Read, Write, Run, Roam


Pet Peeve Petak

(Petak is Friday in Serbian…)

I don’t know if this will be a regular thing, but I thought I’d focus on one of the annoyances of travel this Friday. And the winner is…

crappy hotel hair dryers!

This is a European special. It’s basically a small fan that gently blows air on your head. This is a nice way to dry a manicure, but when I actually want dry hair (a MUST for RHOB) it’s not exactly what I’m looking for. There are two speeds to this kind of model: slow and super slow. The only thing exciting about this hairdryer is the mystery of whether the air will be warm, cool or scorching hot.

Ok, so I’m laying it on a little thick. But riddle me this: why are hotel hair dryers usually so terrible? According to a random website, women make up 50% of business travelers and make 80% of the travel decisions. And most women use hair dryers.* Yet most chain hotels offer a dryer that’s akin to someone waving a palm leaf over my head–without any of the luxury. So here’s a tip from RHOB, hoteliers–look out for the ladies. And if you do, advertise it: I’m more likely to book with you than lug my hairdryer everywhere.

*Totally made up fact, but it SEEMS true.


Something’s fishy with feet in Bangkok

Image from USA Today

Yesterday’s beauty spa story reminded me of another “beauty” experience: getting a fish pedicure.

Fish pedicures weren’t that well known then. (Ugh, I’ve become a hipster when it comes to spa treatments.) There was one in Virginia at the time, but the health department shut it down pretty quickly.

You might be thinking, if it wasn’t sanitary in the U.S., what makes you think it was sanitary in Bangkok?

Stupidity, readers, stupidity.

I’m kidding…sort of. Nibbling fish as a spa treatment–icthyotherapy, for Scrabble lovers–has been around for a long time. These fish, which exist in nature, only nibble on dead skin and leave the rest of your feet (or hands, or legs) soft as a baby’s bottom.

Or so I had heard. I wasn’t interested in trying it, but I was visiting a friend in Bangkok, and we kept walking past a “fish pedicure” place on our way to the subway.  We saw mostly Thai people quietly sitting with their feet in the water, looking relaxed as fish swarmed around their feet. Finally, my friend said, “Let’s try it.” And I said, “ummmm, okay,” because RHOB does NOT show weakness. I’m like the Chuck Norris of pedicures.

We paid for ten minutes and put our feet in the water. “Hold still,” a British patron advised us. So I did. And then I immediately yanked my feet back out.

It was awful. Does anyone remember Gulliver’s Travels? I felt like Lilliputians were driving tiny arrows into my feet. “It’s like dipping your feet in champagne,” the Brit said. It was decidedly not like that.

The fish don’t just nibble on the bottom of your feet—they go on the sensitive, thin skin on the top of your feet and ankle bones. While it didn’t exactly hurt, I’d suddenly feel a bite from one aggressive fish that got a little TOO close to my very much alive and sensitive skin.

I’d like to tell you I handled this experience with dignity and grace. But I got a serious case of the giggles instead. So did my friend, which only made it worse.  “I hate this,” I whispered, and we started laughing out loud, drawing stern looks from the receptionist.

Still, I kept my feet in the water and willed myself to relax. Not just because I had paid a whopping $6 for the experience, but because that’s the point of travel—to experience new things, to be a little uncomfortable, and to have great memories. At the last minute, literally, I started to relax. It wasn’t so bad after all. And when it was over, my feet really did feel amazing.

It was a worthwhile experience—one that I’ll never try again.

No. Freakin’. Way.

Beauty, gangnam-style: navigating the Korean-Virginian Spa World

Getting beauty treatments abroad is a unique way of exploring other cultures. It may not be field anthropology, but there’s something about going to a Turkish hamam, Hungarian public bath, or simply getting manicures in Belgrade that offers insight into how people like to relax and look their best. My opportunities for European beauty treatments are more limited these days, but I have a little secret for getting my culture-through-beauty fix: Spa World.

Spa World is a Korean Day spa, or jimjilbang, in Centreville, Virginia. Stepping into Spa World is probably not like stepping into Korea, but it’s a far cry from your average American spa. The most difficult–and interesting–part of Spa World is the rules. There’s a semi-secret code of conduct that can make people think, “where am I?” in an uncomfortable way, or “where am I?” in an adventurous way.  You can guess which side I come down on, but I’ll explain the rules anyway.

The most relaxing prison ever. Image from Washington Post.

Upon arrival, pay the entrance fee and get your locker key. Lock your shoes in the small lockers in the entrance, or risk the wrath of a tiny Korean lady at the cash register. Once you’re barefoot (or in slippers, if you brought them), go to the locker room and proceed to wear the orange outfit in your locker. Ignore the fact that you look like a prisoner and proceed to the sauna rooms. Gangnam dance moves are optional.

