I’m standing in a queue with naked people. I am naked too, except for a tightly fastened towel. Ori is next to me. He is naked as well. Some of the naked people are wearing loosely tied dressing gowns, some have casually draped their towel over one shoulder like a jaunty chef. There are breasts, penises, hairy and not-so hairy vaginas and several bottoms of extraordinarily different shapes and sizes everywhere I look. And I’m trying very, very hard not to look. A chubby middle-aged woman bustles past me to join the queue. She has tied her towel around her waist, man-style. Good God. Ori and I look at each other. “Does this remind you of…” “Yes,” he says tensely. Where is this queue taking us? What will happen when we get to the front? And how the hell did two Jews end up in Europe standing in a line with naked strangers, heading into a shower room?
Our anniversary in Belgium was incidental. That is to say, tickets were booked before we realised that it coincided with our second wedding anniversary. Being only Year Number Two (in anniversary terms, probably no more than a post-it note), the date has not yet lodged itself into Important-Dates-To-Remember territory, which I assume comes with time, or according to stereotype, never eventuates for men.
Anyhow, apparently the thing to do for a wedding anniversary in Belgium is to go to a naked spa castle. So I booked us a deluxe room at Thermae Boetfort, a renovated citadel in the Flemish part of Brussels. I added two full body massages and of course, entry to the thermal baths, which included an assortment of different saunas, pools, jacuzzis and other watery rooms which sounded strange and intriguing (eucalyptus sauna, hmmm, lovely…horse stable sauna, promising ‘the nostalgia of saunas from the past’…WTF??).
We are dropped off at Thermae Boetfort by my brother-in-law, who lives in Belgium and recommended the place. We gaze in awe at the sight before us. It seriously is a castle, turrets and all. The grounds are as green and manicured as a Game of Thrones estate before being ravaged by war, rape and pillage. It’s pretty. We go ‘ooooh’ and then ‘aaahh’.
Purposefully, we enter the castle and walk to reception, where we are greeted by a startled baby-faced boy wearing a bizarre black silk scarf around his head and a thick red sash around his adolescent waist. He’s like a blonde Flemish Bambi, all wide-eyed and tongue-tied as he explains to us in halted English the rules and regulations of Thermae Boetfort.
“You have two messages,” he tells us.
“Two messages? From who?” I ask, confused. Who the hell has called us here?
“Oui, two messages for six-thirty tonight.”
Oh, massages. I stifle a giggle and nod sagely.
“Emm, do you planning to use thermal baths also?”
“Of course!” we say with gusto.
“And, emmm, do you planning to use with clothes or with no clothes.”
A rather personal question one would think, but considering this young man’s previous flustered manner, with this question he appears quite composed.
“Ummm, both?” we reply with uncertainty.
“Ah, yes. Good. Then please you know that for man, you cannot be wearing…” he searches for the word then with rushes over to a sign on the counter and taps it eagerly. We look. The sign features a tanned man wearing board shorts with a big red x slashed across his crotch.
“No shorts?” my husband asks.
“Non. You must to wear…how you say? Like this.” And he scurries off again and pulls something out of a drawer.
“Don’t tell me you have to wear a g-string,” I mutter under my breath.
“This!” Bambi says triumphantly, holding up a pair of Speedos.
“Oh God, really?” my husband asks.
“Oui oui,” the boy says earnestly. “It is…hygiene.”
Ori reluctantly rents a pair of tight blue shorts, and we receive the key for our room and instructions for use of the thermal baths. Open until midnight. Flip flops to be worn inside the baths. Showering is mandatory before entering the saunas. No nudity in the clothed section and no clothing in the nude section. No nudity in restaurant. Uh, duhh!
“Ca va?” Bambi bleats, his black head sash hanging comically over one eye.
“Ca va!” we reply and turn to the direction of our room.
“Ooooh, ooh, excuse moi! Si vous plait! Please!” he suddenly calls out to us. We turn back to the counter.
