A funny thing happens when you don’t articulate well in a foreign language–you can find yourself in a mosque with a Tunisian man looking for the Muslim imam to provide you with spiritual guidance. On my quest to find the Hammam at the Grande Mosquée à Paris I said, “Je cherche l’Hammam” and this is what happened to me. I said it again when I realized we were knocking on some sacred door, not pronouncing the H like a good French student. “Ah, you want the Hammam!” Then he explained that Hammam is not a French word so one does pronounce the H.
So going to an Hammam, a Turkish bath, was something I had never done before. I tried to talk Joan into going but when she heard there might be bare breasts, she opted out. It was not in the mosque but through a small door behind the checkout counter inside a small restaurant that was part of the mosque. Not easy to find AT ALL.
I went inside and purchased the package which included gommage, massage and mint tea. In the changing room I found a locker and changed into a 2-piece bathing suit I had purchased at the Monoprix (grocery store!). I made my way first to the shower where I slathered on the “savon noire”, black soap, they had provided. It is thick and sticky like the wax ring under a toilet. With the waxy soap still on my body, I proceeded into the first room. Warm but not hot and no one was there. I ventured further. The next room was warmer. There were a number of bare-breasted women here talking, scrubbing each other, lounging. I felt them staring at me so I kept going to the next room. It was hot and had a spa-sized cool water pool. Steam hung overhead. Here there were more bare-breasted women and here I felt more stares. I finally realized that I was the only one in the place with my bathing suit top on and decided… When in Rome… honestly, I felt less self-conscious without the top. I stayed in the steam room for about 10 minutes then I showered again and tried to wash off the savon noire. Afterwards, it was on to the gommage which is a body scrub. I had read that it would be painful with sheets of skin rolling of of your body but it was not. I tipped the gommage-euse(?) and showered again to rinse off the dead skin and try to wash off the savon noire which was sticking like tar.
After this I went to get my massage. The massage tables were the first place you walk past after you pay for your visit–so, basically, they are the foyer of the bathhouse. There were four tables but all the masseuses were on break. Three of us lounged on opposite sides of the room from each other on a built-in marble daybed that encircled the room awaiting our massages. Two others sat in their bathing-suit bottoms, partially draped in towels, drinking mint tea. You can picture it. It is just like the Turkish baths of old. After a long wait, a woman asked me what number I was (there was a sign-in sheet when I arrived). “Quatorze, Je pense”. 14, I think. She looked at me, “Americain?” Busted. I really need to work on my accent.
Since all the other masseuses were on break, I was the only one getting a massage. There I was, bare breasted, splayed out like a Thanksgiving turkey for everyone who walked through the front doors to see. I should have been embarrassed. At home I wouldn’t have been able to stand it. But here, in this place, with other women dressed like me who were talking, drinking tea, laughing… doing everything but being self-conscious, here it felt entirely natural.
I left a 2 Euro tip for my masseuse and she seemed genuinely grateful. The massage was really lovely because there was no “sheet of shame” keeping the masseuse from giving me a good, solid massage. I showered a third time, got dressed and went to the covered courtyard for my mint tea. It was sweet and hot and the outside was covered in snow. Wonderful.