Chilling, I mean, heating, in the gem room

There are several super-hot sauna rooms with special properties like gemstones, clay, and charcoal. There’s also an ice room to cool you down. Between sauna treatments, people hang out in the main room featuring free wireless, woven lounge mats and K-pop music videos. There’s a Korean restaurant on premises where you can order by pointing to photos along the wall. Most of the patrons are Korean but make others feel welcome.

If that’s not enough of a new experience for you, get ready for the pools. Actually, get ready for what it takes to get into the gender-segregated pools: absolutely nothing. This is probably the most awkward thing for newcomers. Lose the jumpsuit and–this is important–shower and wash your hair before going into the hot baths and whirlpools. Don’t dip your head or towel in the water; it’s meant to be as hygenic as possible. Sign up for the body scrub, if you dare. There are also more “American” spa services, like massages and nail services.

All this can take several hours, so I reserve at least a half-day to take in the sauna, pools, restaurant, and lounge area. It’s not international travel, but it’s an easy, relaxing way to get that “Seoul glow,” slurp up mandu, and dream about my next trip–in half the time it would take to fly to Korea. Now that’s worth dancing about.

The Long and Short of Belgrade Hair Salons

I spotted this salon while walking by Belgrade Fair. It takes a lot of confidence to name your business after your customer’s worst nightmare. Then again, there’s not too much to fear from a haircut in Belgrade. Prices are low compared to U.S. salons and stylists are quite competent. If you don’t like your local salon, there’s no need to fret: Belgrade requires a hair salon for every 50 residents. Well, not really, but one might think it. There’s a salon on almost every block downtown.

Despite the large supply of hairdressers, one should always make an appointment. It doesn’t matter whether the salon has customers or not; walk-ins are considered strange. Even if no other clients are expected, don’t be surprised if a hairdresser asks you to come back in 10-15 minutes for your “appointment.” In other words, Hair Cuttery is non-existent here. I can’t say I’m depressed about that.

Most Serbian women have straight or wavy hair, so if you’ve got very curly or African-American hair you’ll need to research salons. I’d also recommend checking out one of Belgrade’s “India” shops for hair care products for especially thick or kinky hair.

The only caveat to getting your hair done in Belgrade is color. I’m told that the hair dye here is not the same quality one might find in the EU or US. Asking for hair glaze, gloss, or other fancy terms will earn you seriously puzzled looks. As a result some people buy boxes of their favorite over-the-counter dye on trips abroad. Fortunately, Belgrade’s best hair care product is free: low humidity. I might be steamy in the summer sun, but at least my hair looks cool.

Have any tips or good stories about getting hair done in Belgrade (or beyond)? Leave ’em in the comments. Off to wash my hair…

Just the facts, Ha’mam: Navigating a Turkish Bath

While planning this second trip to Istanbul, there was one activity I knew I’d repeat: a brutal punishment beauty treatment at a hamam, or Turkish bath. Though I wrote about my hamam experience in November, I didn’t include much information about what to expect. Here are the ins and outs of getting tubbed and scrubbed.

Discern: Where should I experience a Turkish bath? Answer: I dunno. (Look how helpful this post is already!) I’ve only been to one, so I can’t offer much of an educated opinion. However, our tour guide noted that Cemberlitas, my hamam of choice, is the place a newbie might feel most comfortable. It’s also pretty pricey, but there are ways around that. See below.

coed hamams seem…voyeuristic

Dudes: Are men in there? Answer: it depends on the hamam. There are some mixed-gender baths, but that’s not traditional. Bathing suits are required for mixed baths. In a traditional hammam, the attendants and visitors are the same gender, and no bathing suit is required.

Divestment: No bathing suit…do I have to be naked? What if I’m a nevernude? Answer: No worries, I don’t know if you can be naked. Cemberlitas visitors (who sign up for the kese, at least) are given new underwear to wear in the chamber, a fresh kese (scrubber), and  a peştemal, a thin cloth that is used as a wrap. How much women want to cover up with the wrap is up to them. You can also wear a bikini bottom or entire bathing suit. Keep in mind that few people wear suits, and the keseci/torturer will stretch it out as she works her magic. Denim shorts are probably discouraged, though.

Details: What’ the deal? Answer: Sit in the main chamber and steam. A keseci will then motion you over to her “station” on the pedastal. She’ll direct your movements while scrubbing you with a kese, a slightly softer Brillo pad. It won’t hurt but it will feel like you’re getting rubbed with an extremely cheap towel by an angry person. Afterward, the keseci will rinse you off and wash you with a foamy soap bag. Then the keseci should drape you in towels and lead you to a place to sit. This doesn’t happen at the women’s chamber in Cemberlitas, but it does in the men’s area. It’s like Nordstrom: the guys are treated like kings. Unfair.

Dollars: How can I save money? Answer: If the hamam is empty, bargain for a lower price. That probably won’t work at Cemberlitas, so bring your own beauty products and kese to scrub yourself. Keses are sold at the hammam or stores for $5-20, depending on the material. Soak and start scrubbing. If it’s your first visit, I recommend a keseci. Only then will you learn how hard you can scrub your skin without crying.

