Friday, January 27, 2006
Lessons from the spa
by Nancy Shohet West
It was two years ago, halfway through a bleak and dreary January, that a friend persuaded me to join her for a weekend getaway. She had recently heard about a retreat center located in rural Quebec that billed itself as a European-style spa. "Relaxation. Meditation. Soft music. Massages. Herbal tea," she cajoled. "It will be wonderful." Immersed in a chilly Carlisle winter, up to my elbows in toddler needs, and battling a season-long cold, I agreed to give it a try.
Our entrance to this Shrine to Pampering seemed promising. We checked in at the Euro-Spa of Canada midmorning on a frigid Saturday, tracking mud and crusted snow in from the parking lot on our boots. We were quickly shown to our room and handed terry cloth robes. A staff member then offered to give us a tour. "This is an electronic-free environment," she told us. "No PDAs, no laptops, and of course no cell phones." I was happy to relinquish my PDA and phone, but as a writer, I was a little disappointed to have to give up my laptop for the weekend. It seemed to me that they were making a sweeping judgment on standards of relaxation. Writing is relaxing to me. But they explained that the clicking of my keys would disturb other spa visitors. It was slightly astonishing to think that I had entered an atmosphere so rarefied that key-clicks would be considered intrusive. This was certainly a far cry from home, where the ultimate in tranquility for me is being out of earshot of any Wiggles songs.
Facial or dentist's office?
Another staff member summoned us for our scheduled facials. We followed her down a long, dark, scented corridor, our robes swishing. I settled into the reclining leather chair as the technician lined up her tools. It was hard to feel relaxed when everything about the situation reminded me so strongly of being at the dentist's office. The technician lit some candles, washed her hands, and peered at my skin for what felt like ten or fifteen minutes. Finally she offered her assessment. "My goodness, you certainly do like the natural look!" Apparently the European spa experience includes vague mockery as a form of therapy.
Our full-body massages were next. Whereas the facial evoked a visit to the dentist, the massage was more reminiscent of the hours following childbirth. Just as I did after the birth of each of my children, I lay with my eyes closed trying to rest while people bustled around me, poking and prodding. I realized then that I am just not the right candidate for a massage. As a mother of two small children, I get all the physical contact I could possibly want, day in and day out. The ideal spa experience for me would be a weekend during which no one laid a finger on me.
Rosemary or rose hips bath?
Physical treatments over, it was time for us to check out the public baths. In a cavernous and damply heated room, we found an array of whirlpools. Next to each tub stood a sign listing its ingredients. There was a rosemary bath, an apricot bath, a sea salt bath, a rose hips bath, a mud bath. "A mud bath?" I asked. "Isn't that what we came here in mid-January to escape?" We chose the rosemary-and-oil option. Sliding into the warm water, I felt like I had turned into a piece of focaccia. I closed my eyes again and tried to let the Essence of Euro-Spa Relaxation overtake me. But it was a challenge, amidst all those food-infused baths, to keep images of toddler feedings out of my mind.
The next morning, I asked for directions to the fitness room. "Exercise equipment?" the front desk clerk repeated with a tone of concern. "We don't have exercise equipment. You are here to relax." Now there's a strictly European concept, I thought: relaxation as an escape from exercise. But the fact was that after a long uninterrupted night of sleeping, I was plenty relaxed. I was ready to rev up a little. If I couldn't do it aerobically, I figured I would go with my second choice of an energizer: coffee. "Herbal tea only," the café attendant told me firmly. "This is a caffeine-free environment."
No aerobic activity; no coffee; no laptops. Clearly the Euro-Spa and I were simply not a compatible match. And yet it really was a relaxing, restorative weekend, as I told my husband that evening upon my return. "I slept for ten hours, I read four issues of the New Yorker, I took a 20-minute shower with no one coming in to see how I was doing," I recounted, ticking off all the ways it was different from home. My husband — who, it's only fair to mention, had bankrolled my spa adventure — looked a little bit disappointed. "But what about the massages, the treatments, the meditation room?"
I confessed to him my weekend discovery: I'm just not a spa person. He thought about it and made a perfectly fair observation: 24 hours at the Holiday Inn Express in Bedford would have served me equally well. Relaxation doesn't necessarily require rosemary-scented warm-oil baths. It really is just about getting away.
© 2006 The Carlisle Mosquito