Un-Mosqued in Paris
I am driven by whims, but they’ve been known to drive me a little far. At the moment, faced with the prospect of being alone, in a country where I don’t speak the language, naked, in a roomful of strangers, I’m forced to ask myself, “Why?” To complicate matters, the room in question is inside an Arab mosque, in France, on the day after a controversial presidential election when votes are being tallied and anti-American sentiment is allegedly at its height. But I had said to myself, “Wouldn’t it be exotic, wouldn’t it be just like the travel shows to bathe at the hammam in the Paris mosque?” And you know how it is once an idea gets into your head. Nothing will stop it from accelerating you towards, say, a war-torn island or parachute or plate of grilled intestines, or whatever.
I should report that everyone I’ve met in Paris so far has been extremely charming, erudite, and helpful. I had an enlightening conversation about French-American relations with a professor as we sipped our café crèmes, and my waiter at the Marais area bistro subtly slipped me a phrasebook and a flirtatious smile as I struggled to pronounce le canard.
Oh – this must be the mosque, and it’s surprisingly unimposing: low, discreet, and whitewashed. Inside the door is a glass case of pastries – almond bars dripping with honey, nests of sticky filo dough – and a shady courtyard where people sip mint tea. I’m not sure where the Hammam is, but – Aha! – maybe it’s closed, behind that area blocked off with plastic, and I’ll be spared the humiliation. Maybe not. To procrastinate, I step inside a shop filled with trance-inducing incense and a kaleidoscope of Middle Eastern knickknacks. After perusing a bit, I decide to just face the music and ask the proprietor where the baths are. But wait – basic French is eluding me. Surreptitiously, I slip out my phrasebook, look up ‘baths’, and pronounce as best I can, “Pardon, où sont les bains?”
The man indicates that they are back by the entrance. This time I notice a discreet door behind the pastry case indicating that entry is solely ‘pour femmes’. I hover there staring at the price list – €15 for entree simple – for far longer than it should take to look at a price list, letting a parade of pastry buyers march ahead. But inevitably the man inquires what I want. At that moment, two flushed and damp women exit through the door, so I blurt, “Le Hammam” and slip inside.
A smoky haze hovers in the black and blue lounge; a few women gossip softly, their emerald-like tea illuminated by rays of sun peeking through dark curtains. Tentatively I open the door to the next room. It’s like a harem, only the wives are actually naked women on massage tables being kneaded by dough-shaped masseuses. Soft sounds of water and slapping skin fill the steamy, rosemary-scented air. A petite blonde floats over to the cash register to ask if I want to enter.
“Je pense,” I tell her – I’m thinking. I stare again at the price list, which has become a source of comfort. I have two choices: stay and experience something new and embarrassing, or leave, a wimp too ashamed to expose myself to a roomful of oily strangers.
“Entree simple,” I say, whipping out my credit card.
Yeah, simple. Stifling steam and palpable stares cling to my turtleneck sweatshirt as I pick my way through dozens of topless and bikini-clad women. They’re probably whispering, Who does this foreign invader think she is? Is she a complete loner? Why is she clothed? I’d be fine if I weren’t alone. Absolutely fine.
It’s only upon entering the changing room that it occurs to me I have no towel. Even now I consider fleeing. Could I have come less prepared? The other bathers are equipped with towels, flip-flops, and a natural command of the French language. I, on the other hand, must again surreptitiously sneak out my phrasebook to look up ‘towel’ and ‘rent’, then pick my way back through the women and ask the attendant (who I’m convinced is looking at me like I’m an idiot, wimp, and pervert), “C’est possible louer une serviette de bain?”
Back in the changing room I slowly peel off layers of clothing. But at the lingerie level I am faced with a dilemma: if I remain in bra and underwear I’ll have to trek across Paris soaked from breasts to bottom, but the other option is revealing my unshaven, cellulite and tan line-ridden self to the general public. I decide to compromise by just removing my bra.
Shutting my clothes in a locker equipped with a key on a plastic bracelet, I wander pseudo-confidently to the baths (wherever they are) while fiddling with the impossible bracelet strap. I’m sure the sophisticate on the massage table is thinking, “What a dork. She can’t even get her key on.” (Or, in French, “Quelle idiote, blah blah blah blah le clef.”)
After a 20-second automatic-shut-off shower, I meander around and find more showers (“Oh, pardon,” I say, barging in on shower-takers), then backtrack, turn left, and discover (“Pardon, pardon”) more showers. There must be more to it than this – I can’t have paid €15 for a squirt of water and a whiff rosemary air. But there is another door. Inside, steam floats cloud-like between white marble floors and a sky blue ceiling. It’s like heaven, only damper. I step up to one of the nooks, settle down, and steam.
And you know what? I absolutely love it. My aching feet melt into the marble. My whole body relaxes like a blob of dough. Drops of condensation fall from the ceiling’s wave-like arches onto my face. Drip drop. Drip drop. It’s skin and water and simplicity.
Two things begin to dawn on me. One, that I don’t know why I made such a big deal of being an ignorant, naked foreigner, because nobody cares. The stares are only in my imagination. In a room full of naked people, there’s an unspoken rule that you leave each person to do their own thing. There is no status, class, or country. Everyone is free to be natural, to just be.
And two, that physically, I’m not doing too bad, if I do say so. I’m no swimsuit model, but how many women are, really? Look at these women with their potbellies, cellulite, and awkward shaped breasts. And these are French women, known for their sexual confidence and the way they wrap their lips around a cigarette. Women don’t look like supermodels – we’re guitar-shaped and piccolo-shaped, asymmetrical and dimply-assed. And by golly, we’re gonna strut it.
Back in the locker room a trio of Americans giggle and change into bikinis. They would have been a source of comfort before, but I’m glad I had to do this on my own. No one’s going to construct a new Arc de Triomphe commemorating my victory over foreign public nudity, but for me it was a triumph nonetheless. I bid “Bon soir” to the American women and the Parisian attendant, strut out into the gold and gray cityscape in waterlogged underwear, and thank my whims for the ride.