The Dirty: How can I look like a local/disguise a germ phobia at the hammam? Answer: Bring your own flip flops, kese, pestemal, bikini bottom and beauty products. In fact, if you have any skin allergies, bring your own liquid soap and shampoo. Pack a hairbrush and personal hairdryer if you’re going at peak hours. The two hairdryers provided are not enough for the Saturday night crowd. While non-RHOB readers wander out with wet hair, you’ll look like a member of a Turkish harem. In a good way.

Despite the Turkish influences in Belgrade, no baths exist in the White City today. Since there are no future trips to Turkey on the horizon, I’ll have to recreate this experience with a strong loofah and a masochistic spirit. So if you see a half-peeling housewife wandering around Belgrade, be sure to say hello!

Zlatibor, Serbia: land of fresh air and kajmak

I had the (meal) of my life....

If there was a Serbian version of Dirty Dancing, it would be set in Zlatibor. It’s a popular mountain resort area nestled among pine tree forests and known for its fresh air, hiking and spa treatments. I haven’t spotted a dance hall yet, but I’ll bet there’s one somewhere in the little shops that surround the town center.

The town’s charm is somewhat manufactured, but the natural setting isn’t. The region has been a vacation spot since the early 1800s, when Prince Miloš Obrenović summered here. (I hate to use “summer” as a verb, but he was a Prince.) The air is noticeably nicer here, and it inspires a rare sight in Serbia: physical activity. People come to Zlatibor to ski in the winter and swim and hike in the summer. But true to the Serbian spirit, it’s also known for its smoked meat, kajmak and lepinja, a special sandwich. You’ve got to love Serbia: they don’t take their exercise too seriously–and if they do, it’s followed by a meal of 3,000 calories.

True to the Zlatibor spirit, I started my first evening here with a hike to the monument. I was with several Serbian women, one of whom was wearing heels. Based on their footwear, I figured it was a short walk and brought our own Prince Miloš along for the walk. After 40 minutes of walking uphill, I felt like I was carrying a watermelon. Actually, I was luring a French Bulldog up a hill with a giant stick.

I carried a watermelon

Miloš and I have a long way to go before being considered Serbian. It was a nice walk, but there was no way I could have done it in heels. Even for this lovely view.

At the top of the hill, we stopped to admire the Zlatibor monument to fallen soldiers in World War II.

We returned to town with revived lungs and a hearty appetite. Fortunately, our hotel obliged with a buffet fit for Kellerman’s, I mean, King Aleksandra. The highlight of the meal was Zlatibor kajmak. Kajmak in Belgrade is a cross between cream cheese and butter. In Zlatibor, it’s denser and more feta-like, thanks to the fresh raw milk in the region. I like kajmak in Belgrade, but I love it in Zlatibor. Looks like I’m going to have the time of my life…and hit the hiking paths again.

A steamy Saturday night in Istanbul

I like to be put on a pedestal, but not with 45 other women simultaneously...

Last Saturday evening, Muz and I were on a tram, returning to our hotel after hours of waking around Uskudar. We looked at the tram map and noticed that the line ran straight to Cemberlitas. What’s Cemberlitas? It’s one of the more famous hamams in Istanbul. Muz and I looked at each other. This night was about to get interesting.

We had talked about going to a hamam-why not this one? Scanning our guidebook, we read that Cemberlitas was one of the oldest and prettiest hamams (check) best enjoyed in the evening (check) after a long, tiring day (check). We hopped off the line and walked in.

The basic idea of a hamam is that you get steamy, someone scrubs enough dead skin off your body to make a Silence of the Lambs suit, and then washes you. Afterward, you can get a massage or just hang out on a hot marble pedestal. Sounds relaxing, right?

It probably IS relaxing. If you’re not there between 5 and 9pm. On a Saturday. When most people are going for the same exact experience.

I walked into the main chamber to find women packed, head to toe, on the pedestal. I couldn’t decide if it was reminiscent of a cattle call or a Cezanne painting. I chose Cezanne, and hopped into one of the two heated pools off the main chamber to get nice and hot. It was less crowded than the pedestal, but when I returned to the main chamber even more people had arrived. I got on the pedestal anyway and waited. Finally, it was my turn. My attendant was good, but clearly rushed. My favorite moment was when she exfoliated my arm and gave a magician-like “aha!” when a ton of skin peeled off. I was shocked. She was beaming.

Afterward, I got a relaxing foamy wash, a perfunctory shampoo and listless massage. It would’ve been nice to stay in the chamber afterward, but all the waiting between treatments meant that I was already 30 minutes late to meet Muz. Fortunately, Muz had a good massage and a less crowded environment.

It wasn’t the Sultan-like treatment I’d hoped for, but I have to admit my skin felt “like buttah” the next day. I’d return to a hamam, even Cemberlitas. But RHOB prefers a steamy Thursday afternoon over a steamy Saturday night. For a hamam, that is.