Great Spas of the World

One of my favorite kinds of pampering is to get a massage. It was regular massage which finally put an end to my chronic back pain – I get monthly myofascial and deep tissue massage at Skin to Soul in Stoneham (which I would strongly recommend to anyone local!) Wheen I go on vacation, I really enjoy checking out unique (and reputable) spa locations.

Last week this time I was sitting in a Scandinavian Spa overlooking the St. Lawrence river in Montreal, and thinking about some of the other, really cool experiences I’ve had. I decided to pretend I was a World Traveler and offer to you a guide to some of the most interesting and best experiences I’ve encountered!

We took a nice nap on those bean bag thingies
We took a nice nap on those bean bag thingies

Montreal Quebec: Scandinave Baths – Les Bains
The concept of the Scandinavian spa seems masochistic. First, you get really, really hot in a sauna. Then you go jump in an icy lake. Maybe you have to break a hole in the ice to get in. Then you repeat the experience. I’ve never done this before – I kept getting lost at the “icy lake” part. But a visit to the baths on a frigid and windy April day in Quebec seemed like just the thing. I signed my husband and I up for an afternoon massage and carefully read the preparation instructions (bring your own swimsuit!).

The spa (and there are several spread across Canada, in case you’re interested) took that original Scandinavian theme and expanded on it. First, there was the fluffy white bathrobe and high tech locker locks. (Magnetic waterproof bracelets!) Then there were the signs abjuring all to complete silence, or at least muffled whispering. The spa itself was filled with the sound of crashing water from the hot-water-fall. There were three hot spots, two cold spots, and lounges full of medium-temperatures, comfy chairs and dim lighting. There was also a very expensive juice bar, in case you got hungry or thirsty for something other than water.

The three hot spots were a full-swimming-pool-sized hot tub with aforementioned hot-water-fall. You have never seen such an expanse of 120 degree water before! For the non-immersed, there was a Eucalyptus steam sauna, where every ten minutes or so the walls vented fragrant steam. It was HOT. Finally, there was a standard dry sauna. The goal was to stay in the hot rooms until you were entirely too hot. Then – on to the cold! There was a very small pool – even smaller than a hot tub but deeper. And there was an enclosed, motion-activated shower. You popped into one or the other – for just a moment – to cool off your skin. (You were encouraged to get out before your overheated core temperature was affected at all.) Then, you moved to the resting area where there was lounging and a juice bar and comfy chairs to drowse until you got a bit chilly (aka your core body temperature got back to normal) and/or your heartbeat returned to normal, then you did it again.

We started off with one cycle, then got a massage, and then I did two more cycles. That all took like four hours. Four hours of quiet. Of just sitting and not doing anything. Four hours of not really focusing your eyes because it was steamy and not really having to stay awake if you found staying awake hard. I took a nap snuggled up on one of the chairs with my husband.

It was great.

This completely private hot tub looks out over a beautiful forested hill
This completely private hot tub looks out over a beautiful forested hill

It brought to mind another hot-tub/massage experience, though. This one as culturally different as possible. The Scandinavian Baths were all high tech and high price. I joked to Adam that we were soaking above our class, and in truth I felt surrounded by the monied elite (which was probably exactly the image the spa wants to cultivate). One of my very favorite places to visit is Wellspring. Based in the foothills of Mt. Rainier – just a hop and skip down the road from the National Park Entrance – is an organically grown haven. It started with a woman and a dream. Sunny learned massage. She built a massage cottage, and a hot tub. It burned down. She built it again. And another. And other cabins for people to sit in with each other and nature. Trails grew out of her hideaway. Labrynths were made. Her latest great moment is the discovery and appreciation of a natural grotto, which Sunny has carefully cultivated with a near-druidic eye to be a place of celebration.

The grotto is even more beautiful than this picture shows
The grotto is even more beautiful than this picture shows

Surrounded by peace and joy, and then there are the hot tubs and the massages! When I go home, I sign my husband and I up for a pair of massages. The best of the hot tubs overlooks a superb Northwest forest hillside, with a rippling brook in front and a mix of deciduous and evergreen trees up to the sky. It is perfectly private there, and the hot tub is quiet. We take turns soaking and looking and being while the other person is getting their massage (and their catch up session with Sunny!) It is entirely wholesome and relaxing and joyful – and full of the spirit of the Northwest.