“I almost forget! This weekend is special Spanish weekend. All things Spanish. There is sign on door for all the activity, for special emm,…scrubbing and…oof, how you say? Ah oui, pouring. D’accord?”
Okay, so that would explain the weird Salvador costume poor Bambi is wearing. We thank him and look briefly at the timetable on the door, which lists various bizarre things such as Spanish chocolate scrubbing in the Steam Baths as 16:30. Cool.
We are so up for this. We head to the locker rooms to get changed.
As we walking through the locker rooms, our bravado starts to fade. The locker rooms are unisex. I begin to realise the reality of this situation. Men. And Women. Naked. Together. It’s like, I knew this, but I didn’t quite get it until three women with lockers next to ours start to freely undress in front of Ori, who is pretending not to look stunned and busying himself ‘checking the lock’ of our locker. We had planned to start off in the clothed section and work our way towards the nude part. But as I look around at these liberated Europeans, stripping off and chatting as though they’re at the supermarket, I think: C’mon Sheli. Look at them! They’re so free, so unrestrained, so European!
“Let’s just go straight to the naked part.” I say impulsively.
“Really?” Ori shrugs. “Yalla,” and steps out of his newly rented Speedos. I quickly take off my bikini and wrap a towel around myself, facing the locker while pep-talking myself. You are a free liberated woman, just be cool, there’s no shame in the human body, you can do this.
Naked and towel-wrapped, we walk towards the entrance of the naked section. The first thing we see is a sign saying ‘Shower First!” The exclamation mark is foreboding. There are several people walking around in various states of towelled and untowelled nudity. Oh dear God, there’s a penis. Jesus fuck, another one. Don’t look, don’t look…shit! That man saw me look.
“We have to shower,” Ori says to me.
“Yes. Okay. Okay.” I say, psyching myself up. With a deep breathe, I untie my towel and hang it on a hook, trying to look nonchalant as I walk towards one of the shower heads that are lined up in a row. The water is warm. I stare at the wall. I figure if I don’t look at anyone, then no one is looking at me. Or at least, I can’t see if they’re looking at me. Denial is a wonderful thing.
We shower and I hurriedly-but-pretending-to-be-unhurried wrap the towel around my exposed body. Where to next? The place is like a maze, with various rooms off to each side, marked with golden plaques titled ‘Steam House’ and ‘Ice Cave Sauna’. I notice the same Spanish Fiesta timetable pinned to the wall and check what’s on now, at 15:30. Lemon and orange pouring in the horse stable sauna. There it is again, that horsey place.
“Shall we check it out?” I ask Ori bravely.
“Sa baba,” he answers and we gingerly search for the room and I continue my internal mantra: Don’t look, don’t look, Jesus mother of Christ those are big balls, don’t look, don’t look!
We find the horse stable sauna. We are not alone. Looks like this is a popular session – about thirty people stand in an orderly queue…as orderly as a naked queue can be. Which in Europe, is very. “Is it gonna be packed in there?” I mutter to Ori quietly. “Mmmaybe,” he responds, looking a little less cool than before. The line shuffles forward and we move along with it. What is a pouring anyway? How big is this sauna going to be? Do I have to take off the towel when I get in? What’s going to happen to us??
We reach the front of the queue and I look inside. The room is not big. Not at all. It is about five by four metres, with five wooden-slated sauna steps. The first four rows are literally packed, bottom to bottom, with naked men and women, sitting on their towels and chatting about the weather. This is it. It’s now or never. We have to somehow squeeze past the four rows of people to reach the very top step. On the one hand, I’m relieved to be at the back where I can sit in relative naked privacy. On the other hand, I’m going to have to climb up the steps, tentatively trying not to step on anyone’s tits or ass on the way up, as well as making an effort not to flash my genitals to the poor saps I’m climbing over.
