In which I reflect on spa etiquette

I’m in Canada at the moment, having just left Montreal for Quebec City. Our hotel in Montreal really was wonderful – the fact that we had three different hotel rooms and needed to move room once at 10pm notwithstanding, the stay was relaxing and fun.

The hotel had its own spa, consisting of a nice gym, an outdoor pool on the roof, a sauna and steam room. There was also the option to sign up for some ‘treatments’, as well as massage and all that jazz. I declined and focused on enjoying the pool and other facilities.

My few days use of the spa led me to reflect on how people interpret the “rules of the spa” and indeed basic manners. I love a good sauna/steam and was pleased to find the steam room was large and very, very hot. I was less pleased to discover the antisocial habits of some of the other guests.

Not being au fait with social norms regarding wearing/non-wearing of shorts in the steam room in Canada (which was men-only, as it was attached to the male changing rooms), I wore mine on the first visit. I didn’t want to get labelled as the “strange nudist European”, but was pleased to find everyone else went “au naturelle” (can you see how all this time in Quebec is rubbing off on me?). So the next few times, I was as nekkid as the day I was born, which in the heat is much more comfortable.

I’m not sure exactly what you should do to pass the time in these situations. I tend to sit in silence with my eyes closed, trying to relax. Not so my fellow travellers. I was exposed to a great story about one guy’s in-laws were holidaying with him and his wife and he felt it was “so creepy” that they had interconnecting hotel rooms. He felt his wife’s cousins were “up to something” and “being Swedish” were probably wife-swapping. For a brief moment, they both looked in my direction, then obviously satisfied that I wasn’t Swedish (I mustn’t look it) carried on with allegations of all kinds of sexual shenanigans.

Once they left, I was alone for seconds before an enormous German man entered. Moments later, he decided to share with me his annoyance at the behaviour of the “little fat man” who “splashed too much water around” in the steam room. Nodding politely, I refused to get drawn into conversation and closed my eyes. But not before I noticed the very animated way in which the German chap was scratching himself in the general groinal area (I’m not a doctor, but it was definitely down there). Hmm. Not cool.

Minutes later, in comes a short, fat man, who I can only assume was the aforementioned water-splasher who caused my German pal so much annoyance. And yes, it was. Without asking, he picked up the hose attached to a cold-water tap and began to spray down the tiles right next to where I was sitting. So I got a face-full of water from the ground (think: feet) and then he began to shake off his own sweat like a huge dog, splashing both me and the German.

Gross. Come on, it’s a steam room – you’re meant to sweat. What you’re not meant to do is flick your sweat at the people around you. The room was big, but not so big that you can flick sweat without hitting someone else. Apart from the visuals, there was the noise of him slapping his own wet fat. Heave-inducing.

Sweat-flicking over, he took his seat and began to speak to nobody in particular, in Russian (I think it was Russian). The German stood up and walked out with a hearty “Scheisse!” but I sat where I was.

I didn’t want the Russian to think I was mates with the German, but at the same time, I didn’t want to risk any additional sweat-flicking action, so I thought I’d sit still for a few more minutes and then leave. I sat, eyes closed, counting down the seconds to what I thought would be an assured and calm exit. I opened them to find the Russian sitting directly opposite me, picking at his feet.

Think about it.

He’s sitting opposite me, with one knee up by his ear, picking at his foot. The view was far from pretty and I decided it was time to go.

One cold shower later (which, after the steam room, was like a punch in the head) I headed for the jacuzzi. I never made it in, because it was dominated by two mobile phone salesmen from the US. I don’t know that they were mobile phone salesmen, but they had that air about them. I don’t know that they were American, but arrived at this (unfair?) conclusion due to the fact that they couldn’t converse in anything less than shouting volume. That and the fact they they somehow managed to completely take over an 8-person jacuzzi, spreading their arms and legs out like starfish.

Sighing, I wandered back and spent some time in the sauna, alone and in peace. It was bliss and I almost fell asleep, except I could still hear the dicks in the jacuzzi, bragging about how much weight they could lift. Arses.

After this, I had another heart-stopping cold shower and considered my options. The door to the steam room was opaque glass and I couldn’t see anyone in there. I really wanted a final ten minutes in the steam room before heading out for dinner, but not if I was in danger of meeting the Russian (or the irate German, to be honest).

I took a deep breath, opened the door and walked in. It was empty. Minor victory for me.

I took a seat in the far corner, put my little towel over my head and closed my eyes. This is where it gets (more) interesting. I could hear a couple of guys chatting outside the door… next to the showers. I couldn’t hear everything, but the final phrase stood out: “I mean, if it doesn’t harm anyone else, what’s the problem, right? If I enjoy it, and it’s not harming someone else, what’s the big deal?”

This phrase could be applied in many contexts and interpreted in any combination of innocuous ways. Sitting naked in a steam room, I could think of a handful that I didn’t want to learn any more about. While considering my options, the door opened and a guy with obnoxious board-shorts walks in. What he said next sent an unwelcome shiver down my spine. Seeing I was shorts-less, he let out a delighted “Excellent!” and dropped his own shorts in lightning speed. He then felt the need to say “Don’t you hate shorts?” Seeing the obvious look of “what the fuck?” on my face he added “in here, I mean?”

I let out a non-committal “Hmm” and closed my eyes. And then it began. In the absence of vision, the ears fill in the blanks and mine began to paint for me a most unwelcome picture of my new friend and what he was probably doing to himself. Towel still over my head, I stood up and walked out. I took it as a sign to leave the spa and get ready for dinner.

Returning this morning, for a final steam after a workout in the gym, I unfortunately once again encountered the Russian in the steam room. And once again, he flicked his sweat everywhere. Board-shorts guy was nowhere to be found, which was something of a relief. The Russian continued to speak to himself, occasionally scratching himself in various nooks and crannies. But I stood my ground and was determined to get the thorough steaming I thought I deserved. Once done (and about 5 kilos lighter) I took a shower and thought about how people can be such dicks when they’re in a public space.

It’s one thing to make noise and potentially hog the equipment or facilities. You see this in gyms all the time. It’s a whole other thing to flick your fat-bellied sweat in my face or try to strike up a conversation based solely on shared nudity before engaging in some “personal exploration” in the corner.

I really enjoyed the rest of the time in the spa and the fact that the stea/sauna/swim combo helped me sleep better than I have in months leads me to the conclusion that I need to find a local venue once I get back to London. One that is hopefully free from mobile-phone salesmen, fat Russians or over-friendly nudists.

The question is: in London, is this even possible?

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