WARM SALT WATER AND SWEET RASPBERRY SHERBET

Before Salies I would have thought that “Les Thèrmes” meant “the termites” and not thermal waters. Now I know. Salies is famous for its underground salt mines and the river that brings that treasure to the surface where it has been mined for centuries. Thanks to this wealth of salty stuff, Salies brags of a large and ancient spa with an enormous salt water swimming pool, sauna room, steam bath and Jacuzzi among other niceties, where people every year come to take the “cure”. This gives rise to two kinds of visitors to the town: the regular tourists and the “curists” who stay for two or three weeks and every day receive their hot mud baths, dippings in very salty thermal pools, hosing downs and massages at the expert hands of nurses, physiotherapists and kinesiologists. The normal tourists use the large public pool which is decked out with spouts, water falls, bubblers, a Jacuzzi, a Hammam and a Sauna. For a price, they can also enjoy the delights of the “curists”. There is a gym area where one can take aqua-gym and also a sweet water pool if one prefers or wants to wash the salt off. There are hot showers, booths to change in and lockers to put the clothes in. It is a very complete installation and one that is right across the Jardin Public from the studio I rent.

            Now, I am astrologically a Leo, a Lion, and lions are not generally water creatures, so I have never been much of a dipper in the liquid. Even when near the ocean I will sometimes take no more than a quick swim, say “Oh how nice” get out, dry myself off and find something closer to my liking to do, so that “Thèrmes” was not my reason for coming and I did not intend to use it much. Last year I think I trotted over twice and was done with it.

            My first marriage was with an Aries who wasn’t much for water either. As a matter of fact, I had to teach him to swim, something I learned to do very well when I was young and enjoyed water as most children do. My Aries was actually afraid of water, would never go very deeply into the ocean, stayed at the shallow end of the pool and definitely shied away from boat trips that meant losing sight of the shore. He did like sunbathing, however, and could lie for hours on a towel on the sand while I huddled under an umbrella coated with thick white sun-protection cream covering my pale sensitive skin. I must admit I entertained a jolly envy of women who could bake in the sun for hours and then turn up in a white dress to show off their deep, even tan, while I had to don long sleeves and high necks to cover up either my white skin or an aggressive burning red sun stroke I had inadvertently come upon merely from exposure to the ocean’s glare.

            I specially remember an occasion in Acapulco where we had gone for a week with another couple, the female half of which flirted unashamedly with my husband. She was thin and tanned beautifully, wore revealing bikinis, and combed her hair somewhat in the wild, windblown fashion of Farah Faucett Majors (when FFM was enjoying her brief period of popularity as one of Charlie’s Angels). I envied her, was insanely jealous and had managed to convince myself that I never would be that beautiful. It was heartbreaking and —as it turned out— ridiculous and useless. Nevertheless, the unfair comparison that I experienced between myself and this Other Woman, led me to decide that I was going to get a tan no matter what. The opportunity was a trip I took alone with my husband. On the way, he gently suggested that if I did it slowly, I probably could end up with a very nice color and that with my naturally blond hair, this would be striking. The invitation immediately settled in my ear with the buzz of a nasty comparison and I decided that I would beat nature and discipline my unruly skin into a honey sweet bronze while my hair got each time lighter under the drumming sunshine.

            My approach was near scientific. I bought a big bottle of coconut oil, a black bikini and a pair of very narrow sun glasses (to avoid the white around the eyes). From the first day I alternated short periods in the sun with sessions of cold showers and skin cream with aloe. As the days progressed, so did my time in the sun, going from stints of 15 minutes, to actually lasting more than half an hour under the burning rays. The best moment was when I stood in front of the body length mirror in the bathroom and saw the LINE between my white lower abdomen and the tan skin that glowed greasily above and below that. By the eleventh day, when we were scheduled to return home, I was as proud as could be, convinced that my tan was as good as anyone’s. I told myself that it was well worth having spent a whole vacation doing nothing but lying in the sun and taking cold showers to have this tan. No red, no peeling, no blisters: just smooth, honey baked light brown skin. The following day back home in Mexico City I went to the breakfast gabfest that my friends organized once a month, sporting a low cut dress and short sleeves to be sure they noticed my tan. I purposely organized to arrive late so everyone would be there when I entered and could admire my acquisition from afar as I approached the table. To make sure they all looked, I called out as I entered the door and then walked seductively across the room. Louise and Annie had saved me a seat between them. As I sat down, Louise shook her head.

            “I really don’t know how you do it,” she exclaimed looking me straight in the eye. “Eleven days at the beach and you didn’t even get a sun burn.”

