Paris, I miss you.


I wore sneakers. It was summer, but the fall rains were early. I clipped through the streets at ease. This had become home. After one month of trekking through the western hills of Bretagne, I was now stationed in Paris, relishing each wet step on the street. I had rented a small apartment, a 7th floor walk-up in the 11th arrondissement, and was having my first real experience of being alone on a trip. Alone to transform myself into whatever I desired. Alone to have only Paris as a lover—full of its pink light and strange, silent, high-context eyes, locking in to me.


I was headed home after visiting the market. I had picked up a few things, run a few errands. I conjured up a possible life there and explored it. What would it take to open a bank account, apply for permanent residency, etc.? I hadn’t uttered any English in about a week, and this felt normal. Who was I becoming?


Ever since I was about three, sitting alone on my aunt’s floor in my grandmother’s house, with a record player open before me, I wanted to go to Paris. The black disc whirled as Disney’s Aristocats came to life. I was engrossed with Madame and Roquefort the Mouse. I can still sing the songs, “Abraham Delacey, Giuseppe, Casey, Thomas O’Malley, O’Malley the Alley Cat….”


France was not the only place that called to me as I sprouted from three to eighteen, but it held a special place in my dreams, and when I arrived in Paris, my life changed—more specifically, my life as a woman changed. I think the most drastic change began with the Turkish bath, or hammam.


No matter the soil from which they’re born, women have striven to attain beauty. All women watch their figures, willing themselves into fuller or thinner frames—into whatever their culture deems beautiful. Moreover, whether it’s black eye liner in India or bronzer in California, all women work to enhance their assets.


The one area where women differ in the world is the area of modesty. A breast is like an elbow in Senegal, but to show your legs above your ankles—now that’s a problem. In the States, we deal with onslaughts of media coverage concerning things like Janet Jackson’s “wardrobe malfunction,” which exposed a perky breast fashioned with a pasty over her nipple. Oh the horror! But, hey, short skirts are all the fashion these days.


However, modesty should not carry shame, which is usually placed upon a person. It differs from guilt in the fact that guilt is a painful feeling about actions made, and shame is a painful feeling equated with embarrassment, dishonor, disgrace, inadequacy, or humiliation. Shame effects how we see ourselves as human beings.


Where, then, beyond all these cultural differences of modesty and beauty, did American women pick up shame and place it into their feminine identities and naked bodies? Why is a naked body shameful in the U.S.? A breast, a buttock: they are almost always sexualized—unless handed to you by some well-respected artist. Let’s go there regarding sexuality, shall we? Why is it that American women seem to rapidly lose their own sense of sexuality and sensuality as they age, compared to European women. It could very well have originated from Puritan ideals—but it’s not the Puritans’ fault that we continue in this vein.


When I was in France for the first time in college, I noticed how at ease women were; how comfortable they seemed to glide in their bodies, evoking a natural sensuality. I would see topless, cartoon advertisements selling sun lotion, or come across a TV commercial for shower gel where women are showering, sudsing up, smiling, breasts fully exposed.


No one batted an eye. No one said this was improper. I felt silly with my insecurity—caged in the mind by self-judgment. I wanted a solution. I wanted what the Parisian women so naturally emitted. How could I learn it? I then made a discovery: the Turkish bath, or better known as Le Hamman à la Mosquee de Paris.


Inside the beautiful mosaic walls of the hamman, I bought the cheapest service a student could buy, which meant I would not be scrubbed or massaged by staff, but I had plenty of time to bathe myself and sit in the steam room. I was given a towel, slippers, and a small bar of black soap. A woman led me to a locker to hang my clothes. And then, I just did it. I stripped down completely naked and walked into the bath.


People were scrubbing and bathing away. I tried not to stare at others, but it was the first time I had been surrounded by so many bodies. There were roughly 80-100 naked women walking around and I was one of them. I took note that some forms were of similar size, but there wasn’t a single body in the place that looked like another.


