Remember that episode of Friends where Chandler discovers baths? And the scene where he steals Monica’s bath and she asks him what the heck he’s doing and he goes: ‘Leaving all my troubles behind’? For me, going to the sauna – or steam room, which I prefer to most saunas which are too dry in my view, is like that – only 100 times more relaxing.
But sometimes, this effect is ruined when you have a bunch of really loud men talking really loudly about something really boring while being really loud. I mean, please, if I wanted to be surrounded by men shouting at each other I’d go sit in a pub during the football olympics (that’s what it’s called, right?). You go to the sauna to get some peace and quiet. But sadly, not everyone understands that.
So when I once went to the mixed gender sauna at Queen Mother Sports Centre in central London and was faced with that scenario for the 43rd time, I finally said something. ‘Would you mind keeping it down?,’ I said forcing a smile. The men looked at me startled and spoke a bit quieter for approximately 24 seconds before returning to their previous rugby lad volume. And I’m pretty sure that they also made fun of me, but I may have imagined that in my sheer state of relaxation deficit.
Instead of taking ear plugs to the sauna, I changed saunas. Now I use the health suite at Brixton Leisure Centre, which hosts women-only sauna sessions. And it does get pretty loud there too sometimes – what with housewives gossiping, exchanging tips on grocery shopping, finding parking spaces and what to do when you have to wee during a school run. But somehow, loud women to me are more bearable than loud men.
At Brixton, I don’t tend to speak to anyone because more often than not, if you say one thing, these ladies think you’ve come to the sauna to chat, which I have not. Never – do I come to the sauna to chat! I go there to breath and close my eyes and focus on trying to not think about anything worldly, like work, errands, work, emailing the estate agent about the broken cupboard and work.
But the other day, I had to reply to one lady. She didn’t try to start a conversation. She didn’t attempt to make chit-chat by going: ‘Oooh, it’s hot in here!’ (yes, people do actually say that when they go into the sauna and frequently manage to strike up lengthy conversations that way).
No, this woman was not like that. She asked: “Does anyone mind if I scrub my feet?” and then pulled out a foot file, (yes, a FOOT FILE!) from her little sauna pouch she had on her.
‘Scrub your feet in a public sauna? Don’t you know anything about social decorum?!,’ I wanted to shout. Don’t get me wrong, I had seen some odd things at this sauna before: women rubbing their skin with salt, cornflour and all kinds of funny-smelling oils. But scrubbing the dead skin off the bottom of your feet to leave it rotting on the floor of a public space? No. I had not seen that before. I looked at her incredulously and said with some hesitation: “I don’t think it’s appropriate.’
She was clearly taken aback by my response. But after a brief moment of baffled silence, she said: ‘Oh ok, no worries’ and put her file away.
Suddenly aware that I may have broken some social norms myself by speaking my mind openly in Britain, I sought to diffuse some tension. ‘I think you’re meant to scrub your feet once they’re dry anyway – it’s more effective,’ I remarked casually. But the woman disagreed. ‘So why do they soak your feet when you’re having a manicure (I’m sure she meant to say ‘pedicure’) and then scrub them straight away?,’ she asked. ‘Oh do they? Well I stand corrected,’ I said laughing nervously.
I had done it, there was no tension left in the air – just hot steam. In fact, there was so little tension that the woman must have thought I didn’t mean to accuse her of suggesting something that was plain wrong earlier. So she asked: ‘Why did you say it was inappropriate?’
‘BECAUSE YOUR DEAD SKIN WOULD BE ALL OVER THE FLOOR,’ I said, struggling to understand how she did not get that.
Now all she had left to say was: ‘Oh ok. No worries, I’ll just do it outside.’
‘OUTSIDE?!,’ I thought, ‘Where people walk around barefooted? You should do it at home over a bin bag! You don’t scrub your feet in a public place, just like you don’t pick your nose or squeeze your spots or burp with your mouth open when you are surrounded by strangers!’ But I selfishly kept those thoughts to myself because I was wearing flip-flops and was planning on going home soon anyway.
And frankly, I was too relaxed to care anymore…