Russian Masseur and American Sci-Fi
The first massage I ever got professionally was in the Czech Republic in 2004. I got the massage after a long hike in the Krkonoše Mountains. I had gotten sun-burned, and my back was scarlet. That didn’t prevent my Whitney-Houston-singing masseuse from massaging that area. Despite the incredible pain, the desire for more professional massages has persisted over the years. Now, back in the Czech Republic, it was time to indulge that urge.
I had researched massage places before my sisters’ visit, but the scheduling didn’t work out. Before settling on going to Krakow, I decided to schedule a massage at one of the places that I had researched, Hotel Maria. I scheduled a 90-minute massage, which would cost me 520 kč (about $27). The scheduling hadn’t been too complex. I went into the hotel to the front desk and arranged it in Czech. My only error was in remembering the correct time. I still confuse the words for nine (devět) and ten (deset) in Czech. So I arrived an hour early. Given another hour, I indulged in some coffee and breakfast at a local café before the massage.
As I walked back to the hotel, I noticed a rather muscular man walking quickly in front of me in the exact same direction. I instinctively knew it was the masseur, a fact confirmed minutes later. The hotel advertised a Russian masseur, but I just remembered the Russian part, and in my weaknesses with words with English words with French etymology, I forgot that masseur indicates a male and masseuse a female. (Just like the plural of chateau should be chateux and fiancé is a male and fiancée is female.)
Soon, the same Russian man in new dress was escorting me to the spa section of the hotel. I was confused as to what I was supposed to do, and soon found out that he spoke English. He directed me into a room, handed me a small towel and a sheet and told me to undress. What exactly was to be done with the sheet and towel was a little beyond me, but I got through it, and he came back, first cracked my back, and then took me to another room for the massage.
First I will say what did not happen during the next 90 minutes. I wasn’t led into a quiet dark room with soothing music and candles. I wasn’t left in the silence of this environment with only the relaxation to focus on. And I certainly didn’t leave with the impression that I would melt because of how relaxed I was.
Rather, he led me to a room filled with natural sunlight. The floors were cold, white tile, the walls white, and in the corner a TV monitor sat opposite a rolling office chair. After lying down, he asked me if he could turn on music, and turned on some Russian rock music. He apologized for his Russian accent before he began chatting about his three wives, his sons, grandson, son on-the-way, and his hometown: Vladivostok. It was difficult for me to maintain a conversation with my head stuck down into the table, with a towel draped below. But that didn’t deter his further questions and conversation. We discussed Russian literature, and he told me that while I was reading Tolstoy and Dostoyevsky, Russians were reading American sci-fi.
I learned that he was a surgeon in Russia and even used hypnosis and some other spiritual techniques in his practice. Some of his current “patients” call him a “shaman” and then told me that the word “shaman” comes from the Tungus šaman, Tungus being the language of the Evenki people of northern Siberia—a people he takes some of his ancestry from. When the massage finished, he asked if I had a few minutes and then he proceeded to show me pictures of his children and of Vladivostok. A picture of his first wife appeared in a mix of his son’s wedding pictures. “That is her in front of her big car, that jeep-like car. She is a female Genghis Khan. You understand me?” He showed me Vladivostok in photos and on a map and said it might be interesting to me.
None of this was what I had in mind when I scheduled the massage, but it was much better than I could have expected. I have met some other Russians here, but this was the most extended and interesting conversation I have ever had with a Russian. This experience is typical of many experiences I have had here. I go into a seemingly “normal” situation and leave with another cultural encounter to reflect on.