Thanks to Brüno (Sacha Baron Cohen), we all know about The Austrian Dream: “Get a job, find a dungeon, raise ein family in it.”
I have as yet to find a suitable dungeon, and haven’t gotten around to raising a family. As soon as I find a spacious, soundproofed cellar, however, I will get cracking.
Until such time, however, there is always The Rumanian Dream: massaging whatever will sit still long enough to let itself be massaged. I have been a chambermaid in Bavaria, I have served cheese fondue in Swiss dining cars, I have visited homes in a Dutch housing tract and in Central Europe, but only rarely did I touch the people who lived there. True intimacy begins not in bed, for that is covered in blankets, but on the massage table.
It was in the spring of 2009 that I found myself in the Ukrainian spa town of Turskavets. There I received a massage from an Asiatic lady whose skills as masseuse consisted largely of bullheaded endurance.
East of the line Berlin – Zagreb, it seems, anything that calls itself a masseur is welcomed with open arms.
And it was in the Rumanian spa town of Băile Herculane that I found work as a masseur, and therefore hooked up with The Rumanian Dream.
When I write, my hands do what my head tells them to. When I massage, my head does what my hands tell it to. That, at least, is the way I look at it.
A person who loves others must be prepared to give them his body. Otherwise it’s nothing more than a sort of salon humanism. Love-in-theory.
My cover story, in fact, was almost completely true: in Holland I had followed a course in massage, but I wanted to do my practicum east of the line Berlin – Zagreb.
An acquaintance who had worked for a while as masseur in various saunas in the western Dutch conurbation was prepared, one afternoon in June, to give me a crash course in my hotel room in Amsterdam. The receptionist, who had probably seen a few things in her day, gave him only a cursory glance when he appeared at the desk carrying his foldable massage chair and the host of attributes indispensable to giving a massage.
That afternoon he taught me the four most important manual techniques: palpation, to explore the body and gain insight into the structure of the skin; effleurage, the stroking of the body with the flat of the hand to stimulate circulation; petrissage, the kneading of the muscles, and tapotement, the pummeling of the fleshy parts of the body.
The desire to analyze is often mistaken for emotional coldness. But anyone wishing to combat the coldness in his own soul would do well not to fear the skin of others. Young or old, in sickness or in health, from head to toe - I’m ready for effleurage.
Băile Herculane is in Transylvania, at the foot of the Cerna Mountains. The couple who arranged for me to practice massage at Băile Herculane has advised me to fly to Timişoara. That is where they will pick me up.
The main road from Timişoara to Băile Herculane is in deplorable shape. Instead, we take a back road that goes by way of the Serb border and the Danube. The first gas station outside Timişoara, it turns out, doubles as a goose farm. The geese are kept away from the pumps by means of empty beer crates. The border patrol has set up a roadblock beside the gas station. “There’s a lot of smuggling around here,” the couple explains. I don’t ask what it is that’s being smuggled.
By the time we reach Băile Herculane it’s eleven o’clock in the evening. The old spa town once belonged to the Austro-Hungarian Empire. A few of the buildings smack of Empress Sissi, but they are in disrepair. Băile Herculane is famous for its sulphur springs. Here, the smell of slightly rotten eggs tingles in one’s nostrils.
My room is at Hotel Ferdinand, the best place in town. The dining room is gloomy. Two Rumanian couples are still at their tables; otherwise, the room is empty. The men stare at us when we come in. “Creepy” is the first word that comes to mind.
At eight o’clock the next morning I am to report to Dr. Gogoltân. Dr. Gogoltân is the head of several clinics in Băile Herculane. The biggest investor in those clinics is a company by the name of Argirom International S.A., and the name Argirom is printed in big letters on the doctor’s door.
The doctor himself is in his late sixties. He’s wearing an unobtrusive sport coat and matching trousers.
Gogoltân speaks nothing but Rumanian, but the couple who arranged my position here are willing to interpret.
From his inside pocket, the doctor produces a little black book.
He calls a couple of people. No one answers.
