My First Massage Ever: Bulgarian Hotel Basement Style

The day before Halloween, I caught J’s flight to Sofia, Bulgaria!

Hotel view

Hotel view

Stepping out of the airport and into Sofia’s cool autumn air was immediately invigorating. The stuffiness of the hot, dusty desert was nowhere to be found.

I should have been satisfied with the crisp, feel-good air. But no. After we checked into the hotel, I decided I wanted a massage.

I had never received a real massage before. The top two reasons for this are 1.) I don’t like being ripped off (paying to be touched feels very rip-off-esque to me), and 2.) I don’t like strangers touching me. Strangers touching me makes me very uncomfortable. I’ll talk all day with someone I’ve just met, but that someone had better stay out of my bubble.

Since J gets a discount at the hotel spa, I figured it was time to try this massage thing I hear so many people rave about. We called down to the spa and scheduled our 45 min massages. I’d be the Guinea pig and go first, then come back up to the room and get ready for dinner while J got his.

With only 15 minutes to get ready, I had no idea what to wear. I decided on black work-out capris (the ones that have seen more time on the couch than on a treadmill) and a t-shirt. I waited anxiously in the glass elevator as it descended from the sunlit top floors of the hotel to the underground darkness of Floor -2.

The elevator doors opened across from a contemporary looking, dimly lit sitting area with a counter. Nobody was at the counter, so I waited around a minute before being greeted by the only spa employee I would see that day. The dark haired, middle aged lady was dressed in what appeared to be white spandex leggings and an equally tight, white V-neck shirt. I’m not sure what kind of attire I was expecting the massage therapist to be wearing – maybe scrubs? maybe a polo shirt and slacks? maybe something a little more professional?

She handed me a big, blue bathrobe and a pair of disposable hotel slippers, pointed to a dark room and told me to go change. Through the dark room, I found a changing room/bathroom, where I changed in a hurry and wondered if it is only in America that we worry about the privacy aspect of things like etched glass doors with no locks – or maybe it’s just me?

Holding the beltless bathrobe around me, I shuffled back to the spa counter and The Woman in White led me to the massage room. It was a very small, very warm room, dimly lit, but not dim enough that I couldn’t see the Bulgarian lotto scratch-off ticket next to the massage table. Is that normal!? Are these things normal?! I tried to imagine a scenario in which a massage therapist brought a scratch-off ticket into the massage room. Did she really not have enough time to scratch it off on the way to work? Not even at the front desk? Was it somebody’s lucky day in the massage room!?

Then, The Woman in White wanted my bathrobe. I kind of thought she might turn around to allow me some privacy, but obviously this was my mistake, because she wanted the robe and she wanted it now! I hesitated, and she laughed, asking me where I’m from. I thought about saying, “I JUST CAME FROM A MUSLIM COUNTRY WHERE I AM NOT SUPPOSED TO SHOW ANYTHING BETWEEN MY KNEES AND SHOULDERS SO CUT ME SOME SLACK IF I’M A LITTLE SLOW TO GET BUCK NAKED IN FRONT OF YOU!” but I just said, “USA.” The Lady in White laughed and said, “You look like Italian lady!” It seems there really is no place outside of the US where I will ever look American…

Before handing over the bathrobe, I tried explaining “breast implants.” Yes, I have breast implants. No, I don’t like to lie on them. Why not? Because ew gross, and I am afraid they are going to shoot out my sides, and ew gross again. Anyway, “breast implants” does not translate very well, so there was a moment of comical hand gestures and awkward laughing and I finally just gave her that stupid blue bathrobe and got on the table. She gave me a few towels to stack up and create an “airbag moat,” and the massage – the one I waited 27 years to receive – began.

