Anaïs Nin's hammam visit



Here at work we have a community book shelf, a place where residents can share books for others to read. Today I noticed that there was a complete collection of Anaïs Nin's diaries. What?! Didn't she write erotica? Maybe that would be inappropriate to have in a public space. Better take a look and see. I randomly opened up Volume V and started reading. It was a boring paragraph mentioning Henry and a book store. Hmm, not prurient enough. Let's try Volume II 1934-1939. Again, randomly opening the book, there was still no NSFW, but I was utterly surprised by the first thing my eyes landed upon. Anaïs describes a visit to a Moroccan hammam, a public bath house, while on a visit to the city of Fez (Fes). Page 77:

"I met the Arab Women walk to their baths. They went there always in groups, and carrying a change of clothes in a basket over their heads. They walked veiled and laughing, showing only their eyes and the hennaed tips of their hands holding their veils. Their full white skirts and heavily embroidered belts made them heavy and full-looking, like the pillows they like to sit on. It was heavy flesh moving in white robes, nourished on sweets and inertia, on passive watches behind grilled windows. This was one of their few moments of liberty, one of the few times they appeared in the street. They walked in groups with their servants, children, and bundles of fresh clothes, laughing and talking, and dragging their feet in embroidered mules. 

I followed them. When they entered at the mosaic-covered building near the mosque, I entered with them. The first room was very large and square, all of stone, with stone benches, and rugs on the floor. Here the women laid down their bundles and began undressing. This was a long ceremony, for they wore so many skirts, and several blouses, and belts which looked like bandages, so much white muslin, linen, cotton to unroll, unfold, and fold again on the bench. Then there were bracelets to take off, earrings, anklets, and then the long black hair to unwind from th eribbons tressed into the hair. So much white cotton fallen on the floor, a field of white petals, leaves, lace, shed by the full-fleshed women, and as I looked at them I felt they could never be really naked, that all this they wore must cling to them forever, grow with their bodies. I was already undressed and waiting, standing, as I would not sit naked on the stone bench. They were waiting for the children to be undressed by the African maids, waiting for the maids to get undressed. 

An old woman was waiting for us, a completely shriveled old woman with only one eye. Her breast were two long empty gourds hanging almost to the middle of her stomach. She wore a sackcloth around her waist. She gave me a little approving tap on the shoulder and smiled. She pointed to my finger nails and talked but I could not undertand, and I smiled.

She opened the door to the steam room, another very large square room all of grey stone. But here there were no benches. All the women were sitting on the floor. The old woman filled pails of water from one of the fountains and occasionally poured one over their heads, after they had finished sopaing themselves. The steam filled the room. The women sat on the flor, took their children between their knees and scrubbed them. Then the old woman threw a pail of water over them. This water flowed all around us, and it was dirty. We sat in ribulets of soapy, dirty water, The women did not hurry. They used the soap, then a piece of pumice stone, and then they began to use depilatories with great care and concentration. All of them were enormous. The flesh billowed, curved, folded in tremendous heavy waves. They seemed to be sitting on pillows of flesh of all colors, from the pale Northern Arab skin to the African. I was amazed that they could lift such heavy arms to comb their long hair. I had come to look at them, because the beauty of their absolutely beautiful faces, enourmous, jeweled eyes, straight noble flawless skins, and always a royal bearing. The faces had a quality of statuary rather than painting, because the lines were so pure and clear. I sat in admiration of their faces, and then I noticed that they looked at me. They sat in groups, looking at me and smiling. They mimicked that I should wash my hair and face. I could not explain that I was hurrying through the ritual because I did not like sitting in the darkening waters. They offered me the pumice stone after using it thoroughly all over their ponderous bodies. I tried it but it scratched my face. The Arab women's skin was tougher. The women chatted in circles while washing themselves and their children. I could not bring myself to wash my face with the soap they all used for their feet and armpits. They laughed at what they must have thought was a European woman who did not know the rules of cleanliness.

They wanted me also to pull out superfluous eyebrows, hair under the arms, and to shave my pubic hair. I finally slipped away to the next room where pails of cooler water were thrown over me. 