“My workers aren’t working,” the doctor says. “Damn it.” The doctor, the couple notes, also utters a few inappropriate sexual slurs, which they prefer not to translate.
At last, Dr. Gogaltân gets someone on the line.
The couple says the doctor was probably a big shot during Communism and that’s how he was able to keep his position.
The doctor gets up. He says: “We’re going to make you the best masseur in Holland. And we’re going to teach you electrotherapy and heat therapy while we’re at it. Dragos is waiting for you at Villa Belvedere.”
Dragos is going to initiate me into the mysteries of massage.
During the Communist period, Villa Belvedere was an exclusive holiday destination for Party nabobs. These days it’s a hotel with medical facilities. It looks like no maintenance work has been done since 1989. The dining hall is empty. At nine in the morning the tables are already set for lunch.
The carpet is worn. The corridors smell of corned beef.
The medical facilities are on the first floor.
The waiting room consists of two old armchairs in the hallway. I knock on doors, loudly shouting “Dragos!”, just so people know I’m not an intruder.
Dragos turns out to be a stocky fellow in his mid-fifties, although he looks younger than that, with a hooked nose. He’s wearing a yellow T-shirt and Bermudas.
“I’ll be there in a minute,” he says in passable English. “Wait for me outside.” Fifteen minutes later, Dragos appears on the patio.
“Here there is nothing,” he says, with no further introduction. “When the Communists were here, this resort was blossoming. Now everything is lost. There is no infrastructure, there are almost no tourists, and the Rumanians who come here on vacation have no money because most of them have no jobs. The Finns, the Germans who used to come here all go to Hungary now, because there you have an infrastructure and the living is cheap. Call me tomorrow morning at eight. Then I am working at the Lorabella pension.” “Dragos,” I say. “Dr. Gogaltân promised me you’d make me the best masseur in all of Holland.” “What did they teach you in Holland?” “Relaxation massage.” Dragos gets to his feet. From 1994 to 1996 he lived and worked in the United States. He’s sorry he didn’t stay there.
“Call me tomorrow,” he says. Then he disappears back into Villa Belvedere.
I go to Hotel Roman, which also falls under the auspices of Dr. Gogâltan, and where they do massages as well. Just to be sure, I call the doctor first, but he’s already gone home.
The doctor does not put in long hours. He comes into the office at eight-fifteen, goes home at ten.
Hotel Roman strongly resembles the kind of social housing complexes they built here in the 1950s. The place is on the verge of collapse, but it seems there’s a masseuse working here who speaks German. Hotel Roman, in Ceauşescu’s day the most luxurious hotel in the whole resort, looks like a refugee center.
Refugees need relaxation massage too.
There are three elevators, one of which works. Although it’s completely unnecessary, the elevator has an elevator operator. The elevator operator is a middle-aged woman perched on a stool. On the ninth floor, where the massages are given, there are guests walking around with sheets and blankets over their arms.
The masseuse who is supposed to speak German comes out of a storeroom. She looks at me disapprovingly, and speaks no German.
“Does he have a diploma?” she asks.
“He has a Dutch diploma. He does relaxation massage,” my interpreter tells her.
“He has to have a Rumanian diploma. There are naked people around here.” “But Dr. Gogâltan said he could work on his skills here.” “If Dr. Gogâltan creates a problem, he should solve it himself.” Another masseuse who has been listening in says: “Go to Sapte Izvoare, they do massage there. I bet they have work for you.” In Rumanian, “Sapte Izovoare” means “seven springs”. The spa is about three kilometers outside Băile Herculane. It reminds me of the movies of the Serb director Emir Kusturica. Beside the river are a few hot sulphur pools. You can stand in them, but there are also benches.
Sitting in the sulphurous water are middle-aged ladies and gentlemen who are not ashamed of being overweight. Between their pronounced breasts, the gentlemen wear gold crosses on chains. The ladies’ dyed hair is graying at the roots. Occasionally you see a young thing sitting in the baths as well.
Perhaps the ladies and gentlemen are in fact retired or employed by an insurance company, but they all radiate something along the lines of: criminality is a heroic thing.