The sweet scent of citrus oil was overshadowed by what sounded like a classic adult film soundtrack  playing in the background while The Lady in White smacked her gum from the top of my head to the soles of my feet. For all I knew, there was a giant bowl of Rice Krispies flying around the room, snap-crackle-and-poppin’ as loud as The Lady in White pushed hard, much like a car with a stereo playing louder the faster it goes. Porno jams and Rice Krispies eventually teamed up with a squeaky booger, so that 45 minutes later, The Lady in White informed me I never really relaxed and maybe I should just get a head massage next time.

When I got back to the hotel room, I laughingly told J about my experience, and wished him luck in his 45 minutes of Bulgarian bliss! When he returned from the spa, I asked him what he thought. He reported, “I’m glad it was cheap… she looked like Bubbles from Trailer Park Boys… I just, I dunno… I dunno if I like massages any more…”

Although I won’t likely do it again, I’m glad to have finally tried a massage, even if it was in a Bulgarian hotel basement.

What is the craziest massage experience you’ve had?

Georgian Haramadan

I have regretted a lot of things, but I have never regretted traveling.

On Sunday, August 4, the first day of American embassy closures across the Middle East and North Africa due to unspecified “information” and “conditions,” I hopped on a flight with J to Tbilisi, Georgia.

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(Partial) Emergency Message for US Citizens: August 1, 2013

I am regularly told I don’t “look” American (whatever that means), and I really do have a fairly strong faith in The Country’s ability and desire to keep the people here safe. Even so, sensationalism by the media of the newly increased “risk” and “threat” of al Qaeda had me on mental red alert since reading the August 1st emergency message I received from the US embassy here.

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Aug. 3 – CNN International Edition (On an unrelated note, notice NO MENTION of Edward Snowden)

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Aug. 3 – CNN US Edition (HOLY SNOWDEN OBSESSION, AMERICA!)

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Aug. 3 – Al Jazeera

As I made my way through The Country’s airport before the flight to Tbilisi, I kept my beautiful blue passport concealed and spoke to no one except when prompted by security.

When the magnetic forces of the duty free shop pulled me in, I immediately gravitated toward the book section.

I love bookstores. And I love books. I’m not very good at finishing books, because while reading one, a tidbit of information will pique my interest and then whoosh! I’m turning the pages of another. It’s a vicious cycle.

Leisurely flipping through the crisp pages of some airport bestsellers was a vacation in itself. There aren’t many bookstores here – definitely not any used bookstores (to my knowledge), which I love so much back home. No one, neither J nor a driver of any sort, was waiting for me to hurry up and get back to the car; rather, I was just waiting for my flight. The only thing missing was a comfy chair and a hot drink. (Barnes & Noble, I MISS YOU.)

I happily boarded the flight to Tbilisi with 3 new gems: Robert Lacey’s Inside the Kingdom (banned in Saudi Arabia), William Woodruff’s A Concise History of the Modern World, and Stephen R. Covey’s 7 Habits of Highly Effective People (who doesn’t love light reading with inspirational quotes?!).

Unfortunately, the fact that I only put one of my new books down long enough to enjoy a savory spinach and cheese crepe mid-flight didn’t stop Overly Confident Local Man from trying to chat me up. He inquired about my travel plans to Tbilisi. I said I am visiting with my husband there. I opted to keep it vague, because really, the last thing a stranger needs to know in the wake of this alleged terrorism + closed embassy hogwash is that I’m an American and my American husband is FLYING THE AIRPLANE WE’RE ON.

He told me about the very important business he will be conducting over the next year in Tbilisi, then gave me his number on a receipt (because apparently not all very important businessmen have business cards) then made sure to let me know that number was available 24 hours (oh good, so it’s not a payphone). I abruptly buried my face back into my book and he apologized for bothering me.

While I was speed reading the left page of my book to avoid eye contact on his side of the plane, I noticed out of my periph something bright waving around. Fantastic, he was trying to show me a cell phone picture of his daughter.

“She’s so cute!” I told him with a forced smile.

Back to my book. Again, bright light waving around in periph.

