet, consider getting them for yourself or your 7 year old; they are fascinating.
As another side note: The hot river photo comes from my friend Iza. Her blog is in Polish, but the pictures tell a story all their own.