Going Native

There are three kinds of expatriates: those who only associate with their “own kind” or other English speakers, those who shun their own kind, learn the local language even better than native speakers and mingle only with them; and those who find a happy medium between the two former groups, who have both native and expat friends, in other words, people more like you and me–we make up the greater part of the bell curve.

I try to push myself into going “native.” I think the “cool” borderline hipster expat is the type who enjoys going to the ironic commie-style bar on Sw. Tomasza, participates actively in the local Couchsurfing community in communal potluck cook-offs to annual CS festivals here in Krakow. These are the people who attend the weekly CS meetings on Wednesdays, act as tour guides to wide-eyed visitors, carefree hostelers, bighearted hosts, and cheerful weekend friends. They introduce pierogi to you in a new kind of light: not just “Babcia’s” cooking but also as the perfect 24 hour/day available hangover cure. Once you have lived in Krakow for a certain amount of time–you begin to take it for granted that you recognize 1/3 of the people you pass by every day. You’re connected to half the town, it seems, through someone who  knows somebody. Krakow isn’t really a city–its more of a town, which feels even smaller when you’re part of a small minority group: the expats.

I recently read a book called “The Expats.” Having recently returned from a week in Switzerland–I was humbled to learn that life in Krakow is not as glamorous as it originally seemed it was: I gained something you might call, perspective. An entree and a small beer cost around 30 francs, that is 25 euros or 34 dollars. It is a fraction of that price for the same deal here in Krakow. In The Expats–the protagonist is a former CIA spy whose husband works for a mysterious financial securities firm that affords their family a glamorous carefree “lets jet off to Munich at a minute’s notice” kind of lifestyle. I downloaded the book on my Kindle because I thought it might somewhat be similar to the lifestyle I imagine members of the International Women’s Association of Krakow might lead. But I was wrong. My fellow IWAK members tend to have husbands who are management executive types which afford these ladies a rather lax lifestyle–but not the kind where they can drop the phone, and pack their Louis Vuitton bag to Hong Kong at the last minute. These women are rather the types who go out 1-2x a  month, shop at high-end Italian delicatessens, and take advantage of budget airlines such as Ryanair to travel almost every weekend.

I saw “Knight and Day” with my grandfather and he has a keen eye for what  makes a movie success and what does not. It is a world-wide locale spy/thriller film that is your typical Hollywood blockbuster. It is not a high-quality film but was worth the two hours we spent on the couch last summer watching it. It’s fun entertaining. For an American–you can “see” parts of the world without a three-figure (or four figure) plane ticket. And thats what made it a success.  Locales that your average person would probably not get to see in a lifetime.

So while the lifestyle I lead is nothing comparable to “The Expats” or “Knight and Day”, there are always stories to tell. I recently pre-recorded a segment about the storytelling event(s) I organize here that will air tomorrow on Radio Alfi (102.4 FM). Links will be posted soon. Before I met the radio show host Pablo, I listened to the latest Moth podcast for inspiration. “The 25 cent spa” told by Lizz Winstead  was about her attempt at going “native” and having a culturally authentic experience with her two friends in Morocco at a “spa” called a “hamam.” This reminded me of the time I went to a similar hamam (just a few notches more “western” than the one in Winstead’s story) with my aunt two years ago in Berlin.

My aunt was willing to try almost anything and I heard how great the hamams were–from my friends who went there on women’s only-days. I tend to mix things up because as a friend and pilates teacher tells me, I am just “wacky.” So I mixed up the women’s only-day to the co-ed day and it was quite the…cultural experience.

My aunt opted for a massage while I wanted something more…interesting. I chose the body sugar/scrub or whatever it was and I was told I should strip…down. I was assured by one of the receptionists that the man who would do the scrub-a-dub would be “professional” as he was “trained.” I had a rag tied around my chest and just the bottom half of my bikini for my well…bum. It was fine when I was lying on my stomach but when I had to turn over and lie on my back–lets just say it felt a bit more…uncomfortable and this is just the beginning. The man poured olive oil (the cheap kind) and mixed it with real sugar. So I now knew why it was called “body sugar.”

He proceeded to scrub me down but also breathed a bit heavily. He noticed I flinched a few times and that is around the time the lady came in to reassure me that he was “professional.” I thought to myself, “professional…stripper?”

After one of the longest five minutes of my life passed–he told me to go into the steam room (he said this in German, little English was spoken) to let the sugar and oil “soak in.”

It was a co-ed day which I thought meant that men were just allowed to be in “their” part of the spa. Boy, was I wrong. Everything was common. And everyone was…naked. I was a prude and perhaps still am and walked in to the big steam room, tightening my rag-of-a-spa-bra and tried not to look at the naked men on my right. They were socializing and chatting together and fell silent as I passed them. I walked to the other side of the room, sat down, crossed my legs, and focused on staring at the tiled floor. I even tried to count backwards from 100 in German to maintain composure. One of the men crossed the room, sat directly across from me, and made no effort whatsoever to cross his legs. No. Instead, he was practically doing the splits. He sat there, legs spread apart, rested his elbows on his knees, and tried to make conversation.

I looked up briefly at his face, and could not help to observe that he was definitely Turkish and Muslim because he was well…cut. I looked down, said “Enschuldigung” and gathered what was left of my dignity and sped out of there as fast as my shower shoes could carry me.

After I was hosed down by the Turkish body-scrubber guy,   I asked for where the “peace” room was and made my way there. The man who attempted to make conversation with me earlier, was now, thankfully, fully clothed and smiled at me. He was sitting in the love seat in the corner. I was sitting across the room from him and I just nodded to acknowledge his presence. He had a right to be there as did I. He then started speaking to me, more quickly in German. I shrugged to indicate that “Ich kein verstehe.” He did not verstehe me. Instead of slyly raised his eyebrows, and patted the space next to him, suggestively saying I should “komm” over there by him. I said “nein danke” and left. Like Pepe le peu, he assumed this was my “invitation” for him to chase me. He then followed me around from one room to the next. I guess in his culture–if exposure wasn’t enough–he would have to resort to more drastic measures to “express” his “interest.”

Thankfully, my aunt got out of her massage and I was relieved as much as she was for her massage to be over. Her massage was “boring” while my going “native” experience was too…interesting than I bargained for.

Bottom Line? Sometimes you just have to be doubly sure you’re going to the spa on the right day-or to the right spa in the first place.

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