Sunday, August 03, 2003

Remember, pas le visage (ie. not the face). That was Caroline's advice as we entered the hammam. If you've ever wondered what a no-frills spa might be like this could be your business model. No fluffy bathrobes. No complimentary slippers. No selection of glossy beauty mags. No nauseating new age music piped through the sound system. None of it. But nothing quite prepared me for this place despite guidance from my more hammam-experienced friend.

We both opted for the basic package: entree, savon noir, seance de gommage, 10 mn seance de massage, and mint tea. The mademoiselle at reception handed us our "tickets" which were nothing more than crudely cut squares of heavy paper hand written with spa service on one side and the Mosquee's faint stamp on the reverse. At the same time we were given a small disposable cup of savon noir. This we were to slather all over bodies to aid the exfoliation process, but only after we'd warmed up in the progressively hotter steam rooms prior to gommage (body scrub).

Just past reception was the massage and lounge area which we had to pass through to the changing rooms. Directly underneath the ornamental domed centre was a small fountain. Surrounding this was a massage area with well-oiled bodies glistening on tables under the natural light emanating from the ceiling. Full body massages were taking place far from any massage I'd ever experienced. There was no, what is it that they call it, modesty sheet? Everything was completely open to view. It gave new meaning to full frontal. Along the perimeter of the room was an area for lounging afterwards or while waiting for a massage. Some women were grooming one another which made me think this was probably a good lesbian hang-out if one was so inclined. But I'd think of it as a recovery area once I'd gone through all the hoops. Most women had on bathing suits or bottoms of some kind. But I hadn't brought a bathing suit with me this trip and packing anything apart from a towel and a pair of sandals had escaped me. Because of me, Caroline elected to leave her bathing suit behind in the apartment. That is the definition of a true girlfriend; not someone who accompanies you to the toilet but someone who chooses to suffer with you!

There were no reservations here; every stage of the hamman was on a first-come first-serve basis. After figuring out how the lockers worked (everything always seems so complicated in a foreign language) we headed for the steam rooms. One foot inside and I was relieved the thongs I'd forgotten were not the ones now on my feet. After several minutes in the sauna now dripping with sweat, we commented on getting here and laughed at how we had deliberately walked on the shady side of the street. What fools we had been.

We started applying the black soap to our bodies. Soap is misleading as you immediately think of either bar or liquid but this was something quite different. It was gunk that looked but smelled nothing like honey. Actually, if truth be told, its consistency was more like semen. Isn't that a lovely thought, slathering semen all over myself?

But as sensual as the experience may sound it proved to be anything but that. Showering off before and after the sauna was a logistical challenge. There was nowhere to hang a towel while rinsing off. And one certainly wouldn't want to lose a precious spa ticket because this was not the kind of place reporting a lost one would elicit sympathy. We lined up for our gommage in a tiny room just off the shower area. After the attendant hosed down the mat from her last victim, she motioned for the next to get up onto the scrub table. You felt an immediate sense of urgency to follow her order. If it wasn't her intolerant demeanor then the pressure of others awaiting their turn did it. I got a Big Bertha type who seemed very capable of hurting me. But there didn't seem a choice in attendants and I certainly wasn't going to be the one to test the waters by asking about it. But I did tell her, "pas le visage." That gave Big Bertha a good laugh so much so she turned to share it with her co-worker who was scrubbing down my friend Caroline. She proceeded the gommage by pulling out a black mitt from her pail and then mercilessly scrubbing me down. Now I understood the girl who had told her friend entering the spa, "bon courage." It felt as if I was being stripped of several layers of epidermis. This was later confirmed when Big Bertha showed me the black mitt with my bits of skin. Lovely. But better those were my bits of skin and not someone else's but I tried not to think of that too much. Many things are better left unquestioned and this was one of them.

We showered off again after the gommage going through the same ritual of where to put our now dripping wet towels and our remaining spa tickets. Then it was onto the massage room. I had added an epilation to my package. It would turn out to be the best I'd ever had but also the most painful. It is not an exaggeration to say I felt every hair as it was being pulled out of my pits. But despite my initial concern that a seemingly half-blind attendant had been assigned to me (she only had to hold the spa ticket about two inches from her face to read it was all), everything was as smooth as a baby's bottom afterwards.

The massage followed this. It was one of those all over body massages, completely relaxing and completely non-sensual. Perhaps a guy could have laid there imagining being massaged by Halle, Pamela, or one of Hugh's playmates, but all I could imagine was that I was being massaged by a rather old nearly blind woman. And what do you know, every time I opened my eyes the scene was exactly as I had pictured in my mind.

Caroline and I met up in the lounge after our treatments. We sat around, completely naked of course, sipping on mint tea and eating baklava which was much too sweet while rubbing the massage oil into our skin. It was pretty much what everyone else was doing as well apart from the few also naked women napping on the mats. All I can say is I survived quite the experience. I'd go back but I'd at least pack the extra bottoms this time and I know better than to tell Big Bertha, "pas le visage."

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