Slowly, I began to forget I was naked. I bathed like everyone else in the wide showers and then went to the sauna containing a small shallow pool of cool water. A woman in her late 40’s was sitting on its edge. She was beautiful with short dark hair and a voluptuous figure. She had the calm confidence in her body like so many other French women I had met. Since we were the only two by the pool, we began a friendly conversation. I confessed to her—as we sometimes are able to do only with perfect strangers—about my insecurities. I told her the differences I had noticed between American and French women, and how they related to their bodies. She shared with me her view that a woman has an inherent right to celebrate and care for her own body. She also matter-of-factly stressed that French women work very hard as parents not to instill “hang-ups” in their children about their bodies, but encouraged health and balance. 


We spoke for a long time, and I’m not sure she was aware, but that conversation changed my life. From it, I arrived at two truths: American women never gain a proper idea of sensuality when walking into puberty, which carries the result of “lost innocence” and “purity as a person.” They also give up the sensuality they do gain as they age, because they have taken on the belief that getting older means you are worth less as a woman. (I decided to be a voice against this in my life when I went back home.) The second truth I learned: I would never, ever hate my body, or judge it and compare it to others again. I would celebrate it at every age.


I left much more behind in the bath than toxins and dead skin cells. I left behind shame.


Now, 10 years later, as I walked along the Parisian streets in the rain, I was a different woman. I carried the feminine Parisian confidence for which I had searched years before. That afternoon I decided to celebrate my return to Paris, as a stronger woman. I made myself my favorite summer lunch—a simple summer salad with melon and prosciutto paired with a bit of baguette freshly purchased that morning from a boulangerie. Delicious.


I lingered in the apartment, watched TV (breast-showing, commercial spots and all). I wrote a bit. I read. I had long gazing sessions out the balconied window, which blurred the lights from the buildings below with droplets of rain. The hours passed slowly. Summer days in Paris last till past 10 pm. I let them pass as they were, and savored the time. I thought about the young wide-eyed girl that had arrived humming the Aristocats in her memories and searching for herself. I wished I could give every young American woman the same gift I had been given.


Today, with the rainy fall skies of Manhattan, I find myself longing for Paris. I’m sure there is more to learn there. Paris, with your pink light and lack of shame, I miss you.




Facts:


Le Hamman à la Mosquee de Paris


–I’m not sure if the experience today is the same as mine over 15 years ago. My trip to the Hamman resulted in a totally “nue” experience, but I’m sure many wear swimsuit bottoms as well. 


–Hamman means “spreader of warmth” in Arabic.


Men and Women have separate hammam days: For women: Monday, Wednesday, Thursday and Saturday from 10am to 9pm, and Friday, from 2pm to 9pm. For men: Tuesday from 2pm to 9pm, and Sunday from 10am to 9pm.


–Also at the mosque: Restaurant – Salon de thé – Souk


Address: 39 rue Geoffroy Saint-Hilaire75005 Paris


–Phone: 01 43 31 38 20Fax: 01 43 31 53 30


e-mail: contact@la-mosquee.com


 


 

2 Comments

  1. Pat Wasterval
    April, 2011

    Bonjour Elise! Got your message and
    I am suffering from jet lag! I left
    a message on 917-686-0619 – I don’t
    know why it wasn’t on the notes I took
    when we first met! anyways, no days
    left for me this week but Wednesday
    night would be terrific if it’s still
    ok for you. Work til 6:00 and could
    be there by 6:30. Hope all is well
    and looking soooo forward to getting
    together. We talked about the
    question – what does happiness and
    success mean to me – and we’ll go
    from there!!! amities, pat

  2. Pat Wasterval
    April, 2011

    Elise – quelle article!!! magnifique!
    I have read and reread this and I just
    love it! It takes me back to Paris
    and I too longed to be in Paris. In
    eighth grade we read les miserables and
    I had a french penpal (whom I got to
    meet when I moved there) and as Ernest
    Hemingway says, if you were lucky
    enough to be in Paris as a young
    person, it is indeed a moveable
    feast!!! hope all is well and look
    forward to speaking with you when I
    get back from Boston april 26. Have
    a good holiday and les amities!!!
    pat

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