            I was a little shocked, but her face told me there was no ill meaning in her words. “This time I got a tan instead,” I replied cheerily.

            “Well, it sure doesn’t look like it,” she said, raising her eyebrows a bit, “I mean when I spend ten minutes in the sun I get absolutely black. You are so lucky: all those days and you look the same as ever.”

            I didn’t show anyone how crestfallen and disappointed I was, but when I got home I took a good look at my face in the mirror. She was right: the tan didn’t show at all. For anyone to have noticed how really “dark” I had gotten I would have had to walk in naked so they could compare my arms, legs and belly to the white skin under the bikini line. What I had managed to get, however, was a good smattering of new freckles and wrinkles. It was enough to make me want to cry. When my husband came home that night I stomped out to the hallway to greet him.

            “If you had wanted a brown-skinned wife you should have married one!” I snorted, and walked away. He probably never understood what had gotten into me that day, but in the years of marriage that followed I avoided the sun, the beach and a lot of the opportunities to go into the water that accompanied these elements.

            My second partner was a Taurus (I seem to go for the horned ones), and in spite of the fact that the bull is basically a land animal, he actually couldn’t seem to keep away from water. His small house was equipped with a swimming pool, a Jacuzzi and a steam room and he was capable of spending 90% of his free time migrating from one to the other like an oversized sea turtle. I had only known him a week when I had to go and buy myself two new bathing suits so that I could look half decent and not always the same as I trotted from one wet ambience to the next. My friends laughed out loud when I told them what I had done on the weekend I spent at this house and warned me that instead of wrinkles I was going to get fish scales as I followed this man from the Jacuzzi to the pool to the steam bath and back. My passion for water did not increase with my passion for him, but I did come to appreciate the soothing aspects of a good dip in the Jacuzzi after a hard day’s work and the advantage of having a pool when the grandchildren came over for a visit. And in the long run, I began to enjoy our stints in the hot and cool water bowls because little by little they taught me how to relax, how to do nothing and enjoy it instead of punishing myself because I was “wasting time”. My dolphin-like second mate showed me the gentle path to relaxation and pleasure, and I guess that was what I was remembering on my second stay in Salies when I decided that this year I would take advantage of the “Thèrmes”.

            Much to my surprise, after the first week of swimming, soaking and sweating (no such thing as perspiration much less “glow” in an 40+ºC sauna or hammam) I actually began to look forward to my two or three visits to the aquatic realm. The pool is very clean, kept at an agreeable 32ºC, with a high salt level which greatly increases buoyancy making swimming and floating effortless. The forceful spouts of water give marvellous massages which one can manage to get on the rolls of fat around the middle for certain lengths of time, and on areas that might need it like shoulders and back; the bubbly bath –a kind of tile bed full of tiny spouts of bubbly water that tickle the body- is okay once in a while, but the big shoot that comes up from the bottom of the pool and can be used for massaging the feet is delightful; and there is nothing more stimulating than 10 minutes in the steam room with a towel over one’s face to protect the delicate skin and then an ice cold shower. Perhaps the best is that it is principally an adult’s pool basically used by gentle elderly women and men of uncertain ages floating around quietly.

            Of course, people-watching while I swim is part of the fun. The first thing noticed is that all French men wear tight, black, mostly bikini bathing trunks no matter what their age or the size of their belly. During my month of observation, I saw not one in anything baggy like the bathing shorts my father used to wear. It didn’t seem to matter how old or fat or hangy they were, the trunks were as tight as could be and skimpy, very often with the folds of a belly covering the greater part of them. And black. All black except one man who had on a fire-engine red bikini, and today, a very black man who wore a dark grey, very tight bathing trunk, and he himself was so black that if he had put on a black one it would  have impossible to distinguish it.

            After this daily parade of identically dressed bathing men, one wonders why. Are French men without imagination, do they all want to look like Jean Paul Belmondo, or is it that in spite of all the gay modistes in France, not one of them has dedicated himself to designing a bathing trunk that has some style? Definitely a mystery.

            Another sport while floating on one’s back in warm water, is body watching. I soon tired of seeing men with unattractive bodies and took to looking at the women. At least they wear suits of varying colors and shapes, everything from bikinis to discrete one piece suits that tend to at least cover the unwanted fat even if they can’t hide the rolls it produces. Swim suits, even tent like ones, once wet hide nothing.

            Body watching had an added bonus. I realized that mine wasn’t so bad for my age, even compared to some of the more youthful visitors to the pool. With this, the warm water came with a special bonus: it convinced me that my almost daily ration of raspberry sherbet was perfectly ok. Warm salt water, body watching and sweet raspberry sherbet and hardly an envious tan to compare myself to: this might just be the perfect world.

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