My sister and husband honeymooned there. I’d love to pass a night there, but it seems a little silly when my parents live 12 miles away. Maybe some day!

This captures it pretty well, actually.

The last, and most culturally distinct, of the great Spas I Have Known, were the Turkish Baths at Cagaloglu (pronounced Ja-la-lu). These held on to a cultural tradition going back to early Roman times of communal bath-houses where the purposes was to get clean. It was a three hundred year old bath house, made in marble with ancient steam pipes heating vast slabs (slightly too short for modern women).

I wrote about it in great detail, but I often find my my leaning back to the silver ewers and taps, the hot marble, the provocatively protected skylights and the old Anatolian women scrubbing my back.

So to summarize: I recommend you visit them all. Tell them I said “hi” and I’ll be back as soon as I can!

Also, just for my husband, I give you this. My eldest son declares this his favorite movie, above even Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory and Star Wars. We don’t waste weekends around here!

Warm thoughts

It’s been a brutal, brutal winter here in New England. You know it’s bad when you wake up, see it’s 18 degrees out, and think, “Hey, not too cold this morning?” It’s significant progress that the drifts along our walkway have been reduced to merely waist high. Here in Massachusetts, nearly 200 roofs have caved in, and more people than you might guess find themselves flinging pantyhose filled with snow melt onto their roofs at 11 pm at night… NOT THAT I KNOW ANYTHING ABOUT THAT. (And it was the side facing away from our neighbors, so you can’t have proof!)

So I thought I’d bring you a warm thought I’ve been holding on to for half a year now.

When we were in Istanbul, we went to a 300 year old turkish bath called Cagaloglu Hamami (C is pronounced as “J” and the “G”s are more or less silent, so it was pronounced “Ja-la-lu” in case you ever go looking for it.)

Now, we were in Istanbul in August. Shockingly, it is HOT in Istanbul in August. Every day it was hovering around 100 degrees (although this wasn’t as bad as you might think, since the hill city on the water got lots of nice cool breezes off the Bosphorus straight and the Golden Horn). So already, before we went in to the shady confines of the baths, we were hot. The baths, like many in Turkey, are completely symmetrical. The men head off in one direction, the women in the other. We paid our money and split off into our different directions, scrubby mitts in hand.

I changed in a courtyard (women only) with a tall fountain in the middle and booths all around. The booths had high windows, doors with old-fashioned keys, dark stained wood, and narrow benches to place clothes on. I walked on impossible wooden shoes, wrapped only in a thin sheet, down to meet my masseuse — an inevitably soft, middle-aged woman who had just come back from a smoke break. She was wearing a black bathing suit and carrying a towel.

She brought me through a transition room to the baths themselves — ancient marble delights with silver taps constantly flowing with cool water. The entire room was made of marble. There were alcoves, a sweat-room, some partial walls for partial privacy, and a dome with pinpricks of light coming through opalescent ancient glass. It was very old luxury, not decrepit, but far from modern. In the middle was a large octagonal slab of marble — each side being just slightly shorter than a tall modern woman. I suspect they were perfectly sized for our less nourished forebears. And on each one of these sides was a woman, with her black-bathing-suited, comfortably-proportioned, middle-aged masseuse. Most of these women were in the same condition they would be for a bath or a shower at home. (What can I say, I fear the search engine traffic if I explain more clearly!)

My lady left me there, in an alcove, looking around in wonder but trying not to stare, with a silver basin in my hand and cool water running behind me. I sat until I got hot. I surreptitiously tried to figure out what to do. I poured a libation over my head. It felt marvelous, sluicing through the heat and making my towel cling cooly.

I waited a long time. I was beginning to be afraid I’d missed something in translation. I tried to slow my breathing, to just enjoy, to not be shocked that in the middle of this Islamic country I was surrounded by women completely at ease with themselves, with their bodies, with other women.

Finally, my black-bathing-suited woman returned. She lead me to my place on the marble slab, holding my hand solicitously — like I hold my sons on the slippery ice. The octagon was warm to the touch. 300 years ago, they had designed these baths to be heated by water and steam running past the marble on the other side. I could not see them, but furnaces were roaring to make this place even hotter than the 100 degree heat outside. I laid down on the warm marble, and she sluiced me again with water.