I wanted to see the Arab women clothed again, concealed in yards of white cotton. Such beautiful heads had risen out of these mountains of flesh, heads of incredible perfection, dazzling eyes heavily fringed, sensual features. Sometimes moss-green eyes in dark sienna skins, sometimes coal-black eyes in pale moonlit skins, and always the long heavy black hair, the undulating tresses. But these heads rose from formless masses of flesh, heaving like plants in the sea, swelling, swaying, falling, the breast like sea anemones, floating, the stomachs of perpetually pregnant women, the legs like pillows, the backs like cushions, the hips with furrows like a mattress.

They were all watching me, with friendly nodding of their heads, commenting on my figure. By counting on their fingers they asked was I adolescent? I had no fat on me. I must be a girl. They came around me and we compared skin colors. They seemed amazed by my waist. They could enclose it in their two hands. They wanted to wash my hair. They soaped my face with tenderness. They touched me and talked with volubility. The old woman came with two pails and threw them over me. I was ready to leave, but the Arab women transmitted messages of all kinds with their eyes, smiles, talk. The old woman led me to the third room, which was cooler, and threw cold water over me, and then led me back to the dressing room."
 So maybe there's less to say about the hammam and more about Anaïs's unique perspective on what she was seeing. Oh, the world is so sensual! Nevertheless I figured it was worth sharing.


Aleut banya sauna sweat lodge

Historic photo found on Ebay. 



This helps document that not all native Alaskan steams are confined to Y'upik Eskimo culture. As mentioned above, this one is Aleut in Unalaska. Unalaska is in an incredibly remote part of the world but locals had active contact with Russians during the Russian colonial era. Did Russians introduce the banya to the Aleuts or did the Aleuts share the sweat lodge with the Russians? Probably more the former, but who can say?

What remains of Aleut sweat bathing?  Anyone know?


Perfect Sweat Summit, an international congress of bathing experts and fellow travelers

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As mentioned previously, an exciting event happened recently in San Francisco at Archimedes Banya. This was the Perfect Sweat Summit, a gathering of sauna/banya/spa/sweat-lodge experts from around the world. Here are some thoughts and impressions on the Summit.

Back in 1978 Mikkel Aaland published a unique and important book: Sweat. This was a era when saunas and hot tubs were something of a fad along the same lines of water beds, pet rocks and roller skating. Mr. Aaland's book certainly exploited a trend but it pioneered new ground on something much more meaningful. Sweat wasn't simply a how-to book on saunas or hot tubs written for the benefit of pleasure-seeking baby boomers. It delved deeper and was the first book that really created a synthesis of an idea. This was that sweat bathing (and I think Mikkel gets credit here with popularizing this term) is a wide and, at least historically, surprisingly ubiquitous human tradition. He showed us that sweat bathing traverses the globe and is a integral part of many cultures on almost every continent. Hot tubbing and saunas may have been trending in the U.S. in the 1970s but the movement tapped into deep roots of what it meant to be a human. In many instances these practices had been forgotten as our world modernized with quick-and-easy morning showers.

Just as Carl Sagan (coincidently working around the same time Sweat was written) integrated up-to-date scientific information from a wide array of sources to show us the "big picture" of how we fit into the universe, Mikkel synthesized diverse knowledge to tell us an important story: sweat bathing is part of how many cultures have traditionally cleaned themselves, communed socially, and reconnected to being alive and human.

Tinygogo--as you, my dear reader, know--exists to evangelize these truths. But we are not alone. There are many who want to help rekindled these practices. And so, 36 years after the publication of Sweat, Mikkel Aaland used a similar holistic approach in conceiving the Perfect Sweat Summit. This time, instead of writing a book, Mikkel invited key thinkers/players from different disciplines to create a "think tank." These were folks whose practices may or may not intersect but still orbit around the same topic: sweat bathing.