One of the baths is the operational domain of Dumitru Lungu. Dumitru Lungu calls himself Nea Mitica: “Nea” in Rumanian means something like “uncle”. I call him Maestro Mitica, because he’s my teacher.
Three quarters of my body would fit into my teacher’s belly, which he wears before him like a trophy. His bald head is twice the size of mine.
Maestro Mitica was a mineworker, but the mines closed down. So he re-invented himself as masseur. As far as I can tell he has never taken a course in massage, but the people in the sulphur bath say the mines taught him how to massage.
A Rumanian newspaper ran an article about him once. In it, he claims that his grandfather cured people’s colds by rubbing their chest, and that he himself attended various institutes of massage. The article also says that he is well-versed in Chinese massage technique.
Every day, from ten in the morning till six in the evening, you’ll find him in his sulphurous pool. Even in winter, for the water is hot.
Beside the bath is a hand-printed sign saying “Massages”. For the rest, he has a box full of medicinal oils which he concocts himself.
The only time he’s not in the pool is on December 31 and January 1.
Maestro Mitica offers me a trainee post in exchange for two months’ work as masseur in the Dutch sauna where I claim to be employed.
I am a bald-faced liar, but I take my lies seriously.
First the maestro is going to give me a massage, so I can see how things go at Seven Springs.
Maestro Mitica pulls my swimming trunks down almost to my knees. The other guests have an unobstructed view of my buttocks, but they’re used to that around here. I’d noticed it before: in Rumanian massage, the buttocks receive a great deal of attention.
Mitica massages the whole kit and caboodle. Then he says that I have varicose veins and that if I see that a client has varicose veins I would do well not to touch them. That can be dangerous.
The massage itself ends with Mitica pressing a chunk of crystal against the customer’s calves and the soles of his feet, in order to disperse all negative energy.
“The bone of a deer works too,” he says.
Then it’s my turn to massage the maestro.
“I don’t know how you do things in Holland, but around here we make the sign of the cross before we start,” the maestro says.
I cross myself.
The flesh is unbelievable. It makes me feel like a butcher. Shoulders, chest, neck, nothing but meat or fat. Bones are nowhere to be felt.
“Harder,” the maestro shouts.
I jab my thumbs into the meat as hard as I can, while trying to live up to my claim of being a certified relaxation masseur.
Then I start in on a second body; this time it is that of a very frail, very old lady. Her bones are sticking out all over.
The masseur has to imagine that every body is the body of his beloved. Or, as Aldous Huxley wrote in Brave New World: “Everyone belongs to everyone else.” The state is reticent to impose ideas like that on its citizens, and rightly so, but masseurs have no choice in the matter. Our fingers belong to everyone.
Afterwards the old lady says I have such fine hands, and that she hopes God will bless me.
Casa Lorabella is the magical center of Băile Herculane. Casa Lorabella is a pension-cum-restaurant with a patio on the River Cerna, which runs right through town, and a little swimming pool full of hot, sulphurous water. There is also a door bearing a sign that says: “Cabinet Masaj”. Behind that door massages are given, and electrotherapy.
Casa Lorabella is run by a German by the name of Mister Uli and his Rumanian wife. In Spain, Mister Ulli had a boat called the “Lorabella”, but his Rumanian wife wanted to live closer to her mother, which is why he opened this pension. He sold the boat to a retired Belgian whose wife had run away with most of his money. The Belgian told Mister Uli: “I’m going to spend the rest of my money on this boat, then I’m going to sail away in it, so my wife can’t take that, too.” Dragos is officially employed by Villa Belvedere, but from ten in the morning on he gives massages at Casa Lorabella.
Today, during a break between customers, he gives me a massage lesson. A young man is willing to act as guinea pig.
“Be careful for the veins,” Dragos says. “Sometimes they’ve got thrombosis. If you lean on the veins you could give someone a brain hemorrhage.”
