‘Are you coming or not?’
MT has promised the kids a visit to the pool this rainy Sunday. 7 yo is very keen, but 5 yo is resisting. I bring up pictures from the pool’s website, showing splash pools surrounded by brightly coloured fountains and play areas, and he agrees to go along, although still uncertain.
Now it’s just me who’s resisting. MT has given me the option to stay home – swimming has always been his thing to do with the kids, and I’m not a water baby. But I want to join in. Yesterday we were at a seminar about Danish culture, with a big focus on the importance of family time. Tomorrow I’ll get my alone time when everyone’s back at work and school. I want to be with them today, I just don’t want to go swimming, not today. Last night was our first babysitter night here, so I’m feeling the effects of having explored the local bars, followed by the kids being up as early as ever this morning. The all-consuming day-after tiredness could kick in at any moment. But there’s another more compelling reason that’s making me want to send them off to do ‘their’ thing and curl up with my laptop. Something I’m not sure I’m ready to face, today.
But, I want this to be ‘our’ thing. So I let out a tear-inducing yawn, shove bathing suit, towel and shampoo in a bag, and join them in the car.
It’s a short drive, not too much time to dwell on what I’m about to encounter. Pulling into the car park, the boys are scanning out the windows for signs of our destination. ‘Are you sure this is the place? Is this where the pool is?’
We get out and cross the car park. ‘But where’s the pool? I can’t see it.’
‘It’s in there.’
‘What? You mean the pool is inside that building?’
The reason for 5 yo’s uncertainty becomes clear: our tropically raised boys’ minds are being blown by the concept of an indoor pool. Now he’s reassured he’s not about to be rained on as we swim, 5 yo is all in.
The reception area has a well-stocked shop to the left, a cashier’s desk to the right, and a complicated turnstile system in front of us. My apprehension simmers.
With our tickets in our hands, the cashier asks if we’ve been before, and explains how to use the turnstile, where the changing rooms are, and that the ticket fits into a slot inside the locker to release the key. (All in fluent English, of course.)
I listen eagerly, wondering if he realises there’s so much more he could be explaining to this first-time user of a Scandinavian pool, beyond how to work the locker. Could this fresh-faced, sporty Dane possibly understand the cultural turmoil I’m about to go through?
We go through the turnstile. ‘See you on the other side!’ then I steel myself as we part through our separate doors, grateful at least that I’ve been warned, that I know what’s coming.
It’s not that I don’t want to do this. I’m sure I won’t even hate it. I know I’ll see my family again, shortly, by the pool, all in our bathing suits, and the upcoming rite of passage into Scandinavian culture will be behind me. And I’ll be fine. Left to my own devices I’d have put this moment off for long enough. But my first time will soon be done.
I push open the door to see an area squared off by simple white benches, with rows of shoes underneath. I take mine off and swivel round on the bench, my own shoes in my hand to place in my locker, then turn the corner into the main changing area.
There they all are.
All the naked women.
And behind them, just beyond the locker area, there’s a sign, in Danish and English for good measure: ‘All bathers must shower without swimsuits.’
The sign is next to a row of showers, with dividers between each one. But otherwise – completely open. No doors.
Nowhere to hide. Like Orange is the New Black, just, without a tone of underlying menace, and instead with a mood of healthy body-confidence.
No going back.
Keen not to be seen hesitating as I watch and learn how to adapt, I pad to the nearest locker and look busy.
The women around me are in various states of undress, not looking in the least self-conscious about what they have hanging out. Most are strolling around completely naked, swimsuit and towel in hand, while one or two wear a towel to move between locker and shower. I notice a couple of toned and athletic types, curves and muscles enhanced by body art. They’re no more or less self-conscious than every other woman there, carrying their own flesh lightly around the room, unheeding of the pull of gravity or the push of social pressure.
I quickly undress and put on my towel, and decide that I can use a visit to the loo to take a discreet moment to observe the protocol.
It’s not that I’m wildly uncomfortable with all this. I’m happy to embrace this much healthier set of values. Just knowing that every impressionable tween in there is seeing real women who are comfortable with their very normal bodies is enough to know that this is a Good Thing. Over the years I’ve had plenty of enlightening expat conversations about nudity and shared spaces, with attitudes ranging from the North American-type insistence on full privacy (some even shocked by a visit to the Louvre) to hearing Scandinavian and Dutch friends telling of open nakedness and shared bathroom moments in their homes growing up.
Being British, I think I fall somewhere in the middle. In my gym-going days, I certainly wasn’t one to scuttle into a changing cubicle at the crucial moment. But it’s been a while since my gym-going days, and a crucial difference is that while, in the UK any unexpected behaviour usually meets a non-response of uncomfortably silent judging, Danes are much more direct, not hesitating to approach a stranger when they see a breach of etiquette or protocol. That’s fine when I’m too close in the supermarket checkout queue – but during a naked shower? I’m going to do everything I can to avoid that.
On the way back from the toilet, as I’m scanning the placement of shampoo bottles, where towels are hung, trying to see out the corner of my eye just how vigorously everyone is washing themselves pre-swim, I bump into a fellow expat friend, and reveal what I’m up to with a nervous laugh, in an attempt to take the edge off. It works.
Back at my locker, I pick up my swimsuit and hesitate with my towel. Do I keep it till the last minute and dart between the dividers after hanging it up? I’m being silly. Time to get on with it.
I put the towel in the locker, walk the few metres to the shower, wash, and before I know it, I’m in the splash pool en famille, unscathed; body unchanged, soul a little liberated.
The facilities are impressive. After exhausting the games and activities in the splash pool, we try the water slide, then head for the wave pool and a whirlpool which whizzes us round on floats beyond our control as all we can do is giggle.
Only as we’re getting ready to leave do we discover a series of other rooms. In the first we sink into much warmer water in a medium-sized leisure pool, and decide we will definitely be back for winter swims. At the far end is an Olympic-sized pool with a full bank of grandstands. This vast hall is decidedly chilly, so it’s a relief when we go through another door and discover the roman bath area, complete with hot bath for all the family, steam room, sauna and jacuzzi for the grown-ups, all there for public consumption. Even though we paid an entrance fee for all this, the evidence of tax-krone subsidies is hard to ignore.
When it’s time to cross the threshold again between pool and the outside, I’m much more relaxed, because my first time is behind me. And broaching that first has led to other firsts, like the first time my 5-year-old and I went down a water slide together.
I get showered and dressed without hesitation this time, knowing that no-one’s looking. I know this because I’m not looking. We pass back out through the turnstile, our tickets needed again to exit, and head off for a meal, and the rest of our Danish family weekend.
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