“Tere! Do you speak English? Err… kas sa räägid inglise keelt?” I ask the cheerful looking receptionist. “Hmm,” she replies, “Very leetle beet!”. Her cheerfulness does not seem to have diminished, which is encouraging, as this is not going to be easy at all.
I have come to the Nomme Ujula leisure centre, having decided to take up swimming again. It is a bit far away, but much, much cheaper than the local pool (even taking into account the bus fare there and back!). Unfortunately, the further you go from the city centre, the less chance you have of finding any information in English. I am, of course, prepared for this, and have pre-learned all the appropriate phrases and questions.
When a conversation pretty much immediately launches into one party miming the front crawl in a crowded reception area, you realise why it would have been a good idea to take five minutes to look up the word for “swim”. Still, I keep a smile on my face, and the Cheerful Receptionist seems to enjoy my performance. She exchanges my money for a locker key, and tries to give me directions and turnstile instructions without actually speaking. This is not quite as straightforward as miming “I would like to swim, please”, and after a brief fight with the turnstile (and the embarrassment of having to be rescued as I look helplessly at the corridor of doors with detailed signs in Estonian) I find myself in the changing room, surrounded by naked women.
This is something of a culture shock. I had been prepared for it, but not at all prepared for it, if you know what I mean. I come from a place where nudity is next to prostitution. On the beach, you get changed awkwardly underneath your blanket-sized beach towel, careful not to expose any flesh. Of course, that’s if you’re an exhibitionist. If you care about modesty and decency, you’ll go to the public toilets and get changed in a stinky cubicle, where there’s absolutely no chance of anybody seeing anything. It goes without saying that at the swimming pool, you get changed in a cubicle.
Things are a bit different in a country where people grow up spending rather a lot of time naked in the sauna with friends and family. I gulp nervously as I look around, trying to figure out where to go and what I am supposed to do. Women of all shapes and sizes are briskly stripping off all around me and wandering about all over the place. There are boobs and bums everywhere. It is at this point that I realise the impossibility of my “that’s fine, but I’ll just get changed in private and no one will see me naked” plan. There is, quite simply, Nowhere To Hide.
Slightly bewildered and feeling very foreign, I turn to a friendly looking girl and ask if she can help me. She speaks fluent English, and also still has all her clothes on, both of which are quite reassuring to me at this particular moment. Chatty and smiley, she explains the process and then leaves me to deal internally with my horror at what she has just said.
In Estonia, you not only have to strip off in one big room with everyone else, you then have to walk (naked) into the shower room and wash yourself thoroughly (they even provide soap in dispensers!). Then, and only then, are you allowed to put on your swimsuit. This is all very hygenic, and certainly makes a lot more sense than expecting to get clean by standing underneath the shower for five seconds in your swimsuit, but it is something of a shock to my system.
Not one person even glances at me as I undress and go to the showers, trying to appear as if I walk around naked in public every day. In fact, I’m fairly certain that if I’d attempted to conceal my body and shower in my swimsuit, I would have earned some very disgusted and disapproving looks for being so unhygenic. It is all very casual and natural and, well, actually, a lot more comfortable. You’re not worrying about your towel slipping and someone seeing you naked, because everyone’s naked anyway. One girl is actually – and I have to do a double and then triple take to confirm this – shaving her pubic hair with a fancy startifacts razor. Seriously! There is “being comfortable with nudity” and then there is “shaving your pubic hair in the communal showers”.
And nobody is staring at anybody else. Well, apart from me. I am staring at everyone, because I have just made a startling discovery. Having never really seen naked women before, other than on TV and in beauty magazines, I was under the impression that other women have flat tummies, toned skin, and pert breasts.
I have just discovered that the majority of women, underneath it all, look just like me. Even the slim ones have bellies. Everyone has wobbly bits and skin flaws. No one – no one! – in that changing room has a perfectly toned body with a perfectly flat tummy and perfectly smooth skin. This is genuinely surprising news to me.
So there you have it. My entire perspective and body image, completely changed – from one visit to a Tallinn swimming pool. Certainly the most productive swimming session I’ve ever had!