A CURIOUS THING happened to me about a week ago for taking to heart the adage When in Rome, do as the Romans do. I was traveling to Brussels as one of about a dozen reporters from various European countries to cover a one-day event called The European Day of Languages. The travel arrangements, which the European Commission had arranged for me, involved flying out of Larnaca, Cyprus, at four a.m. on a Sunday and returning at the same time on Tuesday. That part of the schedule was lousy enough, but tucked in between the two red-eye flights was a gem: an eleven-hour layover in Budapest.
People often complain about flight layovers. To them a three or four hour layover is a miserable inconvenience and a waste of time. Such people either have too much leisure time or they are insane and neurotic enough never to need any. One does not have any responsibilities during the layover except to get from, say, Gate 16 to Gate 23—the equivalent of walking down the block—in three or four hours. When one’s life is an overgrown jungle of things to do and unrequited ambitions, the layover is a much welcome oasis of nothingness. It is a stress- and guilt-free opportunity to be idle, which to anyone but a sloth or a freakish work addict is something to be welcomed and cherished.
Of course, my layover was especially appealing because, lengthy as it was, it permitted me to bus into downtown Budapest, a finer place in which to be idle than a flight lounge. I had not read up on Budapest and had no plans for the day except to get myself a massage (a normal one, not the ‘happy ending’ sort). Over the last few weeks a former neck injury from Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu training had resurfaced—perhaps because I had been spending too much time typing comments with a phone wedged between my ear and shoulder—and I wanted someone to work the tension out of my trapezoids.
I soon found what I wanted, or what I thought I wanted. An Australian in the ‘Pest’ side of town told me there were some thermal baths and inexpensive massages at the Hotel Gell ért in the ‘Buda’ on the other side of the Danube. I did not know exactly what ‘thermal baths’ were, but I had images of vast steaming underground freshwater hot springs full of wholesome attractive people—what you might expect to find in Iceland or in a Walt Disney movie. And as I had arrived in a short-sleeve shirt, ill-prepared for a fall Budapest morning, I made my way at once to these baths, which were growing more wonderful in my shivering head by the minute.
It was obvious on arriving at the hotel that I had not stumbled upon some marvelous subterranean secret. Tourists milled about the lobby in familiar fashion, staring up at the massive board of bath services and prices posted on the wall in English and Hungarian, trying to decide between the mud bath, the salt inhalation or the hydrotherapy.
I lined up and when my turn came I handed over some Hungarian bills and asked for the thermal bath, a massage and—since I had not brought a pair of shorts with me—a swim trunk rental. The cashier said I did not need a bathing suit because I would not be in the mixed sex section. The prospect of renting an item that essentially serves the same function as underwear had not been a pleasant one, and so I gladly saved myself the money and, passing through a turnstile, headed for the baths.
At the bath entrance I tried to get a towel, which the cashier had assured me came with the thermal bath, but a drab employee told me in two-word sentences that I had to change first and I would get the towel later. But change into what? From what I could see, everyone else in there was either in swim trunks or a towel. I am no more modest than the average person about such things, but I did not intend to be the sole nudist.
I went down into a dungeon that I assumed was the locker room and asked for a towel from a tall bald slouching man with dark crescents under his eyes and a slinking gait. “After,” the man said and motioned me into a closet-sized space with a barred door, something that more resembled a solitary confinement chamber than a changing room.
At once I slipped away and climbed back up to the main floor and then up a winding staircase in the hopes of securing a towel from another employee. I emerged in an open space full of curtained booths that ringed the room in a horseshoe pattern, each one containing a small bed. A man with an intricately shaved goatee in loose white pants and an unbuttoned white shirt stood and walked towards me. I showed him my receipt and my metal massage token and asked for a towel. Instead he just grunted and pointed into the closest booth, motioning that I go in there, presumably for a massage.
Now this was getting to be too much. I did not understand why it was so complicated to get a towel and why all these Hungarian men were so keen to usher me into little rooms and booths. I escaped that man too and returned to the first fellow I had spoken to on the main floor. “Change downstairs,” the man said. “Towel after.”
It was time to resist. “No.” I paused to let the weight of my dissent sink in. “I want a towel or swim shorts.” The man looked at me wearily, then reached over to a stack of what looked like cloth napkins and peeled off the top one.
“Towel after,” he said, handing me what appeared to be a loincloth of some kind. “Now change.”
I had at least gained something for my efforts and I was tired of wandering around like a sulking pest, so I returned to the dungeon, where the dungeon master opened a cell for me. I undressed and tied the loincloth around my waist at my lower back. The dungeon master locked the door behind me and I headed up to the thermal baths with only my metal massage token, a numbered metal tag identifying my locker, and my loincloth, which resembled an apron that had shrunk in the laundry to half its size.
