April 21, 2008

The Hamam

I went to a Hamam (a Turkish Bath) today at the Mosquée de Paris in Paris' 5th Arrondissement. It was a fascinating cultural experience. You see, up to this point, there have been a shortage of public bath houses in my life. I went with a lovely British friend of mine from work. We walked in and signed up for a good steam, gommage (scrub), massage and mint tea.

I was initially sort of startled by all the women's total inhibition when it came to removing clothing and walking around. I suppose it is very American to believe that nudity is inherently sensual. Clearly, in this case, that was not the case. There were 80 year-old women and there were 15 year-old women. There were mothers and daughters and then there were women in their 20's who met their friends there for the afternoon. The variations of bodies, shapes and relative forms was impressive.

The Hamam consisted of several interconnected rooms: a series of massage and scrubbing rooms with tables, a large shower room, and then three steam rooms in a row, the first was cool, the second - warm, the third - hot - really hot.

Women sort of wandered through these rooms freely, cleaning themselves and each other in a ritualistic fashion, using buckets and water from the spouts that were installed all over the place to splash water everywhere, which was promptly sucked down the ducts and drains in the walls and floors.

We spent a long time in the hot room, lying on the side of the pool of very cold water that seemed to float in the middle of the room. The room was constantly emitting hot-mint smelling steam from the perforated walls. The steam was hot enough that my nostrils burned when I stood up. And the steam hovered in the air; there was a visible line about halfway up in the room of where the steam had chosen to concentrate its efforts. But periodically, when the heat of it felt crushing, you would plunge into the pool of water (frigid) and when you came back up, you felt (as Emma, my friend, put it), "almost reborn." Entirely invigorated.

The whole thing - essentially bathing in a sense, surrounded by other people - was culturally anomalous to me. It was rather gritty, but at the same time, extremely clean by essence. When I was scrubbed down by two Turkish women with brillo-pad gloves on their hands, piles of skin seemed to come off at their command. I had no idea I was carrying around so much muck.

And then, after all the scrubbing and soaking and washing came the massage. I lay down on the massage table, where twenty women before me had been that day, on the same towel. I was basically sharing in the oils and whatever else from all the others. The ample Turkish woman wore a bandana around her head and with her strong hands covered me with oil that smelled faintly minty, like most things in the bath house. Covered me. Poured oil. And then she used her elbows and her forearms and her hands and massaged away. All the while she was chatting with the other Turkish women who were also giving massages in the room. It was clear that this was not meant to be a spa. There was no clean towel, and she was not employed to give me a 'serene experience.' I liked that very much.

All in all, I decided this sort of thing was for me.

Since the Hamam itself is a private, if not sacred, area - I only took pictures of the mosque and the areas outside the Hamam, but I think they still evoke the sense of the place and the beauty of the experience.


Julie said...

Emilie - When I come to Paris I want to go there with you - it sounds so lovely and fascinating. The other person who would love to do that with you is Kendall Marie Kent Ruth.

Emilie said...

exactly what i was thinking.

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