The massage was an amazing experience. It was actually a bath – as promised. There was soap. She washed my hair. She exfoliated with the scrubby mitt. One woman began singing an old Anatolian song, and the others joined in before trailing off into laughter. At the end of it, I was clean, and covered once more in the cool water before drying off and returning to the busy, narrow streets of Constantine’s city.

I think of those pinpricks of light, in the dome of the baths, now. As I trudge through the weary, narrowed world of February, I remember the surprising sensation of hot marble. I marvel that it is possible to sit, relaxed, sans garments, without fear of chill. With my vistas cut off now — by snow banks and hurry — I think of the far sights of Hagia Sophia and the Blue Mosque, towering above the millenia-long important churning waters on the gateway between Asia and Europe, East and West. And I remember that today’s frigid contraction is not forever.

The summer’s wise

Although the calendar informs me that there are several precious days of summer left, my updates are more sporadic than I might wish.

Gloriously summer
Gloriously summer

This summer was an exceptional one. I’m not quite sure how to articulate it, but it seemed like uber-summer — the kind of summer used to define what summer is. (Reminding me, in fact, of last Halloween). Perhaps it’s looking at the world through the eyes of my sons. For Grey, this summer might well define what summer is. It may be the thing he unconsciously expects for the rest of his life. (Note: my uber-summer was the summer I was nine and living in the fields and forests of Washington state. According to my memory, I spent the entire time wandering the woods, catching newts on the pond and watching clouds wend their way above dancing firs.) But this summer was one of those kinds of summers. It started early, in May. The weather turned exceptional after a soggy spell of spring and a less-brutal-than-usual winter. And it stayed exceptional. The summer made you comfortable and secure in its summerness. I forgot entirely about jackets. My sons wandered in sandals alone. The windows were only closed when it was too hot out. There was warm, hot, and omg.

This summer was also full of joyful adventures. We took three 4-day weekends to go camping with the boys. I watched my sons evolve over the course of those trips. I watched Thane learn how to entertain himself (and I learned what to pack so he would). Grey made friends with the kids next door, and ventured past the protective skirt of his parents to roam with the packs of children. (Well, he was more watched than he realized, but he never caught me tailing him. And he never needed me to be tailing him.) Both boys made a lot of progress swimming. (Thane would push himself along with his hands in the shallow water, saying “‘wim! ‘wim!” the last time I took him to the lake.) Heck, the boys even figured out how to sleep on their shared and bouncy air mattress. At the end of the summer, my husband and I sat in front of a roaring fire, our sons sleeping nearby, reading as the sparks flew to the visible milky way above.

There was my whirlwind trip across country with both boys to California. That had some very *important* moments in it, and some valuable ones. Those will prove precious, now and later. But I think my favorite parts were getting to know my young cousin and the brief hours we spent at Yosemite. There was a primal longing for me that was quenched, scratched, call it what you will. It was both deeply desire-inducing and deeply satisfying. It was captured by this moment, I think:

The golden light, the tall trees, the river, the mountains, the children
The golden light, the tall trees, the river, the mountains, the children

Of course, notable among the life-long-memories was the trip to Istanbul. The heat of summer was just one of the flavors of that journey — the clarity of the winds off the swirling straights, the competing calls to prayer from the minarets high on hallowed and historic ground, the delights to be found in aubergine… it was a week never to be forgotten and long to be savored.

Then there were the day to day things that came together to make it just and wholly summer. Every week I had a huge box of produce to find a way to work into my menus. Many a Monday night I stood at the sink peeling peaches, or stirring jam hot on the stove, my hair curling at the nape of my neck. My sons would ask to play in the park on the way home, and I would oblige. In the undimmed sunlight of 6 pm they would run and jump and climb and crawl. On Saturday afternoons, you might find me in conversation with a neighbor on the latest happenings on the street, or watching our children playing together. Most nights we slept with the windows wide to the light and breezes and air of a barely-cool summer.

It has seemed so long and glorious and full. It has been the epitome, the true expression, of what summer can be even in a life fully lived with jobs and kids and church and all those things that keep me on my toes.