The last time I had worn an apron—a French apron, specifically—was six years ago, when I worked for several months as a waiter at a Mediterranean restaurant in the San Francisco business district. Chefs obviously wear aprons to keep baby green salad and cow guts off their jeans, which is why their aprons look like a painter’s palette. But a waiter really has no use for an apron except, when it is brilliant white, to convey an air of elegance. As I have never aspired towards elegance, I had always then thought myself rather ridiculous in the apron. Only six years later, when I would be on the polar opposite end of elegance, would I learn what it really meant to look ridiculous in an apron. There I was, walking through a locker room full of men in bathing suits, with nothing but a large napkin hanging over my groin.
Now if you ever get yourself into such a situation, you will find that you instantly are aware of one thing: your behind. From the front you look okay, albeit a little eccentric or confused. But from the back, you are nothing but a bare ass with a perverse cloth birthday bow tied over it. It is like walking around with only the back half of your head shaved bald. It makes you feel foolish and molested, like a shaved Fifth Avenue poodle with legs that look like upended sticks of cotton candy. It is no good to be a halfway nudist. Best to shed the napkin or garb the swim trunks. The apron is only good for an experimental Chippendale dancer or a gay chef porn star. But I did not discard my meager cloth shield. I was in foreign territory here and I was willing to sacrifice dignity for security.
Never before would I have thought that I would ever welcome the sight of another man’s naked rear end. But a man stepped out in front of me and there it was, the whole squalid setup with the shoelace knot around the lower back. Obviously my loincloth was not just the result of a private jest by men trying to break up the monotony of their work. There were others that looked as absurd, degraded, and disgraceful as I did. It was a fine sight.
After a quick rinse-off shower where I noted a few other comrades-in-aprons, I walked with some new confidence into the thermal baths. The baths were no more than hot tubs the size of backyard swimming pools, with one at 36 degrees Celsius and the other at 38. The only novelty of the place—which in the end was more down-and-outish than the luxurious lobby décor suggested—was the architecture of the room, which was tiled with high sloping ceilings and had an old gaudy Roman feel to it.
I made my way to the least populated corner of the bath, keeping my head above water, and settled back against the wall like the rest of the crowd. Though I stayed in there for twenty minutes, I could not really enjoy the bath. These were not cheerfully frothing and bubbling whirlpool tubs, which can at least offer the illusion of fresh circulating water. They were bodies of hot stagnant water full of naked or semi-naked men lounging along the perimeter and staring at each other for lack of anything else to look at.
I estimate 60 percent of the men there—almost wholly tourists and younger men—wore swim trunks, 25 percent wore loincloths, and 15 percent were nude. I was all right being among the minority groups; I just did not want to be a trailblazer, at least not in this field. I had grown more comfortable with my cloth fig leaf, although that was mostly because I was underwater. There was plenty of self-consciousness still in me when I climbed out of the bath, my back to that wall of bored sprawling men.
I showered vigorously and then headed for the massage room, where I assumed I would get my towel and massage. The thermal bath may have been a letdown but surely a hearty 30-minute massage would set everything right. I was not, however, prepared for what I encountered. A naked fellow was lying supine on the massage bed, his arms hanging at his sides, while a masseur stood over him, kneading his ass.
Now the fact that the tourist was not wearing a towel was something of a surprise, but I recognized that most of my images of professional massages come from glossy advertising brochures that have little to do with the real thing. So the nudity I could handle. But I could not easily digest the fact that a masseur was handling his rear end like it were a lump of pizza dough.
The worst thing was that the masseur seemed to be focusing exclusively on his arse. I had always thought the upper back was the epicenter of the masseuse’s universe, but here that epicenter had been lowered two feet. I had not seen a “Gluteus Maximus Massage” on the price board and so I knew this was the fate that awaited me if I lined up behind the three sitting tourists who were waiting in line. They too did not seem comfortable with what was going on, and they were staring glumly down at their feet with the kind of facial expression found on teenagers waiting in the lobby of an STD clinic.
When one is only wearing a loincloth, one tries to avoid sitting in public places. So I stood there behind the others, wondering whether it would be better to forget about the $15 that I had paid for the massage token. The upside of this massage was that it would not take place in a private booth. There were eyes on the masseur. The unhappy deed could only go so far. But then again, one can get away with a lot under public scrutiny if the act is somehow considered part of normal business—like chopping off heads in Saudi Arabian town squares—and that seemed to be the case here. Not a peep of concern had come from anyone, let alone an intervention to restore a degree of propriety to this massage.
