It was 1978. My vagabuddy Gene and I were heading for a Turkish bath. With tattered towel around my waist, I walked gingerly across slippery marble into a steamy world of shadowy Turks under Byzantine domes. I felt gawky . . . and more naked than naked. After an awkward sit in the sauna, a muscular Turk, who doled out massages like cannery workers gut salmon, laid me onto a round marble slab. With a loud slap, he landed on me, his hands working as if kneading dough in a prison bakery. He smashed and stretched each of my tight muscles. Finally, like lobotomized Gumbys, we were led to marble thrones to be doused in hot water and scrubbed with coarse mittens. Dirt curled off of us in rolls. Finally, we emerged onto the streets of Istanbul, cleaner than we'd ever been.
Any traveler to Europe who's visited a bath, perused a newsstand, hung out at a beach or park on a sunny day, or channel-surfed broadcast TV late at night has noticed that Europeans are more relaxed than Americans about nudity.
In the south of France, sunbathing grandmothers have no tan lines. In Norway, young children play naked in fountains. On summer days, accountants in Munich head to the park on their lunch break to grin and bare it, trading corporate suits for birthday suits. It's quite a shock to Americans (they're the ones riding their bikes into the river and trees). In Belgium, huge billboards advertise soap by showing a woman's lathered-up breasts. A Copenhagen student tourist center welcomes visitors with a bowl of free condoms at their info desk.
I'm not comfortable with all of this, though I do think Americans tend to be overly prudish. But if you can leave your inhibitions at home, you can better appreciate some of the amazing experiences Europe has to offer. In Finland, a trip to a public sauna — warmed by a wood-fired stove topped with rocks — not only feels good, but is a living slice of this culture. Historically, Turkish baths weren't just for getting clean — they were also a place for socializing, where Muslim women could look for a suitable bride for their sons or celebrate the birth of a baby.
Croatia has some of the best beaches — many of them without any dress code. The trend dates back to royalty: In 1936, England's King Edward VIII visited the island of Rab on holiday. Wanting an all-over tan, he went through the proper channels to have one of Rab's beaches designated for nudists. Inspired by his example, other travelers followed suit (er, dropped suit) . . . and a phenomenon was born.
Not everyone in Europe is comfortable with nudity. At the Vatican Museum, fig leaves cover many statues. From 1550 to 1800, the Church decided that certain parts of the human anatomy were obscene. Perhaps Church leaders associated these full-frontal sculptures with the outbreak of Renaissance humanism that reduced their power in Europe. Whatever the cause, they reacted by covering classical crotches with plaster fig leaves, the same kind of leaves that Adam and Eve used when the concept of "privates" was invented.
Years ago, I faced my own fig-leaf dilemma. An early edition of my art-for-travelers guidebook featured a naked David on the cover. My publisher was concerned that bookstores in more conservative areas wouldn't stock it. A fig leaf would help sales. I proposed, just for fun, that we put a peelable fig leaf on the cover so readers could customize the level of nudity. I even paid half the cost and had the fun experience of writing "for fig leafs" on a check.
Things get trickier when it comes to public television. Because of FCC regulations, we can't easily show spas, saunas, or beaches in Europe where nudity is the norm. And because I show paintings and sculptures of naked bodies, my programs are flagged by the network and, in some regions, aired only after 10 p.m., when things are less restrictive. In recent years, programmers actually got a list of how many seconds that marble and canvas body parts appeared in each episode. They couldn't inflict a Titian painting or a Bernini statue on a conservative viewership without taking heat and risking having to pay enormous fines of $275,000.
You may not want to bring the more casual European approach to sex and the human body back home with you. And I'm not saying we should all run around naked. But I like a continent where the human body is considered a divine work of art worth admiring openly.