Thursday, July 12, 2007

In Which We Go to a Spa

I’m looking for interesting ways to fill the days for the children and my summer single-parent lifestyle. Friend of a Friend works at a spa on the Hungarian border (

Last Friday, before Skittles decided to introduce her temple to a table corner in McDonald’s, I saw, in the mall, large banners advertising her employer. So I booked us.

Zuzka said the drive took about 90 minutes. It’s an odd thing, because the place is practically right on the Danube, so you can get to it via Slovakia and what I would call country roads or via Hungary on the big, grown-up highway. The highway has a toll (you buy a sticker) of about $8 US for a four-day pass . . .but I’m getting ahead of myself.

So in Bratislava, I don’t find the driving much outside what is normal in the American Midwest. Okay, they are reluctant to merge with any sort of spine. But, boy oh boy, get out of town and they are passing when the oncoming traffic is RIGHT there. I found it extremely stressful. Add to that a plethora of farm machinery and bicycles on the road. And a little shit village every five kilometers where you have to slow down to 40 kph (the usual “in town” speed is 60 kph). Well, that’s just not my idea of fun.

The spa, on the other hand, was a pleasant surprise. The hotel has an Austrian feel to it: wood laminate floors, white duvets on the beds. Sunny drapes and big windows. But it is IN THE MIDDLE OF NOWHERE. The village, Patince, has about five houses in it. I was joking to the girls that maybe the name Patince has some relationship to the Slovak word for five (pronounced, more or less, pet), because there were really about five houses in it. Then the hotel was in a small “suburb” of the village. Like a little, weird, holiday resort. But all the other hotels were empty or grim. I had been told to “Just keep driving through it” and, sure enough, there is what the Slovaks would call a four-star hotel, but the rest of us would say is only worth three.

Nevertheless, it was new and clean. The most amazing thing was the staff. They were all cheerful working hard, service-oriented, and seemed happy to be there. It was the most remarkable thing.

We arrived about 4:30 Monday afternoon. We checked in, and rested for a few minutes, and then went to have massages that Zuzka booked for us at 5:00.

It was the first time I had received a professional massage from a man. It was totally professional. And the kids were getting massages on the table next to mine. But it was still a European “Strip to your knickers” sort of thing. Okay, he politely averted his eyes until I was installed on the table. But all I could think was

1. I’m told men often have a physiological reaction when they receive massages. Which made me giggle like a junior high school student, and
2. This is so damn relaxing I just might drool through the hole in the face rest. Horrors.

After he was done and I had gotten dressed, he attempted to discuss his diagnosis of my failing health with me. Apparently I have the following problems:

1. First, and foremost, I don’t drink the requisite three liters of water a day. (True)
2. This has certainly contributed to the problems I am experiencing in my ankles and knees. (Huh?)
3. And in the “female organs” as well (Double huh? “Menopause?” I query. “No, no, worse,” comes the reply.)
4. And in the digestive tract (“Liver?” I think there might be some truth there. “No, stomach and guts,” comes the reply. Huh?)
5. My shoulders. We apparently carry stress caused by spouses on the right side (where I think I had more) and from children on the left side (where he thinks I had more). I think he needs to try a 90 minute drive on Slovak back roads with a 9-year-old who keeps touching her sister’s ears and a 7-year old who objects to having her ears touched. And then share a hotel room with them.
6. Oh, and the drafts. There is a demonstration of drafts involving the air conditioning system in the massage room. Drafts are bad. I must protect my lower back more carefully. And what’s with the cross ventilation in my non-air conditioned bedroom? God forbid I consider installing ceiling fans. That would certainly spell my death sentence.

By this time he has well and truly lost me. But boy, I feel very relaxed and, for the first time in several days, my lower back has unkinked itself. I’m giving serious consideration to yoga.

And there was dinner and swimming in the lovely Pool World and a nightcap with Zuzka, and a second day. On Day Two, we had whirlpool experience (the girls did anyhow), a facial/leg waxing (with no attempts at anything South American), eyebrow shaping, more massages, and a full afternoon swimming again at Pool World.