“What is your mobile?” he boldly requested. (“Mobile” here means “cell phone number” and the lazy abbreviation has a nails-on-a-chalkboard effect on my nerves.)

“I can’t,” I said, shaking my head N-O. He looked confused. “I can’t, I can’t,” I repeated, finally pointing to the front of the plane.

“Your husband?!” he asked, looking a little worried.

“Yeahhhhh,” I smiled.

I had to bite my lip and think of some really awful things to stifle the laugh that was bubbling up as the failed pick-up attempt of Airplane Creeper replayed itself in my mind.

Note to Men: Don’t hit on girls on airplanes. We may be a captive audience for the duration of the flight, but that won’t make it any less awkward. This is especially true when we are married, when YOU KNOW we’re married, and when EVERYONE WORKING ON THE PLANE knows we’re married. Don’t be That Guy.

Finally, we landed in Tbilisi. I thanked my lucky stars to be out of the desert and away from the restrictions of a month-long religious holiday.

The feeling is mutual, Tbilisi!

The feeling is mutual, Tbilisi!

Upon arriving at the hotel, we quickly changed clothes. I was unnaturally excited to rip off the black leggings and cardigan I had paired with my dress. My personal style has really transformed over the last year due to living in a Muslim country. At this point, I wholeheartedly believe that too much modesty is better than not enough modesty. I think modest attire almost always appears more flattering and demands more respect. Even so, sometimes it’s nice to feel free from multiple layers of clothes. I like my skin, I’m not ashamed of my skin, and I tire of worrying about how much must be covered.

As we walked to our favorite hole in the wall restaurant/bar, I felt like a teenager that had just moved out of my parents’ house. Flaunting bare knees and bare shoulders, it didn’t really matter if I’d hit or missed looking amazing – I felt amazing.

I'm not perfect, but I'm free!

I’m not perfect, but I’m free!

Inside Cellar on Rustaveli

Inside Cellar on Rustaveli

Our Georgian dinner was as delicious as I had remembered it when I visited with J previously.

Just getting started...

Just getting started…

I kept it veg friendly with warm Georgian bread, hearty “bean in a pot,” Chvishtary (cornbread with cheese), and crispy cheese blins. Always eager to make up for missed meat, J ordered a huge rack of pork ribs (“smoked ribs menu”) and pork shashlik, the latter of which he says is his favorite thing on the menu (his exact words were, “It was pretty f***in’ awesome!”). We washed it all down with Georgian beer and wine, and slept like logs when our heads finally hit our pillows.

The next morning, we opted out of the overpriced hotel breakfast and went to a nearby cafe. The service left much to be desired, but the coffee, pastries, and outdoor seating were the perfect way to start the day.

Decisions, decisions...

Decisions, decisions…

Waking up with coffee & an apricot pastry

Waking up with coffee & an apricot pastry

We definitely take the little things, like eating/drinking as we please, for granted. I couldn’t help thinking of David Turashvili’s movie-novel, Flight from USSR, where Soso Tsereteli’s father smuggled a pair of “genuine American jeans” into Soviet Georgia in the 1980’s. According to the author, “The banned jeans became sweeter than the forbidden fruit … In those days, every pair of jeans were believed to be American and, as the Soviet propaganda was set on destroying American values, many associated happiness with where jeans were thought to be in abundance” (Flight from USSR). I’d like to say I can’t even imagine, but I can.

After deep thoughts at breakfast, I hit an accessory sale jackpot at a nearby shop.

Tbilisi Turquoise

Tbilisi Turquoise

We took a cab to the Old Town area, admiring Narikala Fortress, St. Nicolas Church, and the swaying cable cars we rode only a few months previously, from below.

Tbilisi Old Town

Tbilisi Old Town

In the future, we’ll start a day in Tbilisi in the Old Town area. We had no idea how much was there!

