Saturday, October 08, 2005

Old Water and New Skin

Yesterday was my first bath.

It was a Friday afternoon and the weather had suddenly dropped into crisp Autumn temperatures, and there was arranged a women’s banya. That’s bath.

You may not know this, but Tbilisi is actually the new capital of Georgia. Of course here, new means 5th century. The story goes that King Gorgasali was out hunting and in the course of this and that, stumbled upon Tbilisi’s natural hot springs, warmed by sulphur below the ground. So he built Tbilisi on that spot, the name Tbilisi comes from the Georgian word for “warm” and moved the capital here. The hot baths were first a playground for kings, then Russian poets in the Imperial days, then Soviet bureaucrats, and now, who knows, local Georgians in the public baths, and in the cozier private rooms, businessmen with their deals and vodka, foreigners with their money.

There were about 12 of us in total: the men went to the left for the boys’ bannya, and the girls headed to the right. In our private changing room, we left behind our shoes and our clothes and our modesty. We ordered tea and massages and then went into the next room where under a high domed ceiling with mosaic tiles sloshed our great marble tub.

The air was heavy with sulphur steam and the water, constantly filling from a lion-head spout above the pool, spilled over the edges and warmed our toes as we crossed the room. The water was so hot our heads spun and we could barely slip in. So we lounged along the edges of the pool, dangling a lazy arm or leg in the soup, and I imagined we were in some renaissance painting where we’d have grapes and plump figures and there would be the allure of the exotic east in everything. We felt slow and drugged and stupid with woolly warmth.

I should probably say something about the nudity. In any other context, you would imagine that meeting a group of girls and then seeing them completely naked a few minutes later, (or since there were some latecomers, being already naked entirely when you first met them), would be uncomfortable. And I think that if it were in America, and these were my close girlfriends from home, it would be awkward and we would giggle and make jokes. But here I eat mushrooms (the normal kind) and don’t worry about bugs and don’t think twice about lolling about in the buff with strangers, and something else too:

We had each ordered a scrub, and I knew it was time when in walked a middle-aged woman I’d never seen before, wearing nothing but some black-lace underwear and a bored expression and carrying a big plastic bucket. She dipped the bucket into our steaming bathwater and splashed it over the stone slab bench next to the tub. I would be first. It’s my first time, I said, grinning up at her dumbly.

Last week, a few days before my friend’s wedding in Dallas, we went to get massages at a day spa in Grapevine. There we would lay discreetly under crisp blankets, and even so, my friend became quite uncomfortable with the leg massage neared her thigh.

Thinking of this modesty during my scrub-down, it was very hard not to die from laughter.

Because here there are no crisp towels or careful, inoffensive hands. You lay down on the warmed marble slab, and you are completely naked and your friends (for after you’ve bathed together, you should be able to say friends I think) are sitting in the pool to your side. And the woman grabs the rough scrub and flips you onto your back, onto your stomach, and let’s just say, your full acreage is roughly scrubbed. Brown twists of dead skin come flying off your back and some people with dry skin might bleed just a little. Then back over everything again with soap and sponge, and you trying not to laugh at being handled in this surprising way, and then buckets of warm splashed on you for a rinse. After, I felt that I had molted a decade of skins.

Outside again, there in the oldest heart of an old city, the cold air doesn't make it past my warm core and I think, in the winter, I will come here constantly.

The beehive domes of Tbilisi's underground sulphur baths.


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