Okay, we’re up. Back row, far end. I lay out my towel underneath my bottom and pretend I’m having a little picnic. La di da. Isn’t this fun? A blonde man in front of me turns and gives me a hello smile, checking out my boobs in a casual ‘oh, aren’t they lovely’ kind of way. The woman sitting next to Ori does the same casual glance down at his crotch and I realise that there is no hiding now. Amongst all these uncircumcised specimens, I’m afraid our religious heritage is blatantly exposed. I remind myself that this is 2012, not 1938, and take a deep breath of the already very hot sauna air.
A man dressed in the same bizarre attire as Bambi the receptionist comes in and begins a seemingly well-rehearsed welcome speech. Have you ever heard Flemish? It sounds a bit like this: Gobbledy woddly flooshy belooshy belumpty mumpty boom. Yeah, it’s funny-sounding. But what is he saying? Are there instructions that we’re supposed to be aware of? He says something with the word ‘premiere’ and two brave souls raise the hand. Did he just ask if this is anyone’s first time? I would rather eat my own vomit than raise my hand right now. Look at me everyone! This is my first time and I’d like to draw everyone’s attention to my naked body! Just the thought makes me want to pass out. Mr Flemish says something that causes everyone to chortle. What’s the joke?? Loompety woompety blumdy la. He turns and walks to the pile of black stones and ladles three large spoons of water over them. The rocks hiss and sizzle and the room immediately gets really, really hot. There’s a pleasant lemony odour in the air and my entire body starts to drip sweat. The little voice in my head goes: This is good, this is healthy, mmmm breathe it in Sheli. Then it’s rudely interrupted by another voice in my head that goes: You can’t handle saunas, you idiot! Have you forgotten that? You can’t even be in a hot bath for too long without desperately sticking your head underneath a cold tap after a few minutes. Oh shit. Voice Number 2 is right. And it’s getting hotter. Mr Flemish continues his apparently terribly amusing presentation: blumdy muppety flushy wushy. He heads to the rocks and lifts the ladle again. Dear God no. It’s too hot, we’re all pouring enough sweat here to solve the world water shortage, please don’t – sizzle sizzle hiss. I didn’t think it could get any hotter but it can. I can’t breathe. Oh my God, I cannot breathe. I look at Ori with panic and whisper, “I don’t think I can take it for much longer! It’s too hot! I can’t- ” He looks at me wide-eyed and says: “Just hold it together! You can’t leave now.” Oh no, Mr Flemish is reaching for the ladle and I’m trying to gulp in the little air that is left in this steaming sweaty naked room and all these crazy European bastards look like they’re in Zen meditation while my breathing is getting shallower and both little voices in my head are screaming: Get us the fuck out of here! And I’m trapped, trapped you see! I either stay in this hell hole and pass out for lack of oxygen…or I stand up and bring immediate full attention to my naked self by somehow squeezing nakedly down the steps past all the tightly squished together naked people to get to the door.
I choose escape. I turn to Ori. “I’ve gotta do it. I’m going.”
“No!” he says aghast.
“I must!” I reply and pull the towel out from beneath my bum, wrap it around myself and begin the slow and humiliating descent down the stairs. “Ummm, excuse me. Errr, excuse-moi. Sorry. May I just…merci. Thank you.”
Mr Flemish says something incomprehensible, probably something like, ‘Look at that weak, pathetic American who can’t handle the heat’ and everyone has a good chuckle. I burst out the doors and run, yes, run to the giant pool outside, fling off my towel and SPLASH! Blessed, blessed relief. I made it. I’m out. I can breathe. Who knows how long I would have been stuck in there?
Exactly two minutes later, the doors open and everyone starts pouring out of the sauna. Ori saunters out, sucking a piece of orange. He scans the pool and spots me flapping about in the pool. Walking over, he flashes me a smile and says: “You missed out on the orange.” Then without missing a beat, he holds out his hand and hands me another orange slice. “I brought you one.”