Dragos has given massages in Saudi-Arabia, Turkey, Venezuela, Mexico and America. Now he’s back in his native country. At noon each day he and a group of friends start drinking homemade schnapps, from two to four he takes a nap, and from five to seven he goes back to massaging. Concerning his wife, he tells me during one massage lesson: “She had two ectopic pregnancies, then they removed her uterus. That’s one toy she has to do without.” He turns back around and says: “Massage is also show business.” He points to the customer’s back. “You have to say: ‘Oh, you’ve got a big knot right there. It’s completely tied up.’ And then the customer says: ‘You’re right, how did you know? ‘ Then you pay extra attention to that knot. Music is important, and make sure the lights aren’t too bright.” I smell an unusual combination of tobacco smoke, male sweat and blueberry schnapps.
“Skinny people are the hardest,” Dragos says. “They only have bones to massage.” His wife’s toy has been removed from her body, but Dragos’s toy is the customer’s body.
Every afternoon after lunch I head out to Seven Springs. Maestro Mitica gets paid for his massages: about thirty lei, somewhere around seven euros, for a twenty-minute massage. I massage for free, because I’m the trainee.
I take a taxi from Casa Lorabella, dressed in the swimming trunks I bought for two euros at Seven Springs on the day I arrived. Otherwise I’m carrying a towel and a bottle of water – massaging people makes you thirsty, especially in hot, sulphurous water. Like their customers, masseurs here wear only swimming trunks.
First the customer sits on the bottom of the pool, between the masseur’s legs. The masseur wraps his right leg around the customer’s right leg, and presses his foot lightly against the customer’s crotch to keep him from sliding away during the massage. Some customers apparently enjoy having the masseur’s foot exert a little pressure on their crotch.
Once the head and shoulders are done, the customer lies on a sort of bench in the water, and it’s time for the back, stomach, legs and arms. The massages ends with the feet, although one can also choose to have only one’s feet massaged.
A girlfriend of mine asked me: “Don’t those bodies disgust you?” I answered as honestly as I could: “No.” Most of my customers do not have attractive bodies. The amount of hair growing in the most unlikely places can be overwhelming. The most shocking parts of the body are almost always the feet. Ingrown toenails, corns that seem to have been in place for decades, untreated open wounds. Still, none of that matters.
The masseur, like the customer, is almost naked. That shared vulnerability leads to compassion.
At Villa Belvedere, where I also help out with the electrotherapy, the masseurs wear clothes. During the electrotherapy sessions in particular, I am plagued by sadistic fantasies.
But not in the sulphur baths. Although I know that I am not a trained masseur, I hope that my hands provide pleasure for people who perhaps are rarely or never touched.
When my first novel came out, one critic wrote that I was a natural-born storyteller. I found that such a peculiar phrase that it has stuck with me all these years. What I am is a natural-born gigolo.
At Villa Belvedere, the sessions start at eight in the morning. Dragos always wanted to be a concert pianist; he studied piano for eight years in the Rumanian city of Turnu Severin. Then he discovered that his hands were too small.
Every morning, Dragos asks the same question: “Where are all the patients?” Sometimes he knocks on the guests’ doors to remind them that there is a masseur in the house. Dragos is a man who seems to be on good terms with his own desperation.
Dr. Teleman, a chain smoker in her early fifties, works at Villa Belvedere as well. She mostly does electrotherapy.
This morning her patient is Renate, a 55-year-old Rumanian woman who lives in the Black Forest, where she works these days as nurse in a retirement home.
I place the damp cloths on Renate’s knees, the doctor attaches the electrodes. The doctor leaves the room. Renate and I are alone. “It’s as though ants are tingling across my knees,” she says.
I sit down on the bed across from her. Renate launches into her story: “In my growing-up years I worked in the tourist industry, here in Bâile Herculane. It was lovely around here, at least until 1989. Germans came, and Finns, the big tour operators brought them in. We were living in paradise, but we didn’t realize it. Everyone knew what they had to do. There was no unemployment. Sometimes I’d get tipped a D-mark. That was a fortune back then, and almost everything was free. I did the foreign currencies at Hotel Roman, the foreigners had to change their money with me. I was absolutely gorgeous back then. That’s why they gave me the job. Sometimes the chef would bring me a plate, and under the plate there would be banknotes and a wish list. That meant he wanted me to get a few things for him from out of the country. Rumanians need a powerful authority. I knew that even back in ’89. They can’t handle freedom like this.” She begins rubbing her tummy.
