Naked Therapy

European spas—they’re not like American spas. They’re more like sanatoriums, where staff dressed in white whisper softly and serious health treatments take precedence over beauty.

My first experience was in Italy, outside of Siena. I had had a particularly stressful week with The Entitled–a group of family (their family, not mine) and friends who refused to believe that Italy was no longer a country of peasants, and that said peasants, including myself, were suppose to cater to their every whim…at no additional cost.

Even though I hadn’t met anyone in the group before agreeing to host their tour, I had heard some of the names, seen one on TV and had read about another in HOLA!, the Spanish speaking equivalent of People magazine. But even with this important information, I was still not prepared for what I would encounter. Neither were the two women I was working with. In order to relieve the stress, Katy began chain smoking again after a 20-year hiatus, Sonia repeatedly chanted Madonna!! swirling her cigarette in the air, and I alternated between chomping on Advil and Xanax. The week ended with a multimillionaire pounding his fist on the dinner table—in a very elegant restaurant—demanding the car (or in this case, minibus) be brought around immediately. He was ready to go, even though the majority of people were still eating. That’s when I started to drink—white wine, red wine, limoncello, grappa. Whatever was available…It didn’t matter, I just needed to dull the memory of that man’s existence.



No, not the multimillionaire, but…

When the group left, Katy, Sonia and I headed to a nearby spa town. It was Sonia’s idea–a way to cleanse ourselves. The day began with sitting in a pool that reeked of sulfur while sipping Prosecco. I normally don’t drink at 11am, but as they say: when in Rome (or Siena)…

I had scheduled a massage and was shown to a room where a bearded man named Masoud held up what I thought was a cocktail napkin and asked me to change—he would return shortly. The cocktail napkin turned out to be a disposable thong that covered, well, almost nothing. I didn’t want to seem like an unsophisticated foreigner, so I did what I was told. There were no towels or sheets to discreetly cover the body. There was only Masoud, my thong and myself. Within minutes, his hands started rubbing my shoulders.

“You like my massage?” he said in a husky accent.

“Yes, it’s very nice. Thank you.”

His hands slipped toward my shoulder blades. “You still like my massage?”

“Yes, it’s lovely. Thank you.”



No, not Masoud, but the lovely view from our group’s accommodations outside of Siena.


Masoud was nothing but professional, working his way down to my feet before asking me to turn over. This was the moment I was dreading, but I did it anyway. He started on my calves, moved to the thighs, and then grabbed my feet and pushed them straight up into the air, jumping onto the table himself. Then, he did what in Pilates is called “the frog.” You know, that movement where your heels are together and your knees bend to create a diamond shape, then straighten. Repeat several times.

“Now you like my massage.” Masoud said. What was I suppose to say knowing nothing about Italian massage etiquette. Maybe this was normal.

“Uh huh” I replied, more than ready for our intimate hour to end.

I got dressed and walked out, meeting Katy in the hallway. “How was it?” she asked eagerly, ready for her own treatment with Masoud.

“You like his massage,” I replied with a grin, not wanting to spoil the surprise.



Street sculpture in Siena


Later, soaking with Sonia in the sulfur water, Prosecco glasses by our sides, her cigarette waving as she once again chanted “Madonna!!!” in reference to our week, Katy walked up and said, “What was that? Why didn’t you warn me? Did he do “the frog” with you and then say, “I massage your breasts?”

“No, he never even got in the vicinity,” I replied wondering why he hadn’t been tempted. What was wrong with my breasts??



Spa floral and fauna


A few years later, this time in Slovenia, I had a better idea of what I was getting myself into. There’s an old spa town near the Novak Lodge where I hold my tours and when I told a group of attendees that it had been around for over 200 years, they were anxious for the experience. Miriam, our hostess, said they had a new building that offered a selection of saunas, Jacuzzis and whirlpools from around the world. “You can’t wear bathing suits though.”

I heard her, and even though she speaks perfect English, I knew she must have meant, “You have to wear bathing suits.”

And so we went, a group of middle-aged women with their bathing suits, only to be told, “Nyet. Nein. NO…take your clothes off.” I followed instructions, but clung to my towel as I entered the sauna complex, naked people all around me, mostly male, mostly Russian. An older woman in whites with a babushka-like headscarf spotted me and yanked my towel off, pointing to the sign that said, “No clothes allowed.”


Old chapel near Slovenia spa in Dolenske Toplice.

Old chapel near Slovenia spa in Dolenske Toplice.


And so the “Naked Therapy” began—it’s what I call the opportunity to learn to be at ease and confident (without clothes) in the midst of strangers and casual acquaintances. I must admit, I only have a comfort level of 2 out of 10 at the moment, since my Puritan American upbringing didn’t prepare me for group nudity. It’s something I’m working on, but only in distant countries. As Miriam pointed out, explaining why she no longer frequents the saunas, “It’s not very professional to be sitting naked next to a man who might be eating in your restaurant the next day.” Point well taken, hence the distant countries.

Now, when I see advertisements for “European Spas” and “European treatments” in America, I always smile. They are obviously a sales gimmick to make people believe they are better, more luxurious, but now you know the truth—they’re simple places where people eat, drink, smoke, walk around naked and sometimes get treatments and/or harassed by enthusiastic Persians and scarf-wearing grandmothers.

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