A Turkish Bath in Paris

When Jill and I were in Paris, we visited a hammam, a turkish steambath. Jill had visited one in Copenhagen and insisted it must be a part of the minivacation. I was a little reluctant: most of my associations with bathhouses have to do with Foucault and the spread of AIDS. I had never actually set foot in one. The bathhouse we visited in Paris has different options on different days of the week: two nights a week, nude men only, two nights a week, nude women only, two nights a week mixed men and women in bathing suits, one night a week, mixed nude. We went on the bathing suit night. Thankfully, I think. As we entered we were given a towel, a terrycloth robe, and flip-flops. There was only one changing room and this caused us a few moments of awkwardness: we weren't quite sure of the convention. Another couple had arrived at roughly the same time, they didn't seem quite sure of the convention either. If the idea was that men and women changed in the same room out in the open, well then so be it, but I didn't just want to drop trough and offend a group of french women I didn't know and I feared that my french would frankly be inadequate to apologize properly. Jill finally elected to run off to a toilet to put on her bathing suit; I followed suit. I think everyone else managed changing in the room. The hammam itself had showers, two steamrooms, a sauna and a cold bath. I was hoping for a hot-tub, I guess that's an American thing. The hot steambath was, well, hot, and filled with steam. When we first got in, it was difficult to tell how large the room was, and there was a strange moment of uncertainty as to what the figures moving around toward the back of the room were actually doing. Once my eyesight adjusted, it was actually quite relaxing, kicking back in a very hot steamy room scented with eucalyptus. We cycled from the hot steambath to the showers to the less hot steam bath to the cold bath to the sauna, which was turned up pretty hot, like a microwave, and not very pleasant really. Then we kicked back in the chill-out room and drank some mint tea while reclining in beach chairs and reading the french equivalent of People magazine. Afterwards, in the changing room, it seemed that everyone was just changing, casually, so we just changed casually along with everyone else. After we had been thoroughly steamed, we didn't feel as hung up on our modesty. I think I'd do the hammam thing again — it was kind of like going to work out at a health club, but without any exercise. I did feel refreshed afterward. I'm still not sure I'd get into the Finnish sauna type of experience, where everyone sits naked in a sauna and then runs off to plunge into a hole cut into a frozen lake before heading back to the sauna. That seems a bit extreme, the type of behavior which could inspire a heart attack. And I think I'll stick to the mixed night, avec maillot. I don't even want to think about the conventions that would be necessary to decipher the other nights of the week.

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