Inexpensive Spas

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“Naked as a pickidy bird” is the expression always used in my family to express raw, carnal states of immodesty. I’m not really sure that such a bird exists but I do know that anything from the lacy hem of a slip showing to ‘lawd almighty cleavage was enough to get the oh my goodness’ going from my steel magnolia of a grandmother. How I managed to tumble so far from the tree is a constant question in my mother’s e-mails. What can I say? I am living in the country of topless bathing and the c’est la vie attitude. I like to think that I am not nonplussed when I see a semi-nude woman on a beach. But I confess that my first summer in France, I was shocked to see the cashier at the boat rental cabana propped behind the counter with her boobies propped on top of the counter; right next to the rental rates. I still cannot comprehend what would make her think that she was acting anywhere in the realm of professional decency. However after a recent trip to the hammam, or legendary, Middle-Eastern-inspired steam baths of Paris, I have discovered the joys of shamelessly cavorting in public with a whole lot more than my slip showing. North Africa and France share a bond that dates back to Napoleon’s brief occupation of Syria and Egypt at the end of the 18th century. Hammams are just one of the great traditions that the millions of North African immigrants have brought with them across the Mediterranean Sea since then. (For a listing of the best ones is town, see the next page.) Organized along the same lines as the original Turkish baths, these steam oases offer more than just a restful place for bathing. If you follow a few centuries-old guidelines, you might find the experience leaves you physically and mentally tingly and with a whole new appreciation for pickidy birds. Hammam Guidelines: 1. Choose a hammam that you are comfortable with. Before shelling over your money look around, even if you are only allowed to visit the public areas. Get a feel to see if the level of cleanliness is up to your standards. 2. Most hammams require you to make a reservation for a massage or waxing so call ahead. At a place like Les Bains du Marais, you should call at least 2 days in advance, if not more. Others can usually squeeze you in even if you call on the same day. The situation isn’t as critical for a gommage (body scrubbing). 3. Some hammams offer two different types of waxing. The traditional kind with paper strips takes less time to do so it is cheaper. If you opt for the Épilation À L’Orientale, don’t expect the strips or as much of the ouch. This technique uses a thick paste of honey, sugar and citron that is touted as being more effective with the lemon giving a little kick of antiseptic to ward off those pesky little bumps. 4. What you take with you is very important. Don’t be stingy here. Some women literally roll in suitcases filled with their toiletries. Think in terms of shampoo and conditioner, something to keep your hair out of the way afterwards, a mask, your foot scrubber, lotion, and extra towels. Some women bring mats, like yoga mats, to sit on. 5. You don’t have to bring soap if you are interested in trying the legendary savon noir, or black soap. It’s reputed to be made from olive oil or pulverized olive pits, depending on who you ask. The idea is that it primes your skin for a better gommage. Usually you can buy the soap at the front desk for about 8 euros and sometimes it’s offered with your price of entry. 6. Maybe it is just me, but I think it is a very wise idea to buy the gant de gommage (scrubbing mitt) if it’s not offered with the price of entry. Otherwise you might get someone’s hand-me-down dead skin mixed in with yours during the scrubbing process. Yuck. Don’t think that this is the usual neon pink pouf hanging in your shower. This little monster is guaranteed to take a century’s worth of dead skin from your corps (meaning body, dead or alive, in French). 7. Speaking of which, during the gommage you’re going to see you rolling off your body parts in disgusting gobs and collecting on the beautiful marble floors. Best not to watch this process. Just know that afterwards you will be absolutely glowing and so touchably soft that Narcissus will think he has a twin. 8. Here is what your schedule could look like. Some people like to start with the body treatments– * Usually you getting the waxing taking care of first. Torture before pleasure. * Then shower and head to the main steam room for 30 minutes or so. * Use the provided buckets to rinse off the marble slabs and to cool yourself off. * Dip into Le Cauldron for 20 minutes, or for as long as you can take it. * Now you are ready for your gommage and algae wrap. * Finish with a glorious massage. * Some people top everything off with a blast of cold water, others repeat the steaming cycle before dousing themselves. * Now to the Salle de repos. All of the other steps are optional but don’t omit this one. Here is where you get to lay down, take a nap or just rest and enjoy how wonderful you feel. 9. Most people advise you to plan on a 3- to 4-hour-minimum stay but there is nothing to keep you from enjoying a full day of decadence or starting out with just an hour or two. 10. So now that you have all of the details you just need to decide how far you are prepared to strip down. There’s nothing wrong with starting off slowly. Some people wear a bathing suit, many of the French women wear just a bikini bottom, most of the North African women wear their bras and panties. It’s totally up to you. The first time I went to hammam I dragged my aunt along…
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