very once in a while, long, lazy dinners and strolls through cobblestone streets just aren’t enough. As in any other city, daily stress builds-compounded by the fact that, here in Rome, even going to the post office can take two or three heart-rate-raising hours.
One day, to combat the vagaries of la dolce vita, I booked myself a massage and scrub treatment. I couldn’t think of a more relaxing indulgence.
The spa I chose, thanks in large part to their offer on an online sale site, was located in a basement. The door was shut. I rang the bell to enter.
Inside, a young woman showed me to the massage room and left, saying she’d return once I had undressed. The room’s thin walls meant I could hear the chattering in the room next to me. From the way the conversation paused every 15 seconds, followed by the sound of ripping and a yelp, I guessed it was a wax. I tried to block it out.
Ignoring the ambient noise was easy enough to do because I was immediately faced with a problem. There, on the massage table, sat a small plastic bag. Inside was a rectangle of nearly translucent white paper, attached with two strings.
For a moment, I marveled. If these were meant to stand in for underpants, they certainly didn’t look it. Instead, they were a combination between a one-size-fits-all diaper and a G-string. But made out of paper.
Trying to decide what to do, I slowly removed my pants and my shirt. The girl knocked. “Eh-non sono pronta!” I called out. She backed away, probably wondering why the straniera was taking so long. I gritted my teeth, wishing the Italian had flown off my tongue quickly enough to ask, in a way that wouldn’t be weird, if I was really supposed to wear only this tiny paper rectangle in her presence.
Taking a deep breath, I changed. I arranged myself on the massage table face down. There wasn’t a towel to cover me in sight.
The masseuse returned. From the lack of a gasp or exclamation, I assumed I had correctly estimated the choice of wardrobe. She asked me to turn onto my back. I turned.
As she chatted with me — about where I lived, how I’d come to Rome, what I did here — I crossed my arms over my chest, then, giving up, put them by my sides. Okay, I thought. You know, this isn’t so weird. Sunbathing topless is a European thing, after all. And she’s seen so many naked people, she probably doesn’t even see individual bodies anymore, not in the sense of their flaws and features. I tried to relax.
That, of course, is when she made a specific comment about the features of the particular body in front of her.
“You use lotion, don’t you,” she said. I nodded. “I can tell,” she said approvingly. She rubbed my belly. And then she gestured to my legs. “You shave? Why not wax?” she asked, her tone the same as if she were asking me how I liked Rome. “Um… it’s just easier,” I said finally. “Waxing is much better,” she said brightly, and moved up to my chest.
I did not feel relaxed.
But I didn’t give up. I had two more sessions at the same spa, with different masseuses. Each was just as full of advice as the first.
Thinking maybe it was the spa rather than a cultural issue, I booked another massage session, this one at a little place near the Vatican.
This one didn’t even have a separate area for the masseuse to wait in while I mulled over undressing. But there they were again: those tiny paper underpants. And, once again, we started face up. The masseuse seemed not to notice my discomfort. Instead, she gave me a once-over, and then smiled. “You have the same exact bella forma as an Italian woman.”
“I do?” I said, surprised. “Well, sure. I’m half Italian.”
“Ecco. Si vede,” she said. She started kneading my belly. “Fai lo yoga, vero?”
Now I was taken aback. “Yes, I do yoga.”
She nodded. “I can tell from your muscles.”
My discomfort was dissolving into curiosity. “Really? How?”
“Dopo 25 anni, sono un pò esperta in queste cose,” she said firmly.
After 25 years, she was an expert in these things.
I wondered what was next-reading my palm and telling me my fortune? But as much as these questions — and these (albeit correct) hypotheses — struck the old American in me like intrusions of privacy, I finally got it. Sure, it’s awkward to be practically nude in a stranger’s presence. But there’s no worrying if your towel will slip if you don’t even have one. And why shouldn’t a masseuse give pointed advice? After all, she was right: She was an expert in these things.
For the first time ever in an Italian massage, I closed my eyes and finally let myself relax.