Sulphur Bathhouses

Sulphur Bathhouses

Old Town mosque above sulfur spring water

Old Town mosque above sulfur spring water

We stopped for a light lunch at an Old Town restaurant called Konka Station. Taking advantage of every opportunity to sit outside, we made ourselves comfortable on their misted patio. It didn’t take long for a friendly street cat to make our acquaintance. I enjoyed a vegetable ragout that reminded me of our first meal in Istanbul, J picked through a Greek salad, and the three of us (myself, J, and Street Cat) shared Khachapuri Imeruli.

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After coffee and J’s strange chocolate milkshake concoction (chocolate milk plus an ice cube), we left Street Cat to see what else we could squeeze in during our last hour in Tbilisi.

We wound up down the street at the Georgian Orthodox Sioni Cathedral, which was originally built in the 5th Century, but destroyed and rebuilt multiple times since then.

Tbilisi Sioni Cathedral

Tbilisi Sioni Cathedral

Tbilisi Sioni Cathedral

Tbilisi Sioni Cathedral

We hung a right out of the church, expecting to catch a cab to return to the hotel, when I spotted one of my favorite things E-V-E-R…

A CARPET STORE!

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J’s Worst Nightmare

My Achilles' heel

Inside: my Achilles’ heel

I have a serious weakness for handwoven rugs. J, however, could not be any less interested. Especially after the week we spent in Istanbul, it is probably safe to use the word “dread” when describing J’s feelings about carpet stores. If I ever have any doubt about his feelings for me, I can just remember the oodles of kilims we (I) admired in Istanbul, and the fact that he didn’t abandon me in Turkey, and I know the guy loves me.

Rugs in Tbilisi are SIGNIFICANTLY more expensive than in Istanbul. In Tbilisi, the carpet sales people do not seem to care whether you enter their shop or keep on truckin’. Istanbul is a much different story, with salesmen quick to make you feel at home with a hot cup of tea if you so much as glance in their direction.

Somehow, we managed to leave the Georgian carpet store with a small kilim without feeling completely robbed.

K is for Kilim!

K is for Kilim!

A few hours later, we were back at the Tbilisi airport. I sat next to an American couple while waiting to board the plane. How did I know they were American? Because THEY WERE TALKING LIKE TYPING IN ALL CAPS MIGHT SOUND. IT’S NOT LIKE TRAVEL ALERTS FOR AMERICANS WERE SWIRLING AROUND ALL OVER THE PLACE OR ANYTHING.

US Embassy Aug. 2

US Embassy Travel Alert (Aug. 2)

“U.S. citizens should take every precaution to be aware of their surroundings and to adopt appropriate safety measures to protect themselves while traveling” might imply to STOP BEING SO DAMN LOUD.

Anyway, the American lady (also an expat), at a very high decibel, told me all about their travel mishaps over the last few weeks, how she just wants to move home (don’t we all), and about the couple of cats she saw doin’ the deed in her friend’s garden, while I sat there wondering what about myself suggests to people I want to hear this crap. She mentioned the all too common theme among expat wives of giving up her career to come here for him. That is one fire that will never run out of fuel.

We landed back in The Country around midnight. While walking through the arrivals terminal, I noticed a white man standing out like a sore thumb in a sea of brown. He was on the other side of the glass dividing new arrivals from the waiting area, eagerly scanning the arriving passengers as they walked through. Suddenly, his face lit up as though he’d won the lottery, and I heard two little voices behind me call out, “Papa! Papa!”. A woman hurriedly pushed a cart of suitcases past me, with two young children seated on top like two cherries on top of a giant suitcase sundae. The sweet sight of their Papa scooping them up, embracing one in each arm, made me a little sick, because I know what it’s like to deeply miss loved ones.

I found a seat in the immigration area while I waited for J. A little girl across from me was repeating abracadabra! and at that moment there were so many things I wished would happen.

For now, where we are, the media is the greatest agent of terror. We’ve started locking our doors, but we won’t be giving up on the world any time soon!