Adventures in Nudity -or- Icelandic Swimming Pools

When my friend Helga found me semi-conscious in the living room this morning and asked me if I wanted to go swimming, I immediately agreed. After all, isn't it much better to be jet-lagged and hungover in a pool than in a living room? Yes. Yes it is.

There are times here when I think to myself, "Ah, this is how life should be. I am definitely Icelandic. I'm home." Like that first bite of a delicious lamb hot dog or on a day like today when the sky is blue and the sun is out and the air is fresh and clean.

Then there are other times when I am suddenly slapped in the face with my American side. Like when I’m standing in the women's locker room of Laugardalslaug, a public swimming pool in Reykjavik.

Now, I'm no stranger to nudity. I bathe naked; I'm naked when I change clothes, I even learned to walk naked in my grandpa’s front yard in Florida. I've always considered myself pretty free and easy with the whole body acceptance thing. But I can honestly say I have never been completely naked in front of any of my friends. Nor have I seen any of them completely naked. Actually, I take that back. One of my guy friends regularly skinny dips in mixed company, so we've all seen him naked. But other than that, no.

I can sense confusion from the American readership. Allow me to clarify. When I heard, "Let's go to the pool," I jumped up, put on my bikini, then threw on my clothes over said bikini, grabbed a towel and my camera, expecting to take lots of fun pictures poolside to show the folks at home. Right? Because we're just going to walk in, find some lounge chairs by the pool, strip down to our suits once we're at the lounge chairs, and sit around reading magazines and sunbathing, see and be seen, maybe jump in the water to cool off, bemoan the sting of chlorine as it threatens to disintegrate our retinas. Then at some point we'll stand up, get dressed there by the pool, and go home. It'll be the same thing here, right? Wrong.

Here's how it works in Iceland. You walk in, pay, then you go to the locker room assigned to your gender. You take off your shoes before you enter the locker room and carry them to the lockers. At this point you will have noticed that there are many, many naked women around, which, initially, didn't concern me. I just assumed they were free spirits. Then the girls I was with started undressing too. Again, no worries here. After all, I didn't have to worry about changing in front of anyone, because I had had the foresight to change at home. That's when I opened my locker and saw this posted inside:

Allow me to type what's written there next to the British flag: "Every guest is required to wash thoroughly without a swimsuit before entering the pool. Thank you."

Wait. What? It can't be. I looked around. Yes, the girls I came with were completely naked and confidently striding toward the showers. I'm not ashamed of body by any means, but-- I know these girls! I can't see them naked! Not when I'll be expected to make eye contact with them afterward! Suddenly it's 1955 and I'm June Cleaver, wearing a dress and high heels while vacuuming. I can't be NAKED in front of people I KNOW! Wait, that doesn't sound right. What I mean is that it would have been easier if I didn't know anyone in the locker room. Then I could change and shower without worry. In front of anonymous people. People I've never seen before and whom I'll never see again. Those are the kinds of people with whom I want to share an open, curtain-free shower. Not people I know by name! Suddenly I'm wishing I was Saudi Arabian instead of Icelandic. How I wished I was required by God and Man to be covered from head to toe while I swim! Oh god! What do I do? I peeked into the shower. My new friends were already in there, washing with soap and shampoo and everything. I had just put my makeup on in the car! No! Yes, Inga. Yes. You have to take your clothes off and go shower in front of your friends. They're going to see you naked. No! I can't! I will fight this somehow.

So I wrapped myself in my towel, left on the bikini bottoms, and carried the top in my hand. I cringed my way to the shower, mortified. The girls looked at me quizzically, but I avoided their respective gazes. Finally I relied on trusty humor-as-a-defense-mechanism to save the day. I blurted out, "I'm American, I'm way too shy for this!" They burst out laughing. I hung my towel on a hose on the wall, faced away from them, and showered at lightning speed, before wrapping back up in the towel and racing to put my suit back on before they returned. Finally properly clothed once again, I avoided looking at them while they dressed and chatted together, thinking to myself, "I can't believe this. I'm 1000% American. I'm a puritan. I'm not even remotely laid-back and groovy. I am the most uptight human being on Earth. I'm a nun, I'm actually a nun. There are women in here with breasts hanging down to their navels who are less self-conscious than I am. How could this have happened? How did I not know this about myself?"

We left all our things in our lockers (so much for the photos) and walked out to the pool. Or pools, to be more accurate. One for splashing around and playing, one for swimming laps, many, many hot tubs, all heated geothermally. We sank into a shallow hot tub where you can stretch out on your back as you soak. There, cooking in the hot water, gazing up at the intense blue sky drinking in the sunlight, not the palest person present (a friend of mine once famously referred to me as "Crayola White" on the beach one summer and the label stuck), I thought to myself, "Oh no. I'm definitely Icelandic. Just not in public showers." 
[Originally published on May 2, 2010 at]


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