We gathered at Archimedes Banya in San Francisco. It was an ideal setting (and I will discuss the facilities in a later post.) All of us just managed to squeeze into the cafe/bar area. We met for two days. Each morning after a light breakfast, we'd listen to a full-day's schedule of speakers. Every talk would be followed by questions which tended to turn into colloquium-style discussions. There was a lunch break, more talks, and in the evening we reconvened in the banya itself, getting down to the real stuff--the actual practice that we had been talking so much about.

To me, sitting quietly in the banya was where we really broke bread. There may not have been too much meaningful discourse but I think all of us shared "aha" moments. We were silently reminded that this was really what it was all about. It added strength to our conviction about how awesome sweat bathing can be. And this is important. 

The practice is such an intangible commodity. Weight loss? Not so much. It won't give you golden skin or rip your abs. Even for the initiated, it's hard to market an experience. You only know it's happening while you experience it.

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There would be too much to discuss here if I went over each individual speaker. (An annotated attendee list is here.) Instead there were some broad categories of discussion. The first and generally best represented, were the high priests of the sauna orthodoxy: the Finns. There was the president of the Finnish Sauna Society, the head of the International Sauna Association, a historian on Finnish sauna culture and the co-director of a movie of Finnish Saunas (Steam of Life.)

But there were also representatives of other sweating traditions: banya, hamam and sweat lodge. There were experts from the ancillary disciplines of balneology, hydrotherapy and spa therapy. There were scientists and academicians. There were authors. There were reporters, bloggers and enthusiasts. And there were owners and representatives of other West Coast public bathing facilities. (One from Russia too!)

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On the patio of Archimedes Banya with a couple of world sauna rock stars:
Mika Hotakainen, co-director of Steam of Life and Michael Nordskog, author of The Opposite of Cold
Some of the speakers were maybe more illustrious and/or experienced than others but I found that without exception every talk was beautiful and interesting. The warm congenial atmosphere made it easy for everyone to open up and share.

Mikkel, as chair and MC, gets credit for this but he had a tough job. He was constantly working to keep the discussion on track given time constraints, individual passions and full agenda. He handled it admirably, with kindness and alacrity and certainly a sense of vision as to where to direct discussion. 

I do want to mention a couple of speakers. These two were chosen to speak early in the schedule. To me they helped set the tone for what followed by providing an overall aesthetic, historical, and spiritual context to the gathering.

The first was Phil Cousineau. Phil is a well-established protégé of Joesph Campbell, best known for his film biography, The Hero's Journey. His discussion centered around some basic Joesph Campbell "101" hero's journey stuff but he tied this in with how humans have historically gathered around the fire. This to me really hit a nerve. It spoke to deep truths as to why many of us are attracted to the heat.

The other was Leonard Koren. When I first heard about the event I was particularly excited to read that Leonard Koren would be speaking. Mr. Koren is something of a personal hero and inspiration for this blog. He is perhaps best known for Wet, and the famous byline: The Magazine of Gourmet Bathing. But I also appreciate his later books, Undesigning the Bath, Wabi Sabi, and How to Take a Japanese Bath. In his talk, we were reminded how bathing is a space for quiet introspection and reflection. The sensual experience of the bath creates a mood of contemplation. Amen!

Behind our lofty enthusiasm there was another purpose for the Summit. This was to help launch a film series on world sweat bathing. It will have the same title as Mikkel's book, Sweat. Many of the speakers where individually interviewed on camera for the series. Maybe some of this footage will be used in the show? Maybe ideas will be harvested for use as building blocks for episodes?

What the series will be and how it will turn out is unclear. My sense is that a production crew will travel the world and explore--in some sort of documentary narrative--how different cultures sweat bathe. I'm pretty confident that after the Perfect Sweat Summit it won't get bogged down on "prefered sauna procedure" or with trendy lifestyle stuff. I'm really looking forward to it since it could rekindle a movement and, dare I say, awaken the consciousness of it's viewers.

My only hope is that Mikkel Aaland is a spokes person. In an homage to Carl Sagan, I picture him opening the series on a rocky California coast--perhaps while soaking in an open-air hot tub--expounding poetic on how a good sweat ties us in with deep currents of our human heritage.