“I could definitely stand something to eat,” Renate says.
She calls for Dr. Telemann, who comes from the cubicle across the hall where she always retreats to smoke between patients.
Dr. Teleman promises to return with some food.
“I don’t eat enough,” Renate says. “In the Black Forest I sometimes stuff myself at night, because I’m so angry about having lost everything.” Dr. Teleman comes back with some slightly burned toast. The doctor gives me a few slices as well.
“Not even a plate,” Renate fumes. “Just look at this.” She takes a bite. “I can’t eat this,” she says. “It’s burned. But I don’t dare to throw it away.” She stuffs the slices of toast into her purse.
Later, other Rumanians will tell me that Renate probably spied on the foreign tourists.
“Why don’t you walk me down to the baths?” she says.
I go with her.
“I didn’t bring a bathing suit,” she says. “So I guess I don’t have much choice.” She drops her towel. She forces me to witness her nakedness.
Her face has perhaps seen better days, but her buttocks are divine.
“This used to be paradise,” she says again in a whisper. “And now? Everything kaputt.” For a moment, the nostalgia of the former spy becomes my own.
Afternoon temperatures here rise to around thirty-six degrees Centigrade. Dragos, despite the heat, goes to drink with his friends at Casa Lorabella.
There you have Dr. Bogdan Raikanu, a retired acupuncturist who looks like a Nazi doctor from some film. He wears a lab coat and brings in homemade liquor in plastic bottles that used to contain spring water. He pours drinks for everyone. Casa Lorabella provides the glasses, ice cubes and honey. In Rumania, people like honey with their vodka.
Dr. Raikanu has no children, and no one here ever mentions him having a wife. In addition to acupuncture, he also used to write haiku. He stopped with the haiku, but he still does a little acupuncture now and then.
He holds out his hands. “Look, my hands don’t shake. I can still treat patients.” I’m not completely sure about that. His work consists of drinking homemade schnapps. On this particular afternoon, Dr. Raikanu reaches out and takes my hand. That hand is clammy, but what do you expect when it’s thirty-six degrees at twelve-thirty in the afternoon and you’re getting ready to knock back your fourth glass of schnapps?
“You shouldn’t become a masseur,” Dr. Raikanu says. “You could be a homeopath, though; you’re very sensitive and you see a lot. Now I’m going to take your pulse.” He lays his fingers on my wrist, and I can’t help thinking: he’s an awfully nice man, but he looks exactly like Dr. Mengele.
At the table as well is Mr. Ernesto Tauber, a skinny man with a moustache and a T-shirt that says “El Salvador”. He’s the headwaiter at Hotel Ferdinand, but today is his day off.
Suddenly he turns to me and asks: “What do you call the secret police in Holland?” “The AIVD,” I reply.
Mr. Tauber pulls a scrap of paper from his pocket. It seems to be a shopping list. There’s only one item on the list: “camembert.” Beneath “camembert” he writes: “AIVD”.
“I’m a bachelor by conviction,” Mr. Tauber tells me. “I used to work at a roadside restaurant outside Stuttgart. Lots of Dutch people came there. They all ordered the same thing: schnitzel and fries with lots of mayonnaise. I’m Jewish, but I’m not religious. On my calendar I’ve marked the dates when my parents died, and I say Kaddish for them. At Pesach I make matzoh brei. What I would really like would be to go on working at the Raststätte, but they won’t renew my contract.” Mr. Tauber gets up from the table. He takes a final shot of schnapps.
“This is my day off,” he says. “I have to get home.”
After a few days I’ve become acquainted with the regulars who spend their afternoons in the sulphur pool at Seven Springs.
Maestro Mitica calls me Albert. We communicate in sign language.
