Wednesday, January 9, 2013

Land of Smiles, Stavanger Style

Many moons ago, when I was just a young whippersnapper, I lived in Bangkok, Thailand. I would like to say this was a magical time in my life; but actually it was marred by divorce, infidelity (not mine) and a mild allergic reaction to oyster mushrooms. But that, as Hammy Hamster used to say, is another story.

The upside was that Thailand also had incredible food and stellar spa services, which I availed myself of at every opportunity. Birthday? Time for a massage! Anniversary? Massage and foot scrub.Indigestion from aforementioned oyster mushrooms? Well, you get the point.

Now, having grown accustomed to a wide array of these services in South East Asia, I am forever on the look out for their equivalent in the countries I live in. Hence, upon arriving in Stavanger, one of the most burning questions on my mind was not, "When do I get to eat reindeer?" but "Where am I gonna go for a back rub?" Logical question, it seemed to me, but I wasn't getting any help on the home front. Scottish partner thinks massages are a waste of time and money. Apparently the Scottish people rarely get sick or injured, and never complain about it or see a doctor if they do. They just stoically live to be a hundred and then finally keel over, golf club in hand, with a mighty cry of "Freedom!" Or maybe that's Braveheart with Mel Gibson, I forget.Regardless, as a distance runner and self-confessed gym-a-holic, I was on the hunt for a decent massage, like the ones I used to get for 15 bucks in Thailand, although obviously approximately 8 times more expensive.

Imagine my utter delight when, on one of my "I have nothing to do this afternoon and it's not pouring with rain so better get out there" walks, I stumbled upon the Thai massage STREET. That's right. A whole street dedicated to one of God's greatest gifts to humanity. I practically drooled all over my Norwegian sweater and collapsed in a heap outside one of their doors. Maybe they would take pity on me and drag me into the incense-filled, aromatherapy temple of all things good and right in this world.

Within seconds of me fogging up their front window, a young Thai woman appeared at the front door of one of the places and handed me a brochure. "We have many kind of massage," she said. "You can phone and make appointment." I nodded and smiled, taking the pamphlet from her gingerly. Quite frankly, all the "kind of massage" looked the same to me, but who was I to complain? Sixty quid for an hour of peace, quiet and well-being.Surely even the Scot couldn't argue with that?

A few days and a couple of brutal gym sessions later I found myself back at the same front door where the kindly Thai woman had given me the brochure. Before I know it I am wrapped up in a thin cotton blanket (which I must say, was better suited to the heat of Bangkok than the frosty temperatures of Stavanger) and face down in a massage table. I hear the familiar sounds of the Thai language around me as the other therapists have a chat about what to eat for their evening meal. Thai "spa" music plays in the background, and there is the soft splash of a water feature somewhere which, while slightly annoying, is also putting me right off to sleep.

"Sawat dii kha," says the therapist as she enters the room.

"Sawat dii kha," I respond in kind, happy to get some practice in with my Thai in such an unlikely place. I smile to myself, satisfied.

This is the last word I understand for the next 10 minutes.

Off goes Thai therapist in a blaze of Norwegian. At first, because my Norwegian is baby-level, I am not sure if she is even talking to me. Or if she is speaking Thai with a Norwegian accent, or Norwegian with a Thai accent, or English and I am just too ridiculously into this massage that my brain has stopped identifying language at all. There is a dark but flimsy curtain which separates our treatment space from the others, and there are therapists and customers passing on the other side of our curtain all the time. Maybe she is speaking to one them? I make heavy mouth breathing noises like I am in deep sleep just to cover my tracks. I only hope she can hear it over the ruckus of that damn water feature.

We finally reach an appropriate moment, where I wholeheartedly believe she has just directly asked me a question. I sniffle, yawn loudly and pretend to rouse myself from my Rip Van Winkle-esque slumber.

"May kowjay phasaa nohweh. Phuud phasaa angkit, I don't understand Norwegian. I speak English." I say in my best Thai. Which instantly sounds like a sentence that would be in some ancient Siamese textbook and you would burst into laughter saying, "As IF I will ever use that!"

I can feel Thai therapist, who is now bending me into a bow shape, bristle with excitement.

"Ohhh, you speak English," she says in Thai, "And you speak Thai too! Dii maak, very good!" I breathe a sigh of relief, happy that we have found a common language. Even though my conversational Thai is pretty rusty and rudimentary at best, I am pretty fluent in massage Thai. This hurts, that hurts, I like that, stop that right now.I can handle this. And pathetically, it's more than I yet know in Norwegian.

And so Thai therapist is off again, chattering away to me in a language I thought I would probably never really use again, let alone flat on my stomach on a massage table in a town 2 minutes from the North Sea.
Surprisingly, none of it seems strange. There is a comfort in our interaction. I can predict what she is going to do from moment to moment, what she is going to ask, where she is going to move my arm, head, leg. I have heard this all before, and it's comforting to know that this at least, hasn't changed. I realize that I have been living with unpredictability for what seems like months now, and that this is possibly the first time I have known exactly what would happen next. In this moment, there is no what if I can't, what if it's not, what if we don't. The familiar takes over from the unknown. And after months of uncertainty, face down in that massage table, I finally let myself relax.


  1. And you deserve it. Establishing yourself in a new home, new city, new culture, new language, new country, is a stressful time. Enjoy! I think you are more than up to it!!!

  2. This might be my favourite post yet. But that is likely due to the Hammy Hamster reference.

  3. I actually had to look up who said "But that's another story". I could remember hearing it,along with the exact voice, but couldn't place it!

  4. WoW!!! Where is this street??? I loved reading this!

    1. Thanks so much! I believe the street is Nedre Holmegate. Thai spa capital of Stavanger, enjoy!