It would be a rather fair assumption to make that customs and modes of conduct vary widely around the world. In many Southeast Asian countries you commit a terrible breach of etiquette by patting someone on the head. As George W. Bush discovered, some cultures show their displeasure by throwing a shoe at you. No matter what arises, we gamely try to acculturate to our surroundings. When in Rome, do as the Romans do.
A number of years ago my client, BMW, invited several of us to their world headquarters in Munich to meet with their engineers, get a look at future products, and drive their new products at insane speeds on the autobahn. They put us up at a Holiday Inn on Arabellastraße. That hotel is long gone and has been replaced by the Westin Grand Munich.
Our days were spent in mind-numbing meetings discussing coefficient of drags, hydraulics, and drive-by-wire technology. Our evenings were spent with smoked meats and beer. Lots of beer. Our clients noticed that this lifestyle was taking its toll, so they gave us a day off to “relax.” I knew that the hotel had a pool and a spa. I called the night before and made an appointment for a massage, being urged by them to arrive at least thirty minutes early.
The next morning I brought my over-served self to the lobby, gym bag in hand, and went to the front desk to ask for directions to the pool and spa. The man behind the desk smiled politely, pointed and said, “Die Tür zum Spa ist direkt hinter dir, Herr.” “The door to the spa is right behind you, Sir.” I turned around and saw a simple wooden door with the word Gesundheitplatz on it. Having used part of the word when people would sneeze, I guessed that this must be the place where people would go to sneeze. Actually, it translates as “good health place.” Thanking the clerk, I headed off.
When I walked through the door I found myself in a small vestibule, facing another door that had a small window in it. Through it I could see the changing room with its paneled walls and neat rows of small lockers. I confidently strode in, only to almost collide with a middle-aged woman who was wearing very baggy panties and was hooking her bra. She looked at me and smiled, “Guten Tag, Herr.” I blurted out the only foreign language apology that immediately came to mind, “Lo siento mucho, Señora,” as I scuttled backwards out of the room.
I ran to the clerk and asked where the men’s spa was. He shook his head and pointed to the same door. Well, since the older woman wasn’t screaming, alarms were not going off, and no police were running me down, I figured that it must be a unisex locker room. I politely waited until the lady emerged and wished her well. I went back in and decided to find out what I should be doing. I went out the other door of the locker room to the spa where a woman dressed in a white nurse’s uniform, and looking every bit like Nurse Ratched, looked up from her paperwork. This is where I was to sign in. She handed me a large towel, told me to go back into the locker room, take my clothes off, and report back to her. I dutifully did so.
She told me that I should sit in the sauna for a while before my message. She pointed out a large archway at the end of the pool. It led to a large tiled room. On one wall there were three showerheads, on the other side was the door to the sauna. I walked in, my eyes blinking from the heat. I realized that there were other people in there. They introduced themselves to me. It was the Altdorfer family from Berlin. There was Otto, the father, Marta, the mother, and their teenage girls, Heidi and Amelie. None of them had anything on, except smiles. Smiles! Nobody screaming. Nobody saying,“Get out!” It was then that I formulated a personal axiom: “If nobody is screaming at you, attacking you, or calling the police, what you are doing is acceptable in that country.” It served me well in my future travels.
The Altdorfers were eager to practice their English on me. It was quite good. My attempts at German elicited polite giggling. I started to sweat profusely, and it wasn’t from the heat. I excused myself, citing the need to shower off in preparation for my massage. The family bid me a fond auf weidersehen. I scooted across the tile floor to the wall with the three showerheads. I was busy lathering my face when I heard the showerheads on either side of me turn on. The horror! The girls had decided to follow me out to ask me questions. “Have you ever been to Hollywood?” Have you met any movie stars?” “What’s it like to live in New York?” I tried to answer them while staring at the ceiling. That wasn’t working. I decided that it was time to flee. Wrapping my towel around my still soapy self, I ran to Nurse Ratched. She told me that I needed to cool down. How did she know? She pointed out a lounge chair next to a floor to ceiling window that formed one wall of the indoor pool. On the other side of the window was a grassy terrace full of sunbathers. They must have been very poor because it appeared as though they couldn’t afford clothing to wear. One of the sunbathers, a very statuesque young man, decided it was time to cool off in the pool. Before jumping in, however, he casually walked around the pool in order to let everyone see what God had given him.
It was just then that Ned and Miriam Kloepke, of Salinas, Kansas, walked into the pool area with their little daughter, Becky Sue. They were going to drop her off while they did some sightseeing. Becky Sue was the first one to spot the sunbathers through the window. She then caught sight of Apollo as he walked toward her. She was frozen. Then her parents saw what had frozen their daughter. I wanted to see if the Kloepkes used the same “local custom” axiom I had developed.
Suddenly, there was screaming and cursing and shouts of “Get out!” They were coming from Ned and Miriam. They grabbed Becky Sue by the arm and marched out. As they passed Nurse Ratched, they yelled, “Just what kind of place are you running here? You people are filthy.” I began telling everyone that I was Canadian.