Finally it all got to be too much for me and I walked away. I wandered about until I came upon the ‘hydro massage’ room, which involved getting sprayed down as well as massaged. It was the same scenario as before—with a fair amount of rump work—except here the customer was Hungarian and the two were chatting amiably throughout the massage. This appeased me somewhat. It was the gloomy silence of the other room that had made the massage seem so sordid. Also, the massage here was more vigorous than in the other room, which also seemed a healthier sign to me.
There was no one else waiting here, which meant I would not have to wait in line. In the other room, I would have been concerned about being alone, but here the lack of customers was an advantage. I could get my massage and then head off into Budapest for my remaining hours.
The massage ended in a strange way. The masseur suddenly slapped the prostrate man on his left buttocks, which sent a ringing echo through the humid room. Then the man turned over, sat up, smiled and extended his hand for a hearty handshake. An ass slap and a handshake are two things I would never have expected to see in chummy succession. From what I know, that is not something that happens in the US or in Cyprus when you get a massage. One might imagine that this would have been enough to finally scare me off. But I was in Hungary and by now I had resigned myself to do as the Hungarians do.
I did not have a ‘hydro massage’ token, but because it was less expensive than the ‘medicinal massage’ token, I assumed I could exchange it for the hydro massage without fuss. I asked the masseur, who merely shrugged and grunted something like “if you want” as he walked out of the room. I waited for five minutes, but the masseur, who by then had lost his affable charm, did not return. It was obvious enough that masseurs here did not love the tourists.
I went back to the other room, now offended that I had been slighted and categorized as a tourist, which of course I was. This had now turned into a matter of petty pride for me. Those bastards were going to give me my massage.
I traded my loincloth in for a towel, after first having to vow that I was finished with the thermal bath. Never before have I come across someone more protective of a stack of cheap rags. The so-called towel was more like a tablecloth, which I wrapped around my waist and sat down in line in the massage room.
It took twenty minutes of waiting before it was my turn. By then there were two masseurs in the room and “Candy Shop” by 50 Cent was playing in a small radio in the windowsill. I removed the tablecloth from my waist, laid it on the massage bed, and climbed onto it, face down. By now I had steeled myself to the fact that soon, for the first time in my life, a man’s hands would be on my buttocks. I was as psychologically prepared as the patient who goes in for the colonoscopy.
The masseur started on my left calf. For about five minutes he rubbed my calf as if I were an eight-year-old, obviously more interested in his conversation with the other masseur than in giving me a proper massage. Then suddenly his hands slid up my hamstring and he was kneading my left cheek. I had, however, prepared myself for that sort of blitzkrieg and I managed not to clench my buttocks, which would have clearly betrayed me as a nervous amateur.
Thankfully, the masseur soon moved up to my lower back and shoulders. The truth is that the kneading had not been so traumatic in the end, and it is only because I retain adolescent guffawing attitudes towards the covered regions of the body that it had even been anything noteworthy in the first place.
My new concern, as the minutes passed, was that this masseur was not putting any muscle into the massage. I had not expected such petite behavior. I could have done a better job with my pinky. Either he was a wimp, or he thought I was one.
The only other professional massage I have received was in Istanbul, where a giant Turk in a towel spent twenty minutes stepping on me, squeezing me, crushing me, scraping cigarette-like rolls of dead skin off me with a special scrub, pouring buckets of freezing water over my head, and doing a number of other things that constitute a good massage. Having a big man behind you, his thick arms interlocked around your waist, making Heimlich-like maneuvers and grunting “very good… very gooood” tests the courage of any man, let alone when he is a Turk and you are a Greek Cypriot. But he was an expert at what he did, and I emerged in my new skin with a respect for the man.
This pansy massage, on the other hand, was a disgrace to the Hungarian masseur community. I told him that the massage was too soft, and it seemed that for a second he put some strength into it but that did not last long. I could see that the fellow next to me was also getting shafted with a non-massage, but he did not protest about it and even meekly thanked his masseur at the end of his session.
My massage ended with a light smack on the cheek and a casual ‘thank you’ from the masseur, which I suppose was a dignified finale considering the circumstances. A slap would clearly have been inappropriate since we were not on chummy terms, and a non-slap would have been—in the peculiar world of the Hungarian massage room—an insult. But the judicious conclusion still could not compensate for the fact that the massage had been a botch. I did a better job working out the knots from my neck afterwards in a few minutes under a hot shower than this fellow managed in half an hour.
A Hungarian woman in Brussels later told me that when you toast in Hungary you say ‘ egészségedre,’ which means ‘to your health.’ But if you mispronounce the word and instead say ‘egész seggedre,’ you are actually saying ‘to your ass.’ Now I am one of those sorts who cannot easily drop grudges if I feel I have been swindled, so I have a request to any readers who mingle and travel more widely than me: if you are ever to clink a stein with a Hungarian masseur, do this vengeful friend a favor and mispronounce your cheers.
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