Spending our time untethering the mind, getting the fidgets out, exploring the in-between ideas, and learning kintsugi.

Breasts, patchouli oil, mint tisane and a Bangla conversation at the Parisian hammam

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Sleeping at Jardin de Plantes

Sleeping at Jardin de Plantes

I like a good deep tissue massage to undo the damages caused by hours of sitting hunched over on the computer. My local massage spa in San Francisco Bay Area is less of a spa and more of a therapeutic center. Housed in an ugly building in a strip mall, the masseuse pummels the life out of you, kneading and elbowing and kneeing your muscles into submission. All knots begone. I thank the American immigration system that brings me the expertise of traditional Chinese massage techniques at my doorstep. When traveling, I try to get one in a strange city or airport with the purpose of undoing the tortures of the airlines seat. The tale of Korean massage where they turn you into a minor contortionist is for another occasion. This time, the story starts at a hammam in Paris – this is a story of oiled breasts, steamy dark rooms, minty potions and odd snatches of conversations.

Walkabout in Jardin de Plantes

Walkabout in Jardin de Plantes

In a corner near the Jardin de Plantes, the hammam is tucked away next to a mosque and behind a restaurant. On some days of the week, the hammam services are reserved for women. One such day during our recent trip to Paris, my husband dropped me there and went off wandering around the neighborhood.  The staff inside didn’t speak any english and I didn’t speak any french or arabic.  However I managed to convince myself that a season traveler should be able manage some lightly clad women in a hammam in Paris. So, inspite of my trepidation, I ventured on. The available packages were clearly explained in English and after I made my choice I was handed some paper coupons – supposedly a coupon for a body scrub, a coupon for a cup of  mint tea and a coupon for the massage. I also got a towel, a scrubbing mitten, a mud pack and a wave of a hand instructing me to go inwards. And inwards I went, past the dimly lit massage parlor into the dungeons.

In a steamy hammam, the first thing that comes off along with clothes is your spectacles. So I wandered around a bit in the wet and dark corridors in a bikini until eventually ending up at the entrance of the main steam room. What now? My paper coupons were beginning to turn into mush. One of the arabic caretakers took the coupons from my hand and shoved them inside my bikini top.  Would that help in the steam room I wondered. I got some instructions in French mixed with Arabic and some wild gesturing. Blurgh. Even though I didn’t quite know the order of things to expect that required a towel, mud pack and scrubbing mittens,  I was pretty sure I hadn’t signed up for mud wrestling. I eventually wandered into the steam room and it was fascinating. It was an octagonal room. Each facet was on a raised platform and had its own hot and cold water taps and buckets. Monkey see, monkey do. Women, I apologize if I seemed to be staring at your naked breasts, I was just trying to figure out what to do.  Scrub the mud all over yourself but not the face fill up a bucket with water – hot or cold – and wash the mud off. Then lie around on the hot platform getting warm.

More napping

More napping

I found a group of very young women who seemed to know some English. They told me that one of the myriad doors led to a small swimming pool (she may have meant jacuzzi) inside and I could cool off in that if I wanted to. No thank you. Not for me. I once read about concentration of fecal bacteria around jacuzzi and I have avoided a public one since. The steam room wasn’t quite hot but the stone platform was deliciously warm. After a while when my skin started to feel like a raisin, I decided to head out. I found another fascinating event unfolding in front of me. One of the staff was giving some women a scrub down. She made you lie on this white plastic table that she hosed down after each client. Oddly clinical. Reminded me of gory movie images where the bad guy dismembers victims on a plastic slab before hosing it down. This one took your scrubbing mitten and scrubbed you all over. I remembered those mushy paper coupons tucked away in my bikini top. Yes, it was my turn. Under my armpits, over my breasts, as close to the butt crack as one could humanly get under the circumstances.  Sorry lady, unlike the regulars, I didn’t have the foresight to keep any tips for you in my bikini top. Now feeling like a freshly scrubbed raisin, I headed out towards the light. After being in the dark steamy room, the dimly lit massage parlor felt light and airy.

Now came the event I was actually looking forward to. My neck was aching from the long flight. If these ladies were as good as my chinese ladies back home, I would be fit like a fiddle in a few hours. While I waited my turn for what seemed like an hour, somewhat cold in my wet bikini, I had my first sip of the mint tisane. And that is all I had of it. Minty and syrupy, it was perhaps one of the most disgusting drinks of my life – not counting the ayurvedic bitter brews of my childhood. I am sure mint tisane is good for you but surely, I didn’t need whatever it had to offer. Over my slumber in a wet bikini, I overheard some American tourists complaining bitterly about the wait as well. We are in France lady – everything takes time here or haven’t you stepped into a restaurant yet. This was the land of people who knew how to savor each moment of life. I just wish I was savoring the moment with an glass of wine, and was warm and dry on a comfortable gravity chair. Minty syrup, wet bikini and a plastic mat made the hour long wait feel longer.

Remains of Arènes de Lutèce

Remains of Arènes de Lutèce

Finally my turn came. I was doused with the oil and a middle aged lady went about the massage. I was well oiled? Yes. Massaged?No. A combination of her halitosis breath and strong incense from the oil cleared out any remaining steam from my lungs. She seemed to spend an inordinate amount of time oiling my breasts. Not just mine I am glad to say. Perhaps it is good for you or perhaps these ladies like breasts. For the first time in my life, I found that the allotted 30 minutes of massage time felt like 30 minutes.

I was glad when it was over and I could rejoin my husband at the restaurant outside. He was in the process of buying me a mint tisane. My wild gesturing of refusal had the server confer with his boss in a language that I actually understood. Bangla. Amar Shonar Bangla. They were from Bangladesh. I am from Calcutta. On a world map, Dhaka and Calcutta are next door neighbors. It was a pleasant surprise then but on reflection I realize that most cooks and kitchen staff in England are from Bangladesh. We exchanged some pleasantries before heading out to join the world of regular Parisians.

PS: The wise regulars had their own supply of shampoo and soaps. You do need that after the massage. Otherwise plan on smelling like patchouli for a few more days. Once it soaks into your skin, it is a bit hard to get rid of.

Written by Som

November 11, 2010 at 8:12 pm

Posted in Europe, France, Paris

Tagged with , ,

One Response

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  1. […] this big meal, we legged all the way to Hammam by Jardin de Plantes and I ended up spending my afternoon wrapped in a wet towel and being exposed […]

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