The weather was rotten, but the indoor pool facilities were great, although when we arrived, all of the chairs were claimed, and I was sort of annoyed because NO ONE was sitting in them. I wasn't really in a swimming place, but had intended to read my murder mystery while the girls swam. So at first, I hung our towels and bathrobes on some hooks (there were plenty around the pool) and camped by the side of the pool with my book and my reading glasses until some nice woman noticed my dilemma and offered me two of her four unoccupied chairs. These, I gratefully accepted. However, the girls had no interest in sitting, and when I discovered another family with a small child and nowhere to camp, I gave them my spare chair.

And there was dinner and showers and books and a second night.

So this morning I decide that I am not up to repeating the white-knuckle drive through the Slovak countryside. I am going to bite the bullet, pay whatever the Hungarians ask, and drive home on a four-lane highway like a civilized person.

This is easier said than done, as it requires the ability to express myself to Hungarians. Let’s just start with the basics: adult human beings cannot learn Hungarian. I’ll give you a few examples from a “pocket phrase book.” You’re supposed to print this thing and fold it and carry it with you so you have basic Hungarian phrases at your fingertips. Yeah, if you want to point at the phrases. Who can pronounce this stuff?

I don’t speak Hungarian: Nem beszélek magyarul.
I want a fruit yogurt with peach pieces, please: Egy darabos õszibarackos joghurtot kérek.
Do you accept credit cards? Fizethetek kártyával?

Okay, swap out the “fruit yogurt with peach pieces, please” and substitute “highway pass, the shortest one you have” This was my challenge.

What was amazing to me, was suddenly it became abundantly clear how much I can say in Slovak. Niceties like “Hello,” “Good morning,” “Please,” “Thank you,” Y’all have a great day, y’hear?” These are actually things I can say in Slovak. In Hungary, I was rendered mute. Like the dog. Except the dog has a better idea what’s going on.

First we had to leave Slovakia in a town called Komarno (that’s, interestingly, Slovak for mosquito). I approach the border. A Slovak border guard says something indecipherable to me.

Me: Prepacte. Nehovorím po slovensky (Horrors! I don’t speak Slovak)
Him: Do you have the car title? (Hey! He speaks English!)

Now I have never been asked for my car papers at a border before. I had them. I presented them. He disappeared with them and our passports for what seemed a really, really long time. Long enough that it made my decision to go this way start to seem stupid. But I kept thinking about the farm equipment and bicycles out of Route 63, and tried to envision a calm, blue ocean while I waited.

All papers were returned to me by what can only be described as a classic Hungarian: dark, not unattractive, with a significant moustache.

Me: (pointing at bureau de change) Highway vignette?
Him: Benzine
Me: Forints?
Him: Forints. Euro okay.

And so I ascertained that I could buy the highway pass at any gas station and pay with Euros if I wanted. Since I had no idea what the shortest pass would cost, this seemed like a good plan.

Shortly, I found myself at a gas station. I realized I only had 50-euro bills, and that I didn't want change in Hungarian forints. But I also had plastic. In line inside, I realize that the guy in front of me has just purchased a pass with a credit card. Ah! Saved by plastic. But now it’s my turn.

Me: Vignette? (I gesture “small” with my fingers).
Him: Four days. (Hey! HE speaks English, too!)
Me: Plastic? (I produce my MasterCard)
Him: No problem.
Older Hungarian Gentleman in Line Behind Me: Elnézést, szeretnék venni . . . Oh, nevermind. What he said was “Kind Gas Station Clerk, did you set aside my newspapers?”
Him: (in Hungarian) Yes, sir. They’re right here. (Moves aside a stack of clutter to reveal Hungarian Gentleman’s reserved tabloids).
Older Hungarian Gentleman: (conspiratorially, to me, in Hungarian, hand on my arm) Sheesh! It’s the curse of old age. Been a snake they woulda bit me!
Me: (In English) I know what you mean.

But I did. That was the funny thing. I went into the gas station, adrenaline pumping, stomach in a knot, and I emerged, highway pass in hand, and a little human interaction to boot. Success!


Blogger katierosmannyc said...

Dear Amanda:

Julien at expat-blogs sent me to your site. Really interesting. I'd love to speak to you for a story I'm reporting for the Wall Street Journal. Could you email me so we can set up a time to chat? (I don't have your email address.)

Thanks! Looking forward to hearing from you soon.

Best, Katie

6:34 PM  

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