Sometimes it falls on us foreigners to tell it how it is

Have you ever found yourself in a situation where someone is doing or saying something outrageously inappropriate but no one (apart from you) has the courage to tell them? If you’re a foreigner in Britain this is bound to happen a lot. My latest such episode occurred in a sauna and involved someone else’s feet…

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By Winnie Agbonlahor

There are two kinds of people: those who scrub their feet with a foot file in a public sauna, and those who would find that disgusting. I belong to the latter group, as I dare predict, you do.

When I was at the sauna last week, I presumed the same about the other ladies in the room. But when one pulled a foot file out of her toiletry bag and asked: “Does anyone mind if I scrub my feet?”, I seemed to be proven wrong. No one said a word suggesting they were absolutely fine with the prospect of watching this woman scrub the dead skin off the bottom of her feet and leave them rotting on the floor of this steamy public space.

I thought to myself: “Are you serious? Don’t you know anything about social decorum and personal hygiene?”

Silence.

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I was, as I so often am, the only non-Brit in the room. And with that come certain responsibilities. While everyone else is bound by strict social rules such as ‘Never contradict anyone’, ‘Never take the last piece’ and ‘Never say no’, I – as a German – am not. So, I often feel I have to say what everyone else wants to say but can’t because it would render them impolite (a label no Brit wants to end up with).

Examples include: “These steaks are cold, can we please have them hot instead”, “We payed for a two-bed flat with balcony and this is a studio apartment with one small window, that’s unacceptable” and, of course, in this case: “If you think scrubbing your feet in a public sauna is ok, you’re clearly insane”.

I decided to strike a slightly more diplomatic tone and said with some hesitation: “I don’t think it’s appropriate.”

The woman was taken aback. Of course, she was. This is England. No one expects a rogue German to put a spanner in the works by speaking her mind. After a brief moment of bewilderment, she said: ‘Oh ok, no worries’ and put her file away.

Seeking to diffuse some tension, I casually remarked: “I think you’re meant to scrub your feet once they’re dry anyway – it’s more effective.” But the woman disagreed: “So why do they soak your feet when you’re having a manicure (I’m sure she meant to say ‘pedicure’) and then scrub them straight away?,” she asked. “Oh do they? Well I stand corrected,” I said thinking: “I’m sure that’s not true, but anyway: I DON’T CARE.”

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Glad that aggressive confrontation had come to an end, I went back to breathing in the steam and letting go of my worldly worries. But instead of doing the same, the woman insisted on keeping this awkward moment going. “Why do you think it’s inappropriate?,” she asked. “BECAUSE YOUR DEAD SKIN WOULD BE ALL OVER THE FLOOR,” I said slowly losing my patience.

“Oh ok. No worries, I’ll just do it outside,” she said, referring to the space outside the sauna within the health suite.

“OUTSIDE?!,” I thought, “Where people walk around barefooted? You should do it at home over a bin bag! You don’t scrub your feet in a public place, just like you don’t pick your nose or squeeze your spots or burp with your mouth open when you are surrounded by strangers!” But I selfishly kept those thoughts to myself because I was wearing flip-flops and was planning on going home soon anyway.

And anyway, I had done my bit for the greater good of Britain. 

Winnie is originally from Germany and has lived in Britain since 2006.


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