News flash: historic Wilbur Hot Springs lodge burns


                                                                                                                     (photo, wilburhotsprings.com)

It's a sad day for soaking enthusiasts, particularly for those who live in Northern California. The main lodge of the wonderful historic, Wilbur Hot Springs (about two-hours north of San Francisco) has burned down.

Here's a link to the news story. It happened Saturday morning, March 29th, with fire crews being dispatched at around 10:40 am. No one appears to have been hurt.

I discovered Wilbur Hot Springs just recently. It was, thankfully, a minimally developed hot springs resort. The accommodations were simple, more like a bed and breakfast than a modern hotel. There was no restaurant, and blissfully, no TVs. It's main strength was how carefully the soaking area was constructed in relation to the natural surroundings and the old buildings. Wilbur offered world class mineral hot springs: outdoor soaking in hot water with high mineral content in a quiet and peaceful setting.

The springs soaking area does not appear to be affected by the fire but the lodge was a central part of the experience and identity of the facility. Even though it suffered from sometimes disjointed remodels and re-stylings, it remained a grand old historic building (1915). It's original construction must have been a considerable achievement given how isolated the location was at the time. The lodge was big and old and it had a very homey feel that included shared bunk rooms and a large communal kitchen and community dining areas. There was a pleasant congenial atmosphere to the space where guests from around the world felt welcome to sit in the library and dining areas and talk with each other. 

I was impressed with how the facility was off-grind and powered entirely (I think year round) with photovoltaic solar panels. The communal kitchen had something like four or five very high-efficiency Sun Frost refrigerators for guest use.

While the old lodge can never be replaced, we hope that something similar will re-open so the soaking can go on. 


Sauna in Cinema, Asi Nisi Masa! The truth of bathing in Federico Fellini's 8½



Poor Guido Anselmi. He’s having a crisis, a midlife crisis, something akin to a nervous breakdown.  He, the main character as played by Marcello Mastroianni, is in the midst of  a new film project. He's forced to take an emergency hiatus to attend to his stress. He checks into a hot springs health spa, an old-school European variety. Mineral water and sweat bathing are his therapy and they are a reoccurring theme throughout Federico Fellini’s film: .





One of the best bathing scenes is where the patients slowly walk down a set of stairs into Hades-like vapor baths, woman on the left, men on the right. Does anyone know if this was a real place? Some actual European health spa or just a set?






On to the movie:



The opening is a dream sequence where Guido is having a claustrophobic panic attack. He's trapped in a traffic jam, he floats away from it all, soaring through the sky. Abruptly he is pulled back to earth by people who must see him. He crashes into the ocean and wakes from the dream in the dark room of his resort hotel. 

Immediately he is assaulted by outside influences. His intellectual friend finds him and begins to pick apart his movie. Likewise, a doctor and nurse enter to fuss over him. The doctor dictates his daily regimen to one of the nurses: “Breathe. Your system is a bit worn out. You may get dressed now…This treatment will do you good. You’ll see. Nurse: 300 ml of holy water, 3 doses to be taken at 15 minute intervals, on an empty stomach. Mud bath every other day. After the mud bath, ten minutes in the mineral water as prescribed.” Will the treatment do him good? Yes and no. It was close but not exactly what he needed.

Later Guido makes it out into the sun to take his water. As part of his spa cure he waits in line with others, mostly old people, to drink mineral water from the spring’s fountains. 


Here he has a vision of female essence in the form of actress, Claudia Cardinali. She comes walking out of the woods, an embodiment of feminine grace, serenity and beauty. He is distracted by this hallucination momentarily when he notices that he's at the front of the line.


He reaches out to take his glass of water--and there she is again--serving him with a smile. He looks again and it is a different woman. The vision has past.

This is his cure. It’s a symbolically loaded scene. All of the people waiting in line, geriatrics and clergy are dead to the world. They underscore the banality of the spa. The process is a farce. Yet his vision of femininity and water, and later bathing, represent his lost deepest truth.
 


