My 29th birthday was coming up and endless “what ifs” plagued my mind. What if I’d stuck it out with that guy? (Or the one before him?) What if I’d stayed in that city? What if I’d taken that other job?
When my brain can’t stop gnawing on something, or various somethings, I usually head to the nearby spa. In New York, there was a little place off Bedford in Williamsburg where a guy named Joseph would squeeze the hell out of my shoulders for an hour at the bargain price of $45. In L.A. I got an even better bargain in the San Gabriel Valley. Just $15 would grant me an hour of reflexology, foot bathing and forceful karate chops to the back.
In Paris, I was unsure where to go, as most services seemed pretty expensive. But then my Google search results gave me the Paris Mosque, home to hammam steam baths and gommage services. Gommage is what interested me the most. It’s a form of exfoliation where a paste is applied to the skin until it dries and then removed by a therapist rubbing down the entire body. The place was supposed to be historic, stunning and, after glancing over the price list, I was convinced.
Located in the 5th Arrondissement, the Paris Mosque is the third largest mosque in Europe and remains a place of worship. Nearby are some of the city’s oldest attractions such as the Arènes de Lutèce and the Jardin des Plantes. But upon entering the mosque, I felt like I was in Marrakech, not Paris. Colorful mosaics, intricate woodcarvings and wrought-iron details greeted me from all directions.
I passed through the courtyard where men and women sipped mint tea and ate baklava under lanterns and found the door with the word “Hammam” behind the pastry counter.
A serene and smiling woman greeted me from her place on a plush loveseat and then motioned me in behind another door where I paid in advance about 50 € for a 30-minute massage, gommage and tea. I was handed a packet of black soap, a towel, a robe and directed to the locker room, not before passing a circular room filled with naked women napping, getting massaged or chatting in low voices.
After finally figuring out how to use the locker, I found a shower stall with a small faucet near the floor. There was no hot water here or shower head, so I filled a bucket with cold water, scrubbed down my body with soap and then doused myself with the water. It was early in the day and it usually took hours for me to shake my sluggishness, but that cold water forced me into it. I was awake. Very awake.
I moved on to the hot steam rooms afterward, where the buckets of cold water kept me alive. But I didn’t last long. I was antsy for the gommage and soon made my way to the table that would provide me with new skin. There, naked, vulnerable, I watched as a stern-looking woman with mittens applied the paste, waited and then rubbed me down to velvety softness. At first I was afraid. Though the process wasn’t exactly painful, it certainly wasn’t a gentle one. I feared for a few moments if my skin would be too sensitive to the scrubbing, the soap, and eventually the elements when I left. I shifted my worried gaze from her concentrated face and stared at the tiles of the ceiling instead.
After she’d rubbed down my entire front side, she muttered, “Turn over.” So I obeyed, submitting my backside to her fast-moving hands. And I loosened, little by little, allowing my pores to open up and breathe new life.
When gommage was complete, it was on to the circular massage room where I publicly allowed a woman to pamper my new skin with scented oils. This was certainly not the kind of environment I was used to for massage treatments. A lit-up room, a pack of onlookers—it didn’t matter. After the bathing, steaming and shedding, I was now sinking into a new kind of bliss. When I got up from the massage table, my skin felt not 29 years old but 29 months young. I breathed easier.
My Paris Mosque visit was topped off with a cup of mint tea in the courtyard and a slice of honey-drenched baklava. I sighed relief. Surrounded by so much color and reverence, I’d successfully shed my old skin and all my old worries for a while.
Born in Los Angeles in the early ’80s, Erica Garza has spent the bulk of her life writing, reading and dreaming of faraway places. She has an MFA in Creative Nonfiction from Columbia University and is writing a memoir about obsessive body hair removal called Hairywoman. Read her essays at www.ericagarza.com.
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