Warning: The following post risks TMI. Still here? Great!
Last week I treated myself to a hammam. Actually, friends treated me as I received a “Bien-Etre Smartbox” as a birthday gift (great idea!)
The “Smartbox” contains a catalogue of “well-being” activities from which to choose – a massage, a Qi-Gong class, a hair-styling session (really?), entry into a hammam, etc, etc. Any of the listed partners accept the Smartbox card as a gift certificate.
If you’re googling “hammam” right now, I’ll save you time: it’s the Turkish word for steam bath and a bit of a thing in Paris. Why getting naked, sweating, and having someone scrub me down was my idea of fun, I’m not sure, but this was the option I selected. (Oh wait, I guess that actually does sound fun, in a racy sort of way).
I’d only been to a hammam once before, but never to La Sultane de Saba. I was so excited for my little adventure, I wasn’t thinking straight when I left the house.
Halfway to the spa, I noticed the Smartbox’s advice: “prevoir un maillot de bain.” Bring a bathing suit.
Oh. Yeah. Duh. A bathing suit.
(Crap). I didn’t have a bathing suit with me.
I quickly ran through my options:
1) Show up with nothing. Enter the hammam completely naked or in my raggedy underwear. Risk eternal embarrassment.
Or, 2) Go back home, grab a bathing suit and hope I’m not yelled at for being late.
I decided on the latter. I mean, I’m comfortable with my body and all, but the thought of going into a steam bath in literally only my birthday suit just didn’t seem like the birthday story I wanted. (Though it is a faux pas fit for this series, non?)
My “relaxation rendezvous” was threatening to become stressful.
But it all worked out fine. Turns out I didn’t even need the bathing suit – they offered disposable paper underwear upon arrival (though really, you might as well be wearing nothing with those things).
I liked the hammam, which has a very different vibe than the Medina Center in the 19th where I had been before. I understood why you have to reserve at this place. (At the Med Center, you just show up). At the Sultane de Saba, the hammam fits only 2 or 3 people. It is literally a private hammam. And, how do I say this? I was also assigned to my own small Asian woman during my session.
I wasn’t sure what to make of this at first. Lolita (that was actually her name!) welcomed me into the hammam, told me to take off my clothes, rubbed me down with savon noir soap, then escorted me to the small steam bath. For the next hour and a half she then guided me through every step. Ok, now go take a shower. Ok, now we do the gommage (the scrub down, eliminating TONS of dead skin). Ok, go back in and sweat some more. Etc, Etc.
It was reassuring being told exactly what to do, as it can be a bit confusing the first time in a hammam. I just felt a bit weird being that intimately catered to.
Anyway, I liked the experience enough that I decided to trust this place as sight of yet another new experience: an epilation orientale.
Now, before I moved to France, the thought of pouring hot wax on my legs and ripping hair out from the roots would never have crossed my mind. In fact, I still won’t pour hot wax on my legs, but waxing centers are everywhere in Paris, so plenty of people obviously do.
I recently learned about a (supposedly) less painful alternative, however – the “oriental waxing.” Instead of chemical wax, they use only natural ingredients – usually sugar and lemon (wow, sounds like you can almost eat it!) The mixture doesn’t need to be heated to the same searing temperature as wax.
I had been growing my hair out for a few weeks in anticipation of this ritual, wondering if I would work up the nerve. I made an appointment for the next day, as I felt sufficiently worked up after the hammam.
I’m shown to a large, calming room and told to make myself comfortable. I had decided to go just for the lower half of the legs. I can be kind of a crybaby and I wasn’t sure whether I’d be screaming in pain during the process; best to start slow.
Alone in the room I wondered a few things: could I just roll up my jeans? Or did I need to take them off? Why did I keep getting confronted with confusing underwear situations? Were the walls soundproofed or would people hear my whimpering?
The woman returns with the mixture she’s just made; she doesn’t seem surprised that I just have my jeans rolled up, so that’s already a score, I think.
Then she looks at my legs and shakes her head. “The hair isn’t long enough,” she tells me.
“Oh really? Some of it is, right?”
“Yeah, some of it, but I won’t be able to get it all.”
“Is it not worth doing then?”
“No, no, we can. Next time you should really go to the hammam and do a gommage first, though.”
“I did. Yesterday.”
Her eyes widen in disbelief. “Doesn’t look like it. You should go more often.”
She sets to work and to my relief it’s not nearly as painful as I imagined. Just little pricks, but nothing I can’t handle. So I’m feeling good about myself, until she starts talking again.
“How do you usually remove your hair?”
Her eyes widen in disbelief again. “Really?”
“Um, yeah.” Why is that weird?
My legs seem to be frustrating her.
“It’s not all coming out!” she complains.
We finish with the ordeal – it looks fine to me – and then she starts putting baby powder on my feet.
“Um, sorry?” I say. “What are you doing?”
“Um, I don’t have hair on my feet.” (Trust me, people. Please).
“Yes, you do.”
I notice one stray hair on my left big toe.
“You don’t usually do something about this?”
“No,” I say. “Doesn’t seem like a big deal.”
You guessed it: her eyes widen in disbelief.
“You have other hair, too.”
She points to 2 or 3 other invisible hairs.
“Um, ok. I guess go for it then.”
I’m guessing that my (non)-beauty regime does not match up to that of French women. I take it, at least in my esthetician’s wide eyes, that I am actually something of a freak.
I try to maintain my positive body image, I really do, but sometimes it can be a bit difficult here.
I mean, imagine. I’ve only now discovered that I’m a hairy-footed monster. How have I lived like this all these years?