The Cart

In Bucharest there are two types of public bathhouses: Turkish and Wallachian. I was to understand the fame of the latter, as that was exactly the place we were accompanied to. This bathhouse is situated in Lipscani St., one of the ugliest parts of the town. The building resembles to a huge hive. I went round it three times, but I was not able to discover its entrance; so I asked Mr. G. how I could get in. He showed me a trapdoor at the ground level, similar to those that cover the cellars in some towns in the province. I was surprised but I didn't find it unbelievable. Then I remembered that the Orientals care less about form than about essence, that they are not much interested in the exterior aspect of their dwellings, that they save themselves for indoors, that they love secret joys and that they are dressed carelessly most of the time, although they practically bathe themselves in balms and perfume.After Mr. G. had opened the little door and we had walked down on eight steps, we found ourselves in the middle of a round room with a diameter of 30 m. It was floored in white marble, and coated in pink marble, sprinkled with blue; all around the room there was a big divan, as high as a camp-bed, lined with comfortable cushions. Around thirty convex and concave lamps, with a diameter of 30 cm, embedded in the limestone plates of the cupola and wrapped in thick steams floating from everywhere, gave out a pale and sleep-compelling light. Eight granite pillars propped the large cupola of the dome; a copper tap jutted out of every pillar and let the water warmed at different temperatures flow into pools made of grey marble. Several bathhouse attendants were dozing off as judges do when in hearings or as members of the parliament in the House of Commons.What strange silence reigned in this place! Had we stepped by mistake into the land of Gnomes? Mr. G. clapped his hands and all of a sudden a man appeared from nowhere; he was as short as Aesop, as bearded as a faun and ridiculously dressed up. I had the feeling that I was looking at one of those spirits described by Galland in "The Arabian Nights.""Selam alekum," he greeted us, taking a deep bow.In his turn he clapped his hands accompanying his gesture with a sort of a cluck. Two attendants, dressed like athletes ready to fight, drew close to us. They were about 25 years old, strong and well-knit, but their eyes were small and their look was blank. Due to the fact that they had stayed too long in the bathhouse their skin was yellowish and as dry as a parchment; they resembled two harlequins made of ginger-bread. Our presence there was self-explanatory, so they touched our shoulders and we found ourselves completely naked in no time. One of them gave us some wooden shoes about 14-15 cm in height, the other wrapped our bodies in sheets of cloth about 2-2,5 m in length; they handed to each of us a turban and accompanied us to the bathroom. We entered a vaulted room where the temperature was quite high. The water flowed from all over the place on the warm pavement and drained away in a gutter dug to this purpose along the wall. We remained there only two minutes after which we went into a second room, larger than the first one, identically vaulted and endowed with three big "shells," each supplied with water flowing ceaselessly from a pipe. Some water that was even warmer overflowed from the tubs, filling the air with steam that was so hot and thick that I thought I would choke. After ten minutes that seemed like a century to me, one of the attendants opened the door of a third room, which was even larger than the other one and he pushed me inside without warning. On the other side of the room, Mr. G. was undergoing the same experience. This third room was like a hot oven. I thought I would burn to ashes. I tried to whine but I was not able to; sounds would fade in my throat; my head was turning, my legs were like jelly and I collapsed. The black-out lasted in fact only a few seconds after which I started breathing normally again. I opened my eyes and I came back to my senses. In the middle of the room, which resembled a large auditorium vaulted in a cradle-like shape where stone was so skillfully cemented that it looked as if cut out of a massive granite block, you could see a big pool representing a wheel whose nave and felly made up a well divided in several compartments. There the water sprang in a wheat-sheaf jet through eight copper pipes ending in "a partridge beak." The surplus flowed in invisible little tanks. Four compartments were occupied by four natives whose faces were red and bright with happiness.Wanting to share their joy I looked around but I did not see the attendant so I behaved like a schoolboy in the absence of his schoolmaster: I jumped in the soothing well at once. Fatal