Archive for the ‘Spas and saunas’ Category

I often find myself in new places for business and because I’m in and out of a city quite quickly, I don’t always have much time to spare. However, when I do get some downtime, whether I’m traveling for work or pleasure, I always do a bit of research before I set out to explore. I like to arrive in a place that I know a little something about, and I’m not talking about its tourist attractions. I’m talking about its soul, its character(s) and its culture.

There’s nothing more thrilling than the flash of recognition you get when you see or visit a place that has some significance  because you’ve read about it in a novel or seen it in a movie. There is a familiarity that arises from knowing a place’s “back story”. If you have that, you’re no longer visiting a stranger; you’re visiting a friend.

Let me give you a few examples of books and movies that can help you learn the back-story of specific places as well things you can do when you get there to enhance your experience.


Barcelona – The Shadow of the Wind, by Carlo Ruiz Zafón. The novel includes hand drawn maps that trace the characters’ steps through plot twists and turns so you can follow in their footsteps.

India – A Suitable Boy, by Vikram Seth. This sweeping epic does a great job of breaking down the early formative politics of the country. Reading it will give you a better appreciation and understanding of today’s India.

Montreal – Forensic anthropologist Kathy Reichs sets many of her thrillers in Montreal. I sometimes half expect to bump into her character, Temperance Brennan in one of the many settings she describes.


Rome – Roman Holiday. Follow Audrey Hepburn as she hops on the back of a Vespa with Gregory Peck to see the sights in Rome. Fall in love with both the city and the guy.

Paris / France – French Kiss. Follow Megan Ryan and Kevin Kline from Paris and Province to the Cote d’Azur in this delightful little comedy.

New York – When Harry Met Sally. For me this is the best way to live vicariously in New York.

Having read a book or seen a movie about a place gives significance to the sights in the places you visit. It makes the experience that much richer. But you can also enhance your experience once you are there.

Here are five fun things you can do.

1)    Take a class in a “native” subject. Take tango lessons in Buenos Aires, cooking classes in Bologna and an Ikebana class in Tokyo.

My attempt at Ikebana

2)    Attend a cultural event. Attend the local symphony, a dance performance or a concert given by local talent in a club or a restaurant.

3)    Take a tour. It’s a quick way to get an overview of a place, after which you can pick and choose your favorite spots to go back to and savor on your own.

4)    Treat yourself. Travel can be stressful process at the best of times: standing in long check-in lines, losing your luggage or just getting oriented. Book a massage, facial, or a wash and blow dry at a local hair salon. It lends an air of “normalcy” to a place, and it makes you feel better no matter what situation you’re facing.

5)    Sample the local cuisine. Always make it a point to try one local dish, whether it’s pizza in Naples, poutine in Montreal or antelope in Africa.

Finally as a way to relive the experience once you return home, bring back a music CD of an artist or group that you heard while visiting a place. If the music isn’t live, but piped in through a sound system in restaurant or played on the radio in a taxi, go ahead and ask the waiter or taxi driver about the singer or group. They are happy to tell you about the music to promote their country’s talent.

Once home, you can become an armchair traveler and let the music transport you back in time and place to experience those magical moments again and again.

What the teacher did

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We North Americans live in a throwaway society.  We discard clothes, hardly used electronics, toys, games, recreational equipment and, sadly, sometimes relationships or friendships without really thinking much about it.  A lot of our conversations are peppered with throwaway lines:  “How are you?” we ask, without truly listening to the response.

Sometimes we complain for the sake of complaining because we have nothing worthwhile to say.  Just as nature abhors a vacuum, so do we.  We are busy filling our personal vacuum with things, and the silence with inane chatter.  This is not an indictment; it’s who we are, and I am as guilty as anyone.  In fact, it was a simple throwaway line that led me to my latest adventure in Amsterdam.

I was meeting a friend for lunch.  It was a cold, damp, rainy Sunday. Miranda and I met at the restaurant and dined on hot soup and a hearty casserole.  The restaurant had a fireplace, so it was nice and cozy.  She stared at me intently, “So, how are you?”

Miranda is a short, sprightly woman with close-cropped blond hair.  She reminds me of the little Dutch girl you see as one half of the souvenir salt and pepper shakers you find at Schipohl Airport.  She’s married to Clare, a well-known abstract artist popular with the avant-garde crowd.

In an effort to get the conversation started, and by way of warming up because we hadn’t seen each other for a few months, I started by talking about my travels leading up to Amsterdam.  I basically gave her a litany of standard complaints:  my back hurt, my bones ached, the samples weighed a ton, and I was tired. Nothing serious; I was really just making conversation-lite.

If there’s one thing I’ve learned about Europeans during my ten plus years of doing business with them, it’s that they listen — really listen. They don’t make conversation; they have conversations.  If they ask you how you are, they wait for your answer and respond appropriately.

