When MJ, another writer on the fabulous Greece writing retreat I'm attending asked, “Do you want to go to the hammam?”
I said, “Sure! What’s a hammam?”
“It’s kind of like a spa, but you get scrubbed down and you can also get a massage,” MJ said.
“Oh, ok. Yes, I’d like to go.”
I’m not a spa girl. I’ve only had one facial in my life and afterwards, I felt like I should have bought a dress instead. After years of medical massages in which a huge Russian man would dig his elbows into places I would normally never allow another human to touch, I associate massages more with pain than pleasure. But I’m in Greece. And if hammams are the thing to experience, hell yes! I was going to experience it.
So, MJ and I, along with two other wonderful writers left our seaside village of Skala Eresou in Lesvos, Greece and headed up the mountain to the winter village. (At the end of every summer, families pack up the seaside summer village and head up the mountain to the winter village, which was originally built because the seaside village was vulnerable to pirates. Uh huh. That’s how old this place is.) There, we entered the hammam. “What is your shoe size?” A Greek man asked in English.
My British writer friend told the man her size. I gave him my European shoe size (which I recently learned when purchasing European sandals) while my South African writer friends discussed how to convert their shoe sizes.
The man came back with rubber shoes for all of us and led us down a staircase. He then opened a door to a hot humid hallway. It smelled a tiny bit musty and I told myself not to panic. I’m healthy. My body will not be triggered and people come here for this experience every day. I can do it too.
The man pointed at two dressing rooms with showers and toilets.
“You two dress in there.” He pointed at me and the wonderfully warm pink-haired brilliant writer from England.
“And you two dress in there.” He pointed at MJ and Cindy, her hilarious sidekick from South Africa.
"First, we scrub with bubbles and then massage,” he said.
The word “bubbles” alarmed me.
“I’m allergic to a lot of fragrances. What kind of soap do you use?” I asked.
“Yes, we use soap,” he said looking at me curiously. This is where even though he spoke English very well, things got lost in translation.
“My skin will break out with an unfamiliar soap. What’s in the soap?” I speak a little more slowly because I know that when people talk to me in an accent I'm unfamiliar with, I understand better when they slow down. And since I had a funny accent to him, I was hoping it would help.
“It’s all natural,” he said, waving his hands around like we were standing in the middle of a forest and he was pointing at the fresh ingredients all around us.
“That’s great, but fragrance will cause my skin to break out,” I said. At the point, I felt super uncomfortable, hyperaware that everyone was waiting around for me and my picky skin. I felt embarrassed, like I was “being difficult.”
Isn't weird how sometimes when we ask for the things we need we somehow feel ashamed?
“It’s the fragrance,” MJ said to the man.
I wanted to hug her for being so kind, for understanding that what I was asking for was important and that I wasn't just "being difficult."
He looked at her blankly.
“Can you use an oil?” I asked, hoping to inspire a solution. “My body loves olive oil, coconut oil…”
“For the massage, I rub you in almond oil and for the hammam, I scrub with just water!” He said with a big smile looking very proud of himself.
“Excellent!” I said.
With the problem resolved, we turned to our changing rooms.
Then MJ asked, "What should we wear?"
"Whatever you are comfortable with," the man said and disappeared up the stairs.
“I’m going to leave my knickers on," Ruth, my pink-haired writer friend said.
“I think I’m gonna go naked,” I said.
The people who worked there must have seen it all. Tall, short, fat, skinny, hairy, pale, dark women of all shapes and sizes. And based on the nude beach just a few hundred meters from our hotel, I was pretty sure the Greek women were not getting this treatment in bathing suits.
I wrapped a towel around me and exited the dressing room with Ruth. MJ and Cindy met us in the hall where the man waited for us. Then he led all four of us entered a room with stone bench seating all around the perimeter. Binaural beats played from invisible speakers. A sunken bath resembling what an ancient hot tub might look like sat at one end. Two wooden tables stood side by side in the center of the room.
“Sit here and let the heat warm up your skin and open your pores.” The man said before exiting the room.
We lay on the stone benches and soaked up the humid sauna-hot heat. I relaxed my back against the hot stone and focused on my breath and the binaural beat frequencies.
About 10 minutes later, the man returned to the room wearing nothing but a towel wrapped around his waist. Gray hair scrawled all over his chest and I was suddenly acutely aware that under my wrap, I was completely naked.
“You first!” He pointed at me.
I hesitated and looked at his coworker, a woman, who also wore nothing but a wrap.
“F it,” I thought to myself. I stood and walked to the wooden table he stood beside. He spread a white linen cloth over it and told me to get up there.
I dropped my wrap, sat on the table, and then lay flat in all my naked glory thinking, “When in Greece…”
I closed my eyes. The man began to pour silver bowls full of warm water over my body. First my shoulders, down my torso to my waist. It felt refreshing, calming, and a little sensual. I thought about the furry man who was doing the pouring and quickly decided to focus only how it felt.
He refilled the bowls and poured water from my waist, down my legs to my feet. Then he began to scrub. And this was not a light exfoliating scrub. This was like, “Girl, I’m gonna scrub you like you’re a bathtub because it’s my job.”
“A little more gentle,” I said.
“Ok,” he said and immediately decreased his force.
He scrubbed all the parts where I’m tan. Upper chest, arms, belly, legs, butt, and back. Thankfully, he stayed away from all the places I'm not tan.
When he was done, he said, “You can sit up.”
I hadn’t really thought about sitting up totally naked and facing a man I’ve never met before, but then again, “when in Greece...” I sat up and faced him.
He turned on a silver faucet mounted on the wall. It looked like it was part of an ancient fountain. He filled a silver bowl with water and poured it over me from my collar bone down my right side. Then he refilled the silver bowl with warm water and poured it down my left side.
It felt heavenly and I didn’t care that I was stark naked and there are other people in the room who could see me. I wasn't looking at them and I'm sure they weren't looking at me. I mean, why look around when someone was pouring warm bowls full of water all over me? I felt like I could melt in euphoria and nap at the same time.
“Now for the torture,” he said. I swear his eyes lit up as he grinned an oh so slightly evil smile.
He filled another silver bowl from the fountain-like spigot and poured it over me. It felt like the Pacific Ocean in January, which is cold as hell, but instead of feeling horrible, it was somehow fabulous.
“Ok?” he asked.
“Ok!” I looked him in the eyes as I said it. I mean, hell, why not look the guy in the eye who happens to be pouring water from silver bowls all over your naked body?
After a few more bowls of cold water, he told me I could get up and he would give me a massage after I dried off.
I walked into the hallway and snapped a selfie.
After I was dry, the man took me to a quiet room where he rubbed Greek almond oil all over my freshly scrubbed crazy soft skin and as I started to drift off, I thought, “Hammama Mia!”
Maybe I am a spa girl.