Bare at the Baths
Travel Stories: It was Conor Friedersdorf's last day in Budapest, and he'd forgotten his bathing suit. He opted for an audacious solution.
11.17.10 | 1:15 PM ET
On a winter day in Budapest, feet sore from wandering the city, I stumbled upon the very public bath that my hostel-mates had raved about all week. Enamored by the idea of natural hot springs, I broke my budget and paid the pricey entrance fee. Then it hit me: I had neither a towel nor a bathing suit, and the facility was co-ed.
Immersing tired bones in soothing pools seemed enormously appealing, so I sat on a bench in the locker room, wondering what to do. Refunds aren’t given, I thought. Nor will I have time to visit again before leaving the city. Suddenly I realized that I was bucking myself up for an audacious solution. I peeked beneath my pants to see the color of my underwear.
If I happened to have donned white boxer briefs that morning all was lost. As luck had it, however, I’d pulled on black Calvin Klein boxer briefs.
Did I dare?
The Hungarian men guided me. I crept around the locker room, afraid of being mistaken for a voyeur as I searched for a group of them changing. I knew if they wore American style bathing suits I wouldn’t have the guts to go beside them in my underwear. But the two men I found wore black Speedos far tighter and skimpier than my boxer briefs, which left far more to the imagination.
Even so, I fretted in front of my locker, wondering how I’d be received. It took a minute more to rally the courage to emerge. I hesitated on the threshold, frozen by the sight of other bathers
Beyond them, I could look through windows at a steaming pool. Once immersed, my underwear will be out of sight, out of mind, I thought. I hurried toward an exit, but the nearest door wouldn’t budge. I walked past dressing cabins for bath members, but the doors on the far side proved impassable too.
Now I saw that the outdoor area included multiple pools, large spas and several marble statues. I passed massage rooms, mud bath treatments, saunas, steam rooms and showers for men and women. Unable to find my way outdoors, I felt more naked than ever, and then I saw her: an American girl, or so I guessed since she wore Rainbow sandals, a California footwear phenomenon suggestive of good taste and English fluency.
She was headed toward me.
“Hi,” I said, trying to avoid that nervous tinge to my tone, and flexing my stomach a bit too. “Do you know how to get outside?”
She laughed quietly.
“Left America without a bathing suit, huh?”
“I’m Canadian,” I said. “In Ottawa everyone wears these.”
“Oh,” she said, looking at me quizzically. “Well, you have to go down a level to get to the outdoor pools.”
I thanked her and began to walk away.
“Are you really Canadian?” she asked.
I thought it would be funny to begin whistling “O Canada,” but who knows the whole tune?
“No,” I told her. “I’m American.”
“Then I’m impressed,” she said. “That takes guts.”
“Not when the Europeans wear those,” I said, indicating a man passing by with a thong Speedo. My boxer briefs seemed like a World War II era bathing suit in comparison.
“Yeah?” she said. “We’ll see how they look when they’re wet.”
The cold air came as a shock. My feet scampered over chilled concrete, my almost bare body shivering under scattered clouds. Adrenaline propelled me down plaster steps, into chest-deep water as warm as a mildly heated spa. Then my heart stopped palpitating and I surveyed my surroundings: Old men sat on submerged concrete stools, playing chess on marble boards. Teens claimed a corner to fraternize, and children played games on the steps.
I floated on my back, submerging my shoulders. The winter sun shone, save when scattered clouds floating past obscured it. The whole sky seemed to scroll overhead in great cloudy patches. I spent close to an hour lounging around the outdoor pool, watching the sky.
Finally, I decided to explore the sprawling bath complex. I wandered into several saunas, applying Aristotelian philosophy like Goldilocks: I found virtuous quarters, not too hot, not too cold, and stood near the rocks, absorbing warmth. Four Hungarians, my sauna mates for a few minutes, rose to leave, and I stood alone until two attractive women in their early 20s entered the sauna. Head bowed, somewhat dazed by the heat, I used peripheral vision. One of the girls, trying to be discrete, was returning the favor.
I felt flattered at first. I saw her glance at my body, pause, and whisper a comment to her friend, who giggled. I nearly smiled back at them before remembering. It was only this: Dry boxer briefs are decidedly less revealing than Speedos, but the situation reverses when boxer briefs are wet. Dread crept from my gut into my shoulders and neck as I observed the difference, trying to avoid staring downward, but attempting to assess the situation.
My quick peek had me feeling even more bashful; I wondered whether I’d feel more or less self-conscious if I folded my hands before me.
“Are you American?” one of the girls said.
Though I can’t say why, the form-fitting cotton sheathing me seemed a greater embarrassment if the two women ogling it knew we shared a nationality. So I pretended that I didn’t speak English, shaking my head quizzically as my reply.
“I told you,” one girl said to the other. “An American guy just wouldn’t wear that.”
Now they felt they could speak freely.
“It’s so cute that they use those as bathing suits here.”
“I haven’t seen anyone else wearing them.”
“It’s way better than Speedos.”
They spoke so naturally that but for my English I’d have never known they were talking about me. I’d always seen that women are better at covertly scoping out, and discretely discussing, the opposite sex. I’d never known they are that much better.
“Are you sure he can’t understand us?”
“He isn’t American. Come here so we can get a closer look at your package,” she said loudly, but without looking toward me. “See, he can’t understand us.”
“He reminds me of Tom,” the other girl said.
“Totally,” she said, blushing.
“Oh, you mean…”
Apparently I bested Tom, but barely. The conversation kept on about my dimensions. Both girls offered estimates and proceeded to argue about them.
“Do they get circumcised here?” the loud one asked. “I hope so.”
Her friend blushed.
With that the whole situation struck me as so damned funny that my discomfort vanished. I mustered intense effort to keep from cracking a smile. Across the sauna they kept it up: comparing me to ex-boyfriends, speculating about my ethnicity, discussing whether I’d look better or worse in board shorts.
I bit my lower lip hard.
And then the girl with the Rainbow sandals burst into the sauna.
“I’ve been looking for you guys everywhere!” she told the two girls. “Oh, hey!”
I felt that awful sensation of being caught without any escape. She took a step toward me.
“See, I told you they’d look different wet,” she said, laughing.
I ought to have felt embarrassed, I suppose, but the mortified expressions on the girls’ faces as they looked quickly at me, and then at one another, made any reaction on my part save laughter impossible.
As it burst forth they fled the sauna, their faces bright red. The girl in Rainbow sandals looked at me quizzically.
“You were right,” I told her, still laughing, my face beginning to hurt from the laughter. “They do look different when they’re wet.”