February 13th, 2008


Italiensehnsucht in Neukölln

Thanks to their use of compound nouns, the Germans have clear and exact single words for things we English-speakers could only sketch in entire paragraphs of wispy, misty impressionism. Italiensehnsucht, for instance. The phrase means "longing for Italy" -- a specifically German longing for Italy, of course -- and it isn't just a state of mind, it's an architectural style, best seen, perhaps, at Frederick William IV of Prussia's Italianate constructions at Potsdam. Here, in the 1830s, the crown prince of Italiensehnsucht set his crown jewel: a Roman Bath.

Berliners don't have to trek down to Potsdam to find Roman-style baths, though. Yesterday Hisae and I went to the Russisch-Römischen Dampfbad at the Stadtbad Neukölln and spent three hours or so moving between the atrium, the apodyterium, the caldarium and the sanarium (translated from Latin that's the lobby, the changing rooms, the steam room and the hot tile room). There were also more Nordic rooms -- wooden saunas no Roman would have recognised, a herbal sauna, a hot room with ceiling strip lights whose colours changed constantly, a roof terrace where you could freeze under the stars, a silence room and a restaurant. And that's not to mention the chance to swim in the Stadtbad's two huge elegantly-pillared pools, the Great and Small Halls.

The Stadtbad Neukölln opened in 1914 in a big neoclassical building next to the Municipal Public Library. Architect Reinhold Kiehl connected the bathzone to the bookzone via an atrium because in his mind physical exercise, personal hygiene and spiritual edification should be one and the same thing. I must say I'm inclined to agree, though I'll admit to finding naked women appealing too -- there were lots of young and beautiful bodies drifting around, including nude Turkish teens, which isn't surprising given the demographics of the surrounding area, but is a little odd in terms of Islamic culture.

The building underwent a six-year renovation during the 1980s, which must be when the rather odd murals in the lobby appeared; one shows a giant tsunami engulfing the skyscrapers of New York, anticipating both 9/11 and "The Day After Tomorrow", but hardly the best advertisement for the healing power of water. My favourite part was the tepidarium -- a circular pool replenished from a vomiting frog's mouth, modeled on the ancient bath at Pompeii.

Just as it must have been in Ancient Rome, the Roman-Russian bath is a great place for people-watching. Last night there were gays with handlebar beards, career girls destressing after work, elderly and disabled people practising Krankengymnastik, fat men with bear-like pelts of hair and pot bellies hiding tiny child-penises, giggling muslim girls straight out of a French 19th century orientalist painting. I had a good time in the steam, walked home in the pink of health, and slept like a log.

For an audio glimpse of life in an ancient Roman bath -- complete with vivid complaints from Seneca, who had to live above one -- check out the excellent BBC Radio 4 series The Roman Way, and particularly Programme 3: Filling the Day. If you scroll the RealAudio file forward to about 9 minutes you'll hear the relevant section.