recklessness! How dear I was to pay for my curiosity!The compartments were gradually warmed up by underground pipes. As I hadn't known that and I hadn't taken the trouble to enquire about it and to go in turn from one compartment to the other, I found myself in the hottest one. 72 degrees! Six degrees less than the biggest stream in Nicderbrunn to whose waters natives come every morning to boil hard eggs! It is useless to mention that I didn't stay there too long. I jumped out of it crying out in pain and pulling a face that made the attendants laugh. My ankles were as red as beetroot. In a furious tone of voice I called out for the bathhouse attendant but probably some sort of signal should have been used there, for no one answered my call except for a sad and somewhat husky echo. I tried to run away, despite my wretched appearance, but the door was carefully closed. After having lost and regained consciousness, I was about to lose it again. I was not afraid but I had a strong feeling of discomfort. What was inexplicable to me was the ecstatic state of calmness of my bathroom mates. As I was convinced that twenty-four hours of such a physical regime could bring a human being back to his primitive state, I watched them closely through the misty air that wrapped them and I found them incapable on any firm gesture. They seemed to be utterly happy, though. So I told myself that these baths hid endless pleasures whose ineffable savors I was unable to taste.Meanwhile, the door opened and the bathhouse attendants appeared again. One of them was carrying a clay pot in which he had dissolved pink, perfumed soap and the other one was teaseling some tow. The former signaled me to lie on a marble table which I hadn't seen up to that point. He soaked the tow in the bubbling water and sprinkled my face and my body. As a thoughtful prevention measure the latter literally grabbed (that is the word that would describe appropriately his action) my neck and my legs in order not to oppose any resistance and rubbed my chest and my back with gloves made of horse hair. After that he raised me like a feather and laid me in the first tub of the well. After I got rid of the sticky soap I passed on to the second pool and so on till I finally reached the last one, the very one in which I had been so cruelly burnt. But now it didn't seem so unbearable although the water hadn't cooled.Once I had finished the tour, I had to lie again on the table to bear an operation that proved to be painful for the moment: the disjointing of the hands, arms and legs. To put an end to this treatment one of my tormenters twisted my head, making me face the marble and, jumping on the table like a spring, kicked me hard in my loins.Maybe some of my readers will doubt the truthfulness of what I am writing here but all these are as real as they can be. As thorough a narrator as I may be, I only fear that my account does not capture the entire complexity of the scene. For about three minutes I thought that my backbone had been broken. Fortunately that was only a false impression, that scared me to death nonetheless. After I recovered from the state of faintness in which I had been thrown by that gesture which seemed so Kalmuk at first sight, I ended up in the hands of the other attendant who rubbed my soles with pumice stone. It was exactly what I needed at the end of this odyssey. I took my wooden shoes, my sheet, my turban and I passed through the second room, then through the first and from here, into the common room where another attendant was in charge with some special job. He wrapped me in a warm blanket, he rolled me on the divan and kneaded me just like bakers knead the dough, perfumed me with a most fresh rose water and then he silently contemplated his work.At that very moment our Aesop sprang from somewhere, carrying a tray with confections which he offered me with endless bows. I tasted one spoonful of these delicious sweets. The bathhouse attendant laid on me a leg cover, surrounded me with soft little cushions, changed my turban with a flax one, called sarghe, in a word, he nursed me so considerately as if I were suffering from sciatica. Then he withdrew, uselessly inviting me to take a nap."Well, what do you think," Mr. G. asked me after I had slept soundly for an hour. "My word, I answered, feeling my body, these baths are not as bad as they seem. I feel unexpectedly well."At a signal, the little, energetic man brought in two long hookahs that were already lit. We smoked and got ready to leave; I had to admit that never in my life had I been so cheerful; I felt that my limbs were extraordinarily flexible. I was ready to challenge Mabille or Petipas to fight with me.You would like to know the cost of such an experience, don't you? One zwanzig, that is 17 French sous.

by Stanislas Bellanger