Lucky me to have had the good fortune to escape to Belgium to see in the new year, a trip that was as much about moving towards something positive as about escaping the negative, but still, a trip nonetheless. Because travel takes you to different places, physically and psychologically, whenever I’m stuck, and if time and budget allow, I pack a bag and change the scenery.
Belgium and I had met briefly once before, during a bad-weather diversion on the way to Calgary years ago and is ancient history. I really only remember the airport and with it’s armed security which I found very alarming then, before it was as commonplace as it is now, sadly. This time I was booked an early evening Eurostar and set off from Brighton with a smallish suitcase and a positive outlook. St Pancras does departures well. A good friend met me for a belated birthday celebration, his not mine, at the lovely Fortnums which may be a tourist hot spot, but we like tea and scones as much as the next person, so after indulging it was all au revoir as I whisked through customs, settled happily into my seat and sped off to le continent with a copy of British Vogue kindly left by the previous occupier.
In critical need of some self-care, I meant to treat myself on this trip, so a spa was in order. Having done a bit of research before leaving I’d booked a massage in advance (hate to get there and find no appointments available) at Spa Aqua Azul in the centre of medieval Ghent because it looked to be the best and was recommended by local friends. I had a couple of days to wander around the city, drinking lots of coffee with chocolate chasers, before spa day. Ghent is a charming city, a stunning combination of medieval and modern so as a modernist with a history minor, I was in my element. I started to feel better very quickly; a new perspective will do that to a person.
Spa Aqua Azul is in a fine old building in a city centre I found strangely disorienting and easy to get lost in, which is unusual for me. I eventually found it and was greeted at the front desk, credit card checked and all that before being shown through to the glamorous deco changing rooms in order robe up for my massage. The manager wondered if I wanted to sauna after my massage: I said I’d see how I was doing for time.
Robed and ready, I plodded up the stairs to the top floor for my appointment. The massage was just ok, mildly relaxing but not outstanding. Understand I’ve been living in a land where massage therapists are proper professional, whether treating you for sports injuries, stress or relaxation, and this one wasn’t like that: I got the impression she was a bit of a hobbyist and though very sweet, not all that convincing. The room was decked out in bog-standard Asiana style which felt out of place and really unnecessary in the gorgeous building, and which, you may not believe (I have a thing about spaces) irritated me so much I got anxious. Big paper fans and bamboo water features will do that to me. So contrived and slightly racist? When my hour was up I felt less than blissful. It’s me not them.
As I prepared to make a hasty exit, I wondered if there was some way to salvage the experience. After all, this was my one and only spa day during my holiday to rest and recover. Shedding some light on the matter, I decided to explore the sauna options which were what the spa was known for in any case. The thought of a nice dry sauna followed by an icy plunge was strangely appealing (not least as an antidote to my chocolate consumption. Freezing temperatures inhibit fat cells or so they say. Further reading below and an interesting theory I subscribe to when the waistbands get too tight).
So I signed up for access to the saunas, let my friends know I’d be staying longer and enquired if there were any swimsuits to rent. No need, I was told, it’s a naked sauna. JIKES. No mention of any of this when doing my research before the trip! In my ordinary life I’d have turned around and fled, but my grief-stricken state of mind and the realisation I may never be back to this spa or indeed this town spurred on a new course of action with a different thought crossing my mind, interrupting all the negative mental chatter: CARPE DIEM. I followed my female guide to the nether regions of the building, to it’s maze of saunas, hot tubs and ice pools, which were busy, and this on a weekday afternoon. They live the life these Belgians. No need for special articles on selfcare in the weekend supplements here: it seems to be an important part of life.
Unfortunately, the first sight I saw was a public willy washer, who was rightly admonished by my guide for speaking to other customers- it’s a silent spa you see. As my gran would have said there’s always one. Extremely off- putting but I decided to avoid all eye contact and soldier on with my liberating adventure. Fat busting is a strong incentive.
There was nothing for it, having come this far: off came the robe. I have not an exhibitionist bone in my body but being on my own in a foreign city made the whole thing feel less daunting and my very British responses to nudity rather silly: one of my Danish friends insists that community nudity is totally normal and has partaken all her life. To many of you reading it may not be an issue in the slightest, but to me…well, it felt like an elephant in the room, so to speak. In the plus camp, the chance of seeing anyone I knew was slim or fat, pardon the pun, and so dear readers, I did it.
The very worst bit was the initial reveal of my birthday suit, in a roomful of absolute strangers all around! My mind was on override to deal with the stress: “steely nerves, challenge thineself, who cares, nobody’s looking, nobody cares, get over yourself, it’s just bodies”. Once done, it wasn’t as bad as all that and there was a towel to use as cover when walking around, after all. From steaming sauna to icy waters, I did it all, I really took the plunge. The fact that most of the clientele were friends and couples made it less weird: if it had been full of singles I would have fared less well. These were not couples in their twenties lounging about being young, taut, perky and beautiful, but mostly seniors probably past the point of caring, just being, in what seemed a very ordinary pursuit. The bravest I became was a little later into the visit. In the middle of the house is a courtyard. In said cobbled courtyard are a few recliners, another ice pool and a makehift shower consisting of a bucket full of icewater, and a rope. A naked ice bucket challenge. Imagine that. Or don’t, it wasn’t pretty.
At the end of my endurance test (tbh it felt like one, but I passed ) I donned the robe and went upstairs to the lounge/bar for a cup of peppermint tea, where, I kid you not, I espied a special message: carpe diem in gold paint on the wood panelling of the lounge! Part of the original decor, the employees assured me but so odd, as the building was originally a trading house built in 1911 and not a public sauna encouraging public nakedness for all and sundry.
Obviously I had a lot to think about as I sipped tea and tried to slow my heartbeat. I wouldn’t say that I enjoyed my time there, I really would have been happier in a bathing suit but I did meet a challenge that presented itself in a carpe diem kind of way. I do quite a few things differently these days, these days since I have lost someone most important to me. Life is short, so am I, and sometimes I will take the plunge and at the very least I will think about it when challenges present themselves. because I might end up feeling like this lady…
In last weekends Sunday Times Style mag there was an article about Francesca Gino’s new book : “Rebel Talent” which is about rebellion in the workplace, as it relates to career choices and in it she says “rebels are willing to stand naked in front of others” so I guess I became a rebel at a personal level by knocking myself out of my comfort zone. I’m not saying that your personal revolution is about a public nude jump into ice cold water, but whatever it is may you recognise when it presents itself because it will be an opportunity for change, small or seismic. Nothing changes if nothing changes. Here’s to a year of possibilities and to feeling more powerful because of them. Tis a good way to start a new year xo
Further reading: https://www.telegraph.co.uk/science/2016/03/12/30-minute-ice-packs-could-be-key-to-burning-away-body-fat-say-sc/