Sunday, 27 September 2020

Cathedrals of Flesh

Finished September 22
Cathedrals of Flesh: My Search for the Perfect Bath by Alexia Brue

This memoir covers a few weeks in the author's life when she had an idea with Marina, a friend of hers to start a business in New York City operating a traditional-style Turkish bath. The idea began in Paris where the two visited several baths in this style. They loved the atmosphere, the process that was followed on a visit to the bath, and the interaction between the bathers. She then decided to go to Turkey to check out the baths there, and found it was a declining industry for the most part. Marina joined her for a few days here to explore alongside her, She did learn and few things, but found that the baths weren't as well-kept as she'd expected, and decided to take her research to a few other countries that had a public bath culture. Following this she got the opportunity to join an archeological dig in Corinth that included a public bath. She did find some things of interest here, but didn't like the dig leader's manner and it didn't live up to her image of what it would be.
Her next country was Russia, first in St. Petersburg, and then Moscow. Marina joined her for a day in St. Petersburg and then for the Moscow portion of the visit. Here she was first introduced to the idea of hitting oneself, or a fellow bather, with birch twigs as an added element of the bathing experience. The baths here were much hotter, and also not always that well-kept.
From Russia, she went to Finland, where he boyfriend joined her for part of the time. Here she entered the world of wood-fired saunas and found the baths well-run and very health oriented. Here they also used a branch of birch as an added stimulus. Along with her boyfriend, she took an excursion with a local family into the countryside to experience a lakeside sauna. Her final bathing experience was in Japan, and she was enchanted by the experience here. Some of the baths are fed by hot springs, with the sulfur smell I remember from my childhood hot springs experiences here in Canada. Besides Tokyo, she also visited Kyoto and a bath that was more of a spa experience with multiple offerings.
There is a list of baths in various counties at the back of the book, but of course since the book came out in 2003, it would be only a starting point for anyone interested. I was surprised at the many Canadian locations that were not included here, so I don't think it was a necessarily well-researched list to begin with, but more of ones that she'd heard of in her travels.
As I said, I grew up going to many hot springs in Alberta and B.C., all based on natural hot springs. Banff is likely the most well-known of these. I also like a good bathing experience of any type and have found memories of my multi-stage bathing experience at Baden-Baden in Germany, which sounds similar to her Paris experiences.
As of the book's publication, and what I've been able to see online, I don't think she ever opened a bath business, and now is probably a bad time for these sorts of businesses. Hopefully, we will get a vaccine that works well and be able to enjoy these lovely experiences again in the future.

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