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Switching the head off and the steam on

Switching the head off and the steam on

Posted on 16. Jan, 2010 by gilly in DO

Common colds can be a drag. I hadn’t been sick in over 10 years when I caught a nasty one last month and was inordinately annoyed at the inconvenience. “I take this personally!” I vented to my friends, indignantly. One week in, I had an urge to sit in hot steam to clear my breathing passages.

I remembered a Turkish bath my friend Diana had recommended, so I packed up towel and shampoo, programmed my GPS and set out. As I drove deeper and deeper into a neighborhood I’d never been in (after FIFTEEN YEARS in Brussels!) I felt myself surrendering to the unknown. I mused that, in my quest for experimenting with uncertainty (something I’d been challenged to do by well-meaning friends) relinquishing control in this way would probably count. But that was only the beginning. From the minute I walked into the hammam, it became clear I no longer had any control—real or imagined.

I was handed a little pot, flip-flops, a large oriental bath cloth, a tiny container of clay, another one of mud, and a key to a locker, where I left clothes, keys and phone and, as it turned out, my thinking brain.

I wound my way down the tiled stairs to the steam rooms where the semi-darkness, the hushed voices and the gently moving figures of naked women in all shapes and sizes were… mesmerizing. In minutes, I’d been transplanted into another world. I spread the cloth on one of the marble ledges in the main steam room, sat down, and waited.

I leaned heavily against the mosaic-covered wall and inhaled deeply, picking up wisps of conversations in French or Arabic. Through half-closed eyes, I watched women drift in an out of the steam. Some young, some old, some sagging, some perky, all rounded and curvy and imminently, wonderfully unselfconscious. These were women who, only minutes earlier had been swathed from head to toe in abayas and assorted scarves, women whose shape walking down the street was non-descript at best. And yet, here, in this otherworldly place, of human complicity and unabashed physicality, these figures were magnificently feminine. Not magazine knockouts just…real women.

For the first time in a week, I began to breath more easily. I shifted positions as space became available, and spread out more fully on the upper deck, and propped my legs up fully against a wall. In this new 90-degree angle, I began to drift off gently to the rhythm of the door swishing open and shut and the ambient chatter.

It suddenly realized that the token I’d been handed upon entry was a massage number that would be called out at some point. In the adjoining room, four in-charge-looking-women in bathing suits were scrubbing visitors on high marble blocks.

When my number was called, I did as I was told and lay down on the marble, handing the masseuse (who was singing in Arabic) my little containers. This is when it became clear that if, I hadn’t shut off my brain, (and inner critic and run-on judgment and intellectual chatter) by now, I’d better do so fast. This “massage” was a far cry from the beauty and wellness spas of East Hampton, Evian or even Brussels. This was not a situation where skin information or soothing, sensual relief were provided. It became clear that there was nothing to ask or say or share. I’m proud to say that, against all odds, my head did switch off as I let the sloughing begin.

Thank G-d for the steel handles (a la handicapped bathroom) on the wall, without them, one would immediately fly right off the marble top from the vigorous sloughing. The woman used the little Turkish Kesse towel I’d purchased upon arrival and ordered me to turn or lie on my side, as she mercilessly rid me of my dead skin. “Go back and steam” she ordered, as I wrapped my cloth obediently around me and returned to the steam room for 10 more minutes, and then back to her for round 2. “Now go shower, we’re done,” she announced a bit abruptly. Then again, the abruptness had been with us from the start so it felt consistent with the moment. By now, I was so removed from myself that I hardly winced at the cold shower I put myself through.

I made my way back up to the dressing room, stumbled to my locker and slowly dressed alongside other women who, I now realized, were moving a lot faster than me. In no time, everyone had whipped on some long, formless sweater, dress or tunic and the feminine curves were all hidden away. I was the only one in jeans and the only one to walk out bareheaded. Mint tea and oriental pastries were on offer near the makeshift hair salon but it was getting late. The street was dark when I stepped outside and the air icy, but I felt so warm and at peace and, best of all, I could breath again. I’d been “gone” for 3 hours, in what felt like another century, another world. I turned the key in the ignition and was home in 15 minutes.

One Response to “Switching the head off and the steam on”

  1. Aline from Marseille

    17. Jan, 2010

    C’est absolument et exactement ce que je ressens quand, à la Bastide des Bains (Marseille), la préposée au massage/gommage/récurage/rhassoul, costaud comme deux molosses et trois turcs, m’étrille la peau, en me lanceant à intervalles réguliers des bassines d’eau froide sur le corps. Le bout du monde et le bonheur en même temps.

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