Autumn is my favorite season. The crispness and urgency of the beauty catch me up short. The leaves (after a brief, drought-driven flirtation with color) have only now started to consider the possibilities inherent in changing their green gowns for gold and crimson. I traded out Thane’s 2T summer wardrobe for a 3T winter wardrobe this evening. It seems selfish to hope that autumn is as gloriously autumnal as summer was graciously warm. But oh! I do hope.

I rarely cite song lyrics, because I mostly listen to 16th century polyphony and that makes for really obscure allusions, but one of the few pieces of music from the last 50 years that I do know is the King Singers’ cover of “The Summer Knows”. It summarizes well the intentional seduction of such a warm and easy summer:

The summer smiles, the summer knows
And unashamed, she sheds her clothes
The summer smoothes the restless sky
And lovingly she warms the sand on which you lie.

The summer knows, the summer’s wise
She sees the doubts within your eyes
And so she takes her summer time
Tells the moon to wait and the sun to linger
Twists the world ’round her summer finger
Lets you see the wonder of it all.

And if you’ve learned your lessons well
There’s little more for her to tell
One last caress, it’s time to dress for fall.

And if you’ve learned your lesson well
There’s little more for her to dwell.
One last caress, it’s time to dress for fall.

Ghost stories

This last weekend we went on the last camping trip of the year. It has finally started getting easier, this camping with children thing. This resulted in me actually getting time to think, to mull, and to consider. And, of course, to read some ghost stories in front of the camp fire (on the Kindle — ah, the 21st century! How enabling you are!).

I love ghost stories. For a while in college, I extensively read “true”, first-person ghost stories. My favorite site was completely unedited, updated monthly (this was the old days folks) and had lots and lots of tales about ambiguously frightening things happening. As I was also getting my degree in English, I couldn’t help but begin to analyze the form and contemplate what was universal to the first person, claimed-to-be-true ghost story, what separated the good from the bad, what made them interesting, and what made people care about them.

After extensive (and pointless) research into the ill-defined genre, I finally figured it out. The key to a good ghost story isn’t the actual haunting or specter or experience. It’s the back story. You’d hardly ever find a ghost story posted that didn’t include the “I did some research and it turns out that on this spot XXX bad thing happened”. The very best stories are the ones with the strongest back story and the closest ties to whatever inspired the haunting.

This was on my mind in Istanbul. If ever there was a city to be haunted, it was Justinian’s Constantinople.

See this cheerful picture, with the tourist and the little kid tooling around on his bicycle?

The brazen column
The brazen column

This bucolic scene is inside where the Hippodrome stood in Constantine’s fair city. The Hippodrome. It was on this soil, fifteen hundred years ago, as Justinian made to flee and Theodora declared she’d rather die in purple than live in exile, that a mob gathered. It was here that, according to records, 30,000 of them were killed in the Nika Riots. That was a grim and gruesome tale. And it wasn’t just those riots. This same ground was a combination of Fenway and Yankee Stadium. The passions of the racers, flying in chariots behind their quadrigia, bedecked in their factions colors, was a drop compared to the fury of longing and joy and despair echoing from the stands. Emperors were one thing, but the races were the greatest thing. The best of the racers had statues raised to them, and the names of their horses were lauded in song and story. This same Hippodrome saw the height of Constantinople being truly itself. There were the royalty, the common man, the horses, the palaces and Hagia Sophia watching it all from the top of the hill. Here the Venetians came. Here the Crusaders came. Just a stone’s throw away, the Christians huddled in their sanctuary as their walls fell to Ottoman artillery.

If ever there was a place in all human history where the gathered passionate energy of an entire civilization might linger, leaving it’s ectoplasm or psychic imprint behind, surely it was on this soil. I stood there, warm sun on my heads, little kids zooming by on bikes with indulgent parents proudly watching, and waited to feel it. Surely there would be some hint on this storied ground? Surely some ghost stories lurked in the ancient stonework, or swirled above the domes of the city like roosting gulls?
The Hippodrome in Justinian's day
But no. There was nothing. I heard laughter, cell phone ringtones, low music. I saw smiles and tourists and the ever-present children. I smelled moussaka and boiled corn. There was no hint of the history (and bodies?) indubitably buried beneath my feet. There were no ghost stories I could find.

