Wednesday, March 11, 2009

How to Hammam

Frantic work on Book 2 has kept me from blogging - and oh, how I have pined for my blog! Thanks to you faithful readers for checking in anyway. I'd like to send a special shout out to my public in India, Barbados, Poland and California. (Really!)

So, here's the story I've been itching to tell you: Mazarine and I recently celebrated the birth of Book 1 by cashing in a gift certificate I received for Christmas and visiting a hammam. A hammam is a North African-style sauna were French women (with apparent regularity) go to relax and unwind. And deslough. And pay to be naked and pummeled. Woo hoo!

The hammam I chose was in a gritty area of Paris, near the Gare du Nord (big train station). I've heard this neighbourhood referred to as "exciting," "popular", "up-and-coming," "the best place for African food in France," and "the former heroine capital of Western Europe, maybe after Dublin." Well, Dublin has cleaned up much better. I'm not a snob and I used to live in a neighbourhood that was purported to be "managed" by an international terrorist organisation, but this was yucky. Mazarine and I tried not to look too conspicuous as two petite American women walking around with Paris map books and a yoga mat. Oy.

Anyway, so we found the spa, the women-only "Les Bains d'Orient" (Edward Said turned in his grave as I typed that). We found the personnel, as MCM would say, "unpretentious." We confirmed our booking: two for hammam, with savon noir, a gommage, and a 10-minute massage, followed by relaxation with tea and a pastry.

If, like me, you're North American and uptight, I know what you're thinking: do you wear a bathing suit? Since the reception area pretty much opened up onto the hammam space, Mazarine and I, girl detectives that we are, quickly deduced that most people were walking around in just bathing suit bottoms or paper thongs (eww - presumably supplied by the management). We thought we would only draw more attention to ourselves in full coverage, and so opted to go the bikini bottom route. (By the way, I just wanted to point out that we are both gorgeous. I mean really, truly stunning. Got it? And at this point, I've seen it all.)

After flouncing around in our oversized bathrobes for a while, we figured out that we had to start with a shower, then go to the hammam low-heat steam room, hang out for a while and then move to the hotter room. Two observations: one, some people make yucky squelching sounds while getting comfortable on wet tiles; two, this is not really about luxury - for some people this is routine, like getting a haircut or going to the dentist.

After you've been in the sauna for a while you're supposed to rub your little dixie cup of savon noir all over you. Savon noir is a thick, date-coloured paste. I don't know what it does but supposedly it's, like, totally amazing for your skin. After sudsing up we left the sauna, had a quick shower, and submitted ourselves to the gommage, which I would translate as scrubbing. Mazarine and I each were instructed to lie face-down on a freshly-disinfected table and a staff member, using a rough oven-mitt type torture device, began to scrub. And scrub. Mazarine and I couldn't stop laughing: partly ticklish, partly to see the look on each other's faces. I was convinced this woman was drawing blood. When she had me turn over and saw the expression on my face, she started laughing. "C'est la premiere fois, madame?" Yes, yes, first time, hardy har har. Scrubscrubscrubscrubscrub.

At this point, I didn't think I would want to go back. But low and behold, after a shower and a massage with rose-scented oil, I was feeling pretty fabulous and my skin was lovely and soft. Mazarine and I retired to the salle de detente, where we were served mint tea and baklava.

If you're making a trip to Paris and you're looking for a luxurious relaxation experience, I wouldn't recommend this place. It's more populaire than pampering - it's a place for ordinary people where no one stands on occasion or makes a fuss about you. The staff teased us, mopped the floor around us, and forgot our pastries until I reminded them. But if you are looking for a relatively affordable, slightly silly experience, it's fun to check out. Our full-monty experience would normally cost 60 euro per person; on a budget, you could pay 15 euro for hammam entry, buy a little pot of savon noir, and bring your own scrubby mitt to gommer yourself or a friend. Mazarine and I ended up spending over three hours there without realising it.

Oh, one last thing: if you're going out afterwards, ask them not to massage your scalp, because otherwise you will end up with very, very greasy hair.


  1. Mon chere fille (hereinafter "MCF"),
    I do love reading your blogs. I've been out straight for a long time (it's almost 1am now - another late night)and I had about 6 blogs to catch up on. You have always been an entertainer - it's too bad one couldn't make a living doing this, although some bloggists probably do.
    I've decided that tomorrow is a "peanut day". For only about the third time since 12th July, I'm wearing the shirt and tie I bought specifically for the occasion (you know the one, the march down the Gavarghy Road). At other times, I make a point of another tie that you and VCM gave me as gifts - those are mini-peanut days.
    I'm so glad to hear that you are enjoying Paris. Thinking of you.

  2. I HAVE to try this! Especially after a day of running myself ragged shooting..heaven.
    I once spent a week long ago at Eugenie les Bains of very very up-market scrubbing and mud baths and it was the best thing ever. You felt completely newborn.

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