Notice the placement of hands on Claudia. She runs through the woods toward Guido like this. It’s weird. But, none the less, we see it again here in a fantasy dream sequence where Guido is bathed by all of the woman in his life: former girl friends, wife and mistresses. His hands are in the same position. Could it be that Guido is seeking a union with his lost Jungian anima? This is why he is not whole.



Clearly Felini is saying something here. There was a previous bathing sequence, a flashback memory of Guido as a young boy. It’s bed time and the children are bathed and tucked in for bed. Tuck, tuck, tuck. He’s safe and cozy, in a state of singularity with life. This is a mental state Guido has lost in his life, the stress of his job, and the incessant intrusion by others has wiped this away.

The memory was triggered when he overheard some old childhood words, "Asi Nisi Masa." I read elsewhere that the first syllable of each word combined creates the word "anima." 

Does the movie have a resolution? Does Guido find his peace? Hard to say. In the end, Guido takes a gun from a potential rival for his wife and, during a press conference, climbs under a table and shots himself in the head. The death is a release and he awakens to a world where everyone is dressed in white. The clowns are in charge now. All of the people in his life are as equals, free of judgement and joyful. All join hands in a circle and dance as Nina Rota's wonderful carnival music plays.

Maybe he just needed a good bath?



Perfect Sweat Summit



This is happening! While the rest of you suckers are toiling away at your desks, a select group of inspired thinkers, free spirits and artist-types will attend a special conclave in San Francisco to share stories, science and insight into one of life's most important topics: how to have a good sweat.

This will be the Perfect Sweat Summit and it will be held at Archimedes Banya in San Francisco March 11th and 12th.

Archimedes Banya is a fantastic facility. (I will write about it in a future post.) The building is an entirely from-the-ground-up bespoke design for the purposes of quality sweat bathing. It includes hot pools, a Finnish sauna, a three-story traditional Russian public-style banya and a steam room. Best of all, there is a fantastic 40 degree-ish cold plunge pool. The upper stories have a cafe/gathering space and there is a nice patio which overlooks San Francisco and the Bay. You couldn't pick a better spot for a gathering of sweat enthusiasts. 

Here is a list of the attending luminaries:

Organizer/Moderator
  • Mikkel Aaland, author of Sweat
Presenters

Doug and Erin's wood-fired hot tub revised, now with sauna!

A few years ago I shared a popular post about my friends' do-it-yourself wood-fired hot tub. Since that time Doug and Erin had a kid and moved to a more rural setting. They brought their hot tub with them but Doug re-did the DIY, creating a new structure that doubles as a hot tub cover and backyard sauna.


The outdoor sauna/hot tub structure is small, simple and elegantly conceived. Situated on the edge of their lot next to the forest, it's a wonderful setting. Imagine the bliss of having a completely silent soak in the dark while taking in the sights, smells and sounds of the surrounding forest. 
 

Here you can see how the 300 gallon Rubbermaid stock tank sits on a pad of gravel. A fair amount of water gets displaced when four people soak. The gravel keeps the surrounding area from getting muddy. 

There is a separate pad for the Chofu stove. Originally Doug had the stove inside the sauna. His idea was to have the Chofu heater double as a sauna heater. It was a great idea. Unfortunately, in spite of the small sauna, the Chofu was just too efficient at pumping heat into the water and not into the surrounding air. It didn't do a very good job at heating the sauna space. Because of this, Doug added a small wood stove to the sauna space and moved the Chofu outside.


The inside of the sauna has a new replacement wood burning stove. It's a small and inexpensive stove but cranks out plenty of heat for the small space. If he wants a quick sweat without the time and effort required to heat up 300 gallons of water, Doug fires up the sauna. It takes only about 20 minutes to get hot.


The entrance to the sauna is this nice old salvaged four-panel door. There are two little tea light candle lanterns that serve to light the outside at night. Behind the lanterns are two glass bottle windows like this one:


The bottle glass windows are a wonderful feature. Doug found nice blue bottles and a bottle cutter for cutting the bottles in half.




 This is what they look like on the inside.




Another addition is the old clawfoot tub that's used as a dunk tank. It's pictured here with a plywood cover.

Theo asks if the water is hot yet.