I admit that back in college, I was tempted to take the trope of the true ghost story and expand on the form. Having identified the elements, I felt, I could write some cracking good ghost stories, masquerading as real experiences. (What? It’s the internet. Don’t believe everything you read.) I thought about it this weekend, staring into red embers and listening to the loons singing my children to sleep. I thought about it, reading literary ghost stories which (honestly) don’t all have the form of the ghost story quite figured. And if I did, perhaps I would set it there, in the Hippodrome, between the palace and the church, above the sea.

Istanbul and Camp Gramp: Final Day

August 7

Adam and I are about five hours from the time shown on my little travel alarm clock. So I suppose, against my great desire, I must admit that our sojourn in Istanbul draws to a close.

After another sleepless night, we dragged our weary carcasses out of bed in time for the free breakfast at the hotel. As an aside, I’m mightily glad we don’t usually watch cable news over breakfast. Anyway, we then went back to the Archaoelogical museum. See, it’s not air-conditioned at all, so last time we only saw about half of it in hundred degree heat before calling “uncle”. We are nothing if not thorough, so we returned for the other half. I was hoping that fourteen centuries of being a beacon of success, art, opulence and learning in Constantine’s fair city might get, oh its own wing or something. Sadly, Constantinople seemed underrepresented in the archaeological museum. We did see about a gagillion first century marble busts, and an ample sufficiency of Terra cotta jars from Troya… As well as a few snide remarks about which European Museum has the good stuff. Still, the marble heads were lovely!

One of many
One of many

After that we took the tram across the Golden Horn. Istanbul has a fine transit system, far more modern and clean than Boston’s. From there we waited by the water for a ferry. I watched a kind Turkish woman give money to a poor looking woman with a little baby. It struck me how few here seem destitute. I think I’ve seen one beggar the entire time (the woman with the baby wasn’t asking for help, but clearly needed it). Then the same kind woman insisted on paying our ferry fare since we were guests in her country. The hospitality and kindness of the Turks has been astonishing. Anyway, we took a brief trip across the Bosphorous to a tiny island on the Asian side called either Maiden’s Tower or Leander’s Tower. It offered a lovely view of the skyline of historic Istanbul. We climbed to the top and then back down for lunch. While there I picked up a pebble for Grey. He’s very interested in Asia, so I thought he might enjoy a tiny piece of it.
The same kind lady took this picture of us at Maiden's Tower
The same kind lady took this picture of us at Maiden's Tower

On our return to Europe, we went to find the remaining columns of the Hippodrome. The Million we’d passed daily, but we never gone the extra block to see the Obelisk, which is either a reconstruction or shockingly well preserved, the serpentine column, or the brazen column. Then we got dessert. Have I mentioned how much I will miss Turkish food?
The Serpentine Pillar. It used to have three snakes' heads on the top.
The Serpentine Pillar. It used to have three snakes' heads on the top.

Finally, we went back to the Bosphorous near our hotel and sat by the water with sea breezes in our face and joked with each other while the sun set behind us. Lovely.
I loved that stretch of water
I loved that stretch of water

Tomorrow’s journey comes too soon. but I must confess, I miss my boys sorely. I think that this trip has been everything I hoped for, in terms of food for the mind and soul, and nurture for a marriage we plan to make go the distance.

I will see you all soon!


Meanwhile, back in the States
It is a bit early for the report of the final full day for Camp Gramp, but I am planning to be busy this evening. There is a rumor out there that the Flynns are returning to the castle and right now it looks like — well I don’t want them to see it this way. So the evening is devoted to restoration. The cars will be returned to their customary place. The Legos returned to their box, the books re-shelved. A good time as been had by all — The grandparents are still alive!

Today we went to the Science Museum to see if we could find the camera. As Don points out, it may also be here. After that we headed north by our family’s navigation and found Bunker Hill where Grey and I climbed to the very top. There was rolling down the hill. And there was running down like mad. There was no ice cream eating — we are soooooo mean. Then by the same aforementioned navigation, we headed north. Cape Ann is lovely! We followed the perimeter road around the very end. We went to the state park where we saw a presentation on bats and visited the quarries. We also saw lobster pots — many of them.