As Miranda listened intently I could see her brow furrow in concentration. You could tell she had taken my remarks seriously.   She smiled, leaned back and said she had just the thing to fix me up.  As a marathon runner, she had access to the best in massage therapists, acupuncturists, kinesiologists, and of course saunas.  “Sauna — I think that’s just the thing for you,” she said.

“But I’m not dressed for Sauna, I have nothing with me,” I said.

“It’s okay,” she laughed. “You don’t dress for sauna. You undress.  Besides, it’s a very posh place, beautiful art deco style, and they supply all that you need. All you have to do is show up.” She glanced at her watch. “We have just enough time to get you there before it closes. It’s very popular on Sundays, to help people get ready for the work week ahead.”

Well, why not, I thought.  My muscles were wound as tightly as springs.

Miranda drove me over to the sauna and waited for me while I checked availability. The lobby was lavish, with its gold leaf, dark wood, and leaded windows.   It looked like the perfect place to decompress.  I was in luck: they had two keys left, which meant two spots. The keys are linked to lockers where you can store your stuff.

I ran out to the car and told Miranda I was “good to go.” She wished me a pleasant time and left for a training run.  I stood on the doorstep and waved goodbye. I immediately started to feel pounds lighter.

The receptionist couldn’t have been nicer or more accommodating.  I paid a small fee for the two hours remaining, and she handed me a pile of soft, fluffy white towels and my locker key.  Her English was very good, and I commented on the fact. “Ah,” she said. “We get lots of tourists here.”  She pointed me in the direction of the locker room, which was down the stairs and to the right.

I was so looking forward to a nice relaxing afternoon and a little pampering that I didn’t really notice the occupants of the locker room until I was well inside.  There were at least a dozen men in various states of undress, some completely naked.  I thought I had made a wrong turn somewhere, so I carefully sidled out of the room, without anyone noticing me, and went back to the receptionist.

“Excuse me,” I said. “I think I made a mistake.   Where was the locker room again?”

Her eyes twinkled. “Why, you just came from it,” she said.  She watched my face carefully as I calculated my next move.  I could bugger off and lie like hell about my experience the next time I saw Miranda.  Problem was I didn’t see enough of the place to lie convincingly, and I’m also a very bad liar. Or I could go through with it.  After all, Miranda had said that it was very popular and if she went there, well …

Oh, what the heck, I thought. No one knows me in Amsterdam, and the best part is going to be when I told this story to my squeamish, fellow mid-westerners who would be aghast. Hell. The shock factor alone would be worth it, I thought.  I’d get a lot of mileage out of this tale.

So I grabbed my towels and marched back to the locker room and proceeded to ignore everyone in the room, who were all busy ignoring me.  Once I was out of my clothes, I positioned my towels strategically so that I could make it to the sauna. It was a juggling act of hilarious proportions, as I adjusted one towel and dropped another.   I considered wrapping a towel around me but that would be a dead give away to the locals. Spot the American!  I wasn’t going to give them that satisfaction.  I am as uninhibited as the next guy, or so I thought.

Of course, one does not make a mad dash to the security of a sauna; there is a whole ritual to the process.  The first is a shower.  This particular shower facility was ornate, with bottle-blue tiles, aquamarine glass listellos, gold-plated taps, and showerheads that could put a cloud to shame.  There were twelve showerheads in all, and the best news was that I found myself completely alone.

I hung my towel on a nearby hook and was about to turn on the tap when a man entered the shower room.  Given the fact that I was in the spot closest to the door, you would think that common decency would lead this man to take the shower in the farthest corner of the room.  But nooooooo. Apparently, it’s common courtesy to take the place next to the occupant and strike up a friendly conversation.

At this point, I would like to mention that statistically the Dutch are the tallest people in Europe.  I can attest to this from personal experience as many of the people I have met tower over me. Although when you stand about 5’2” in your stocking feet, this is not difficult.

This gentleman was no exception.  In fact, given our respective heights (I came up to his waist), and he being naked and all — well, let’s just say that it gave new meaning to the phrase “seeing eye to eye.”  Still, we carried on a polite conversation and parted company, me to the sauna and he to the footbaths.

Any thoughts I had about discreetly draping a towel over me in the sauna went out the window when I entered it and noticed that the denizens reclined lazily on their towels

It was an interesting mix of people: a young couple from Australia, a few locals, and me. We talked about life, family, travel, and our respective cultural differences.  I could have been having this conversation anywhere — in the close confines of a train compartment or in a cozy corner of the local pub. The most interesting thing about it was that, rather than feeling exposed, I felt like I had nothing to hide — or nothing to hide behind: neither polite conversation nor a towel.

This conversation among strangers may not have been deep but it was real.  I noticed that it was more comfortable to listen than to look. And so, for once, I concentrated on what was being said.  I had learned a good lesson that day: if you don’t say what you mean, you could end up naked in a sauna in Amsterdam one day.  And if the truth be told, that isn’t such a bad thing.

Photo: © iStockphoto.com/deklofenak

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