Maestro Mitica weighs a hundred and twenty kilos, easy, but sometimes he stands on people. That, too, is massage.
Occasionally I hear him pronounce a sentence containing the name “Albert” and the word “Holland”. I imagine that he’s saying: “This is Albert from Holland. He’s learning to be a masseur; he needs to get some experience, so he’s massaging people for free.” Then a man or a woman, always at least middle-aged, sometimes older, will come over and sit between my legs.
“Tare!” the maestro roars as I begin the massage. “Harder!” My thumbs hurt, the hot, sulphurous water we’re all sitting in makes me dizzy. I think I’m more cut out for gentle massage.
In the pool today are two young ladies, a blonde and a brunette.
The maestro usually homes in on all that is young. But today I’m allowed to massage one of the ladies.
The blonde wants a foot massage.
I start in, but then the brunette comes over and sits beside me. “You’re doing that all wrong,” she says. She speaks a little French.
Her name is Angie, the blonde is Catherina. Angie is a professional masseuse. After five minutes she says: “Tell me the truth now, you haven’t done a lot of massaging, have you?” My cover story needs a little adjusting. “I took a correspondence course,” I say.
A man who comes to the baths every day gets into the act now. I have to massage Catherina’s tummy. He shows me how it goes. Every once in a while, his hand half-disappears into her bikini bottoms.
She doesn’t mind, or pretends not to.
I prefer not to massage tummies, because I know that incorrect stomach massage can lead to vomiting. But now I have no choice.
It’s not an ugly tummy.
After that I have to massage the insides of Catherina’s thighs.
This afternoon, the mood in the bath is quite boisterous.
I wish there was a feeling to go along with these relatively intimate doings. But the only thing I feel is the concentration needed to do the work well.
I don’t slip my hand into her bikini bottoms. I tickle the lower regions of her pubic hair instead, in the hope that she’ll find that pleasant enough.
“Would it be all right if I massaged your wife?” I ask Dragos the next day. There aren’t very many customers today, and I have a profession to learn. The few customers Dragos has he is not willing to share.
It’s eight o’clock in the morning. “Sit down,” Dragos says to me.
I sit down. On the wooden desk is a ledger in which writes information about his patients. Beside the ledger: a stethoscope. They don’t use computers around here.
I was told that masseurs always wash their hands before giving a massage. Dragos never washes his hands.
Dr. Teleman comes in. She leads me to her smoking cubicle, which she refers to as her “salon”, and lights a cigarette. She speaks almost no German, yet it’s the only common language we have. “Papa Dragos, professor, economist. Genius. Kaputt. Mama Dragos, difficult, professor also,” she says. “Dragos, only child. Kaputt.” There is no word I have heard as often in Bâile Herculane as the word “kaputt”.
That afternoon, at Casa Lorabella, I am allowed to massage Dragos’s wife. I had expected him to have a young wife, but Dragos’s spouse is as old as he is, in her mid-fifties, she has short, gray hair. Her eyes are prettier than her teeth. Her name is Marianna.
She shows me her breasts.
I warm the oil in my hands, the way I was taught. Never lose contact with the body, always keep one hand on the customer’s body.
Marianna tells me that she works as receptionist at a big hotel in Bâile Herculane. “Dragos never massages me,” she says. “This is lovely.” What more could you ask for. A satisfied customer.
Dragos’s wife purrs like a kitten.
That evening we go to dinner at a fish restaurant on the Danube. Across the river is Serbia.
During the Communist era, Rumanians were shot and killed while trying to swim to Serbia. During the international sanctions against Serbia, a lot of smuggling went on around here.
Dragos talks about Saudi-Arabia, where he worked as masseur for three months. That was as long as he could stand it. “Compared to Saudi-Arabia, Communism was perfume,” he says.
He lays a hand on my shoulder. “I hope you find a good job as masseur in Holland. I am a rehabilitation specialist. What I am doing now, giving these massages, that is kitsch.”
Deep inside me dwells the ambition to be a Jesus for this day and age. Massaging as I go, foot by foot, shoulder by shoulder, I am making good on that ambition.