Text: Tom Czaban
Foto: Jan Flaška
According to white bear theory, the more you try to suppress a thought the more prominent it becomes. Tell someone not to think of a white bear and they’ll spend the next five minutes thinking about the damn thing. I have a similar relationship with self-care: the more I engage in ‘relaxing’ activities the less relaxed I feel.
It’s been like this ever since I can remember. My Dad took me to my first sauna when I was five years old. In the changing room he explained that I had to remove all my clothes, but because he used to wind me up all the time I refused to believe him. Eventually he stopped trying to persuade me, “Fine, if you want to wear all your clothes, go ahead.”
Several minutes later I found myself fully dressed in the sauna, surrounded by naked adults. Puddles of sweat collected beneath my eyes and filled my jeans pockets. I regretted my decision but doubled down and refused to undress. My Mum wasn’t too happy with me (or my Dad) when I emerged outside in soaking wet clothes, and somewhat predictably I caught an awful cold the following day.
That may well have been my first self-care experience: entering the sauna healthy and leaving ill. There have been a string of equally unsuccessful self-care attempts since. Nevertheless, I recently decided to give self-care one more go.
Attempt one: Thai massage
First up, I booked a Thai massage at a place in CB I regularly visited pre-Covid. My specific reason for attending regularly was that as a returning customer I get a discount rate – the normal “tourist” price is way out of my budget. A receptionist welcomed me into the lobby to the sound of Buddhist chanting. She happily announced that it had been so long since my last visit that I had to pay full price. “But you were shut for Covid.” I told her. “How could I have come here?” “Rules are rules,” she smiled. “No one’s forcing you to have a massage. If you don’t like it, leave.”
I barely had a chance to consider this ultimatum before she added: “Well? Are you having this massage or what!” Her confrontational attitude was not engendering a state of relaxation. “Yes, obviously I’m having it,” I shot back, sending globules of spit onto the stone Buddha head on the counter. She nodded, smiled, and led me to the changing room, politely explaining how the shower worked as if the quarrel had never happened.
For most of that massage I could think only of the injustice. “You’re very tense,” the masseuse told me. When I relayed my sad story, she replied that she had just arrived from Thailand, where the same massage cost three dollars. Then I felt guilty and depressed as well as frustrated. But the massage was excellent and by the end of it I felt marginally better than when I had arrived. This upturn in fortune lasted all of two minutes. Back at reception I discovered card payments were no longer accepted. I didn’t have enough cash on me for the exorbitant massage, so I had to traipse through the freezing streets and pay a withdrawal fee at the nearest ATM, before returning red-faced to slam the money on the counter.
Attempt 2: The steam room
For a cheaper self-care experience, I decided to try the steam room at the Sokolský ostrov public swimming pool. I arrived to find the tiny room packed with blubbery beery bodies. There was just one thing missing. Steam. I sat in the lukewarm dampness for a few minutes, before enquiring: “Is it not working?” The man next to me shook his head, “We’re waiting for it to warm up.” After this, a pattern emerged. A man, bored of waiting, would rise with an irritated sigh and exit the steam room. Another would enter, look the room up and down for a few seconds, and announce: “Is it not working?” Upon being informed about the wait, he settled down with anticipation, and the cycle began all over again. For the next thirty minutes only one guy deviated from this configuration. Instead of sighing he quipped: “I’m going outside to warm up,” closing the door behind him to a ripple of laughter.
The expensive massage and freezing steam room put me off self-care for a while, but not forever. A month later a friend invited me to the new sauna complex at IGY. Against my better judgment I accepted.
Attempt 3: Saunia
Saunia is a colossal maze of dark corridors, hidden doors, and odd design choices. Half-naked people stumble around in a hot daze, pondering the difference between twenty and thirty degrees of humidity, drinking water from huge plastic beakers, and forgetting which cubby hole they left their belongings in. Signs remind visitors to practise ‘ethical behaviour’, but as politicians constantly demonstrate, ethics is subjective. Some sauna-goers think it’s ok to loudly hack up phlegm in the corridors, others fart loudly in the shower. In the sauna itself, many talk at such volume the people in the supermarket below can hear. Fortunately, no one tried to talk to me. My cousin once met a man in the sauna who gave her a business card. She sat in the burning heat, holding the soggy card, wondering where the hell he had pulled it out from.
The bar area at Saunia is cavernous, echoey, and scattered with ugly plastic patio furniture. Visitors lounge around in various stages of undress, creating a hospital waiting room vibe. The guy next to me clutched his beer while staring hauntedly into space, as if reliving every mistake he’d ever made. Elsewhere, a couple argued in whispers, the quarrel culminating with the woman sobbing into her sheet. At the bar, a man was ordering a large cheese panini. This struck me as an odd choice mid-sauna: eating grilled cheese and grilling his body all at once. Behind him another man waited patiently in line, fully naked. It felt like a scene from One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest.
The steam room opposite the bar resembles something you might find at the back of a strip club. A pinkish haze illuminates the circular room and the huge white pillar at its center. For a few minutes an elderly pair and myself were alone in there. Then a giggly teenage couple entered and unfurled the shower heads that hung from the wall. I’d assumed these were for cleaning the place, but the teenagers had other ideas, proceeding to erotically wash each other. The elderly couple didn’t know where to look. Luckily, the steam soon kicked in so we couldn’t see each other; only the sound of kissing and giggling remained.
I retreated to the relaxation area: a room slightly larger than a closet with the most blinding lights this side of Europe. I lay on a hard plastic lounger, failing to shield myself from the glare. I felt like a lizard in an aquarium, resting on one of those faux plastic rocks beneath a light that is supposed to emulate the desert sun. On the wall a huge plastic canvas boasted bright green artificial grass. I joked that if I squinted I could pretend I was in Vietnam, my friend replied that I needn’t pretend too hard because the picture had been made there. I left soon after.
How I feel about self-care now
After recounting my visit to Saunia to a British friend, he asked if I could remember the last time that I genuinely felt relaxed. The question caught me off guard and I took some time to consider it. “Yes,” I said eventually. “Last week I was walking by the frozen river near my house when I noticed some ducks trying to cross to the other side. They walked with such precision and purpose that it put me into a kind of trance. Watching them I felt completely relaxed.” My friend snorted, then began to laugh. “Seriously Tom, you need to get a life! Soon you’ll be telling me you enjoy sitting on park benches, feeding the bloody ducks!” He was only messing with me, but hot anger rose through my stomach and tickled my neck. In that moment I realized I can no longer even TALK ABOUT self-care without it having a negative psychological effect.