Home was much closer than I thought. We are here now and Baz is making dinner. Hot dogs and Quesedillas. Sounds good to me.

Thanks for lending us your children.

Love Gramama and PAPAPA

What I found waiting for me at home
What I found waiting for me at home

Cousins saying goodbye
Cousins saying goodbye


Istanbul & Camp Gramp: Days 5 & 6

August 5 – back in the States (I was too lazy to write home)
Today was Museum of Science day. It had been steadly growing hotter since we got here and today — oh my. This morning Baz noted that he couldn’t get his shirt off. It was so warm and humid. A place with air conditioning, we thought. That is an awesome museum. Thane loved the discovery center — water and balls, how can it get any better. So did Kay who loves to dress up and made a wonderful coffee filter butterfly there. Baz and I want the electricity show in our living room. The worlds largest Vandegraph generator — and we are talking 40 ft. high or so. It was awesome. Grey liked the whales exhibit and the dinosaurs. They had this astonishing replica of a whale heart there — easily 6 feet high lying on its side. The kids could crawl in it. While we were there, it rained and cool off the land. Still muggy, but not so hot,which is good.

We returned all the children to the car, tired by happy. Then we started to get out of the garage. 35 minutes to get out of the garage. 35 minutes! After that, piece of cake. I had been dreading rush hour, but it was speed limit the whole way home. The other direction, however, into town was stop and go almost to home. I wonder what was up.

When we got home, we ate and I gave Thane a bath. I have never seen a child who loved baths as much as he does. The older kids and the adults then watched “Up”. The evening ended with glow sticks. Very nice day.

Your children are all fine. Dad and I are still alive. I hope you are all having a great time.!

Love, Grandmama

August 6

We began our anniversary day (editor’s note: August 5) with a trip to the Church of Cora, which, rumor had it, still had intact mosaics. And so it did. They were quite splendid, and we spent a happy hour twisting our necks and guessing at Bible stories. (The genealogy of Christ had us flummoxed for a while, I confess.)

The Church of Chora - mosaics & frescoes
The Church of Chora - mosaics & frescoes

From there we took a death defying taxi trip across the Golden Horn to the Fortress of Europe. It was every 12 year olds dream of a fortress! There were battlements and high walls and precarious staircases and murder holes and high towers. It was extremely cool. After a much more sedate return taxi trip, we went again to the
Turkish baths, because they are extremely awesome.
The Fortress of Europe was SO COOL. Bring your walking shoes.
The Fortress of Europe was SO COOL. Bring your walking shoes.

Today we slept in again. Ambition has been replaced by a certain degree of lethargy. We went to this really cool museum of Islamic scientific contributions from 900 to 1600. (Note: The Islamic Scientific and Technology Museum in lovely Gulhane Park. By far the best interpreted museum in Istanbul and completely worth a visit.) It was awesome. We spent about four hours there, reading about everything from seige machines to astrolabes to optics. Our only regret was lacking the classical scientific background to understand it all, especially the math and navigation sections.
I want a book called "Astrolabe for Idiots"
The last remaining goal for our last remaining day is to touch Asian soil. We see it across the water, but it is a residential, not tourist area. So we will probably go tomorrow only to have gone.

It has been a spectacular and outstanding trip… One of the finest. We have had good luck, good food, good weather and good company. We only hope you all are doing as well!


Meanwhile, back in the States

Today was lovely. We stayed home most of the day. In the morning we went to the used book store and the park to play. While Thane napped, we made Shrinky Dinks. Then we played in the back yard for a while. Adam and Brenda, about the orange ball. Do you know how long that takes to pump up! But having gotten it pumped up, it is a real hit. They are rolling all over the yard. Dinner and a walk to the ice cream place to get dessert.

This may not sound perfect to you. What was perfect was the weather. High 70s, low humidity, nice breeze. It was awesome

The bad news is, we can’t find the camera (editor’s note: TRAGEDY!). We think we had it at the Museum of Science, but we can’t find it anywhere. This is very sad. It has the trip to see my mom and the Camp Gramp pictures on it. We will continue to look.