July 2001 and May 2005
Visiting a Parisian Turkish Hammam
In the "I'll try anything once" category of my stint in Paris: One Sunday I went to a Hammam, a Turkish bath, of which there are several in Paris. The one I picked was recommended by a friend of a friend as being clean, decorated for Arabian Nights fantasies, and for women only. The concept is appealing, in the abstract: Steam rooms, massages, facials, relaxation. In execution, it was unnerving, for a foreigner. My French failed at a couple crucial moments that left me floundering and wondering what the heck I was supposed to do next. I don't think I achieved the proper state of relaxed cleanliness that is the goal of these hammams.
The hammam was located in a distant suburb, at the very end of a Northern Metro line. I wandered up and down the street on both sides until I noticed their tacky neon sign beside a used car lot. Second thoughts were pointless after an hour's trip, though. I paid for the very reasonably priced "Forfait Beaute´" ("Beauty Deal"). I was handed a rough massage glove and a small container labeled "black soap" (in French). I didn't understand the instructions, either oral or written on the wall by the entrance.
Despite having brought my bikini, after peeking around the locker room, I didn't bother with it. A handful of people had bikini bottoms on, but most were completely nude. We were given a towel and a robe to wear, both treated as extraneous by everyone. The towels were useful only for sitting on, as they were soaking wet as soon as one entered the sauna proper. My glasses steamed up, so I added to the language and culture and clothing handicaps with a vision handicap: I took them off and carried them around for the next few hours.
The main treatment room featured wet white marble platforms on which naked women lounged chatting, spigots every few feet both high and low, and indeed, some pretty Arabian tiles that I could just make out. The women were not all bronzed goddesses of the Riviera, there were many realistic body types and many ages represented.
After wandering around trying to both look casual and to figure out what everyone else was doing in here (apart from sitting around), I realized that one section of seated naked chatters seemed to have some ulterior purpose: It was a slow moving line in wait for the "gommage" women. I smiled vacantly, hoping not to be talked to, and waited for at least an hour, wishing I had a plastic-coated book or an English speaking friend. I worried I would lose my glasses or someone would sit on them; but that only took up about 20 minutes total.
Eventually, a black woman rubbed me down briskly with the gommage massage glove. A surprising amount of dead skin came off during the gommage, which is the point, I gather. It felt prickly but not unpleasant and did generate a healthy pink glow. Then someone slathered mud on me, the next step in the beauty forfait. Some lucky women were also being rolled up in plastic wrap from head to toe, and left lying like jelly rolls on the plinth; I don't know which forfait this was, possibly "la morte par perspiration en plastique." Sitting there motionless, covered in drying mud for a whole 10 minutes, unable to even scratch my nose properly, proved boring. I might have felt differently about the experience if I had been close enough to hear the two women sharing how one had shaved her pubic hair into two strips around her petite tattoo of a butterfly.
After washing the mud off with the black soap, I got a rather inept and brief massage, really was more of an oiling-down than a rubdown. At this point I concluded I had screwed up the order of events, because I was one big saturated lipid with no more soap. I couldn't tell if anyone else had this problem, especially without my glasses. I considered and rejected, "Hi, are you all oily? Are we supposed to be like this? How do you get it out of your hair?" I tried the steam room (the even steamier room), hoping to sweat it out, but I nearly slid off the bench. It was so cloudy I couldn't see the other side of the room, and I felt putting my ass down on someone in the haze might be taken the wrong way. I worried about losing my glasses in there, too.
I gave up on the beauty treatments and went into the dim "salle de repos," the relaxation room, where guests reclined on pillow-covered platforms sipping mint tea and Perrier. (Mint tea is extremely popular in Paris; it's drunk hot and sweet in small glass cups that are far too hot to hold comfortably. But swigging it like a vodka shot isn't recommended.) I couldn't figure out where they got the drinks from, and I was now dying for something cool and wet to drink. I stretched out on my soaking towel and kept peering around for a waiter. In this salle, white women were giving facials. I had not paid for the facial, and eventually I wondered if I was not technically allowed to repose here either. After about 10 minutes lying there feeling every ache in my body, as well as imposter's self-doubt, I gave up and went back to the locker room. I got to put my glasses back on!
Outside the sauna exit, I discovered a small restaurant, which must have been where the drinks came from. While I hadn't gotten a facial with my forfait, a 3-course meal was included in the beauty package. In France, you must eat a full meal every time you do anything. So much for losing all that water weight.
All told, the hammam experience was like a cross between visiting a concentration camp and being an extra in a porn movie. That evening I felt stiff and heavy and went to bed early. Was that good? Was it the desired result? Who the hell knows. Next time I will try the plastic wrap and see if I feel better afterwards.