First there was Jennifer, who was much more Vail than Vladivostok. I met her and her well-trained hands at the Spa at the Mandarin Oriental, New York's latest luxury inn occupying some of the higher floors of the new Time Warner Building overlooking Central Park. When I have friends to impress, she is the one I will talk about. "Oh, haven't you been yet? It's quite the best in town, you know."
Connoisseurs of Manhattan's spa circuit are free to disagree, but there is no question that the Mandarin's is no common or garden sauna. Actually, there is no sauna, but rather a circular steam room which was less sweat-inducing than my local subway station on an average July morning, an oversized whirlpool with black marble sides and curvy beds of stainless steel bars just beneath the bubbles and, of course, a series of coolly appointed private massage rooms.
The experience at the Mandarin is deluxe and proper - and a bit boring. Less about hedonism than you might expect, the spa has become a new spot for businessmen to take out their clients (more convenient than a golf course) and even seal multi- billion-dollar deals behind the protective veils of steam. Jennifer, meanwhile, applies exactly the right pressure in the right places - and none in the wrong places. She has an almost origami talent with the towels, folding them back and forth to ensure that my more intimate corners are never exposed to the light.
Massage-table etiquette is not something that Alex, by contrast, has ever worried about. But then the Russian and Turkish Baths on East 10th Street in the East Village are very, very far away from the Mandarin. In operation 365 days a year since 1892, this vaguely intimidating establishment, with leaking pipes and cracked tiles, is the last survivor of the scores of bathhouses that once dotted lower Manhattan, serving its immigrant communities in the days before homes had their own plumbing.
If the Mandarin spa symbolises the new glitz of modern New York, then the 10th Street Baths offers a glimpse into the soul of the city as it once was, a swarm of immigrants from around the world. I descend the steep stairs into its netherworld of baking rooms - including a crypt-like chamber heated to 250 Farenheit. Men and women of all ages, ethnicities and social castes shuffle around in plastic slippers. Most voices seem to be East European. There are orthodox Jewish men too, with their long ringlets of hair. This is their only genuine schvitz in Manhattan - Yiddish for a place, literally, to sweat.
"Massage?" This is Alex, who escorts me first to a private room and tells me to get naked. This is the first and relatively gentle stage of our session. No aromatic oils here, just some generic baby oil pumped from a plastic bottle. Meanwhile, Alex has a bad case of the sniffles.
Eventually, he escorts me back downstairs and points to the large, tiled plunge pool. Convinced it will cause me instant cardiac arrest, I obey, gasping as I emerge from the refrigerated water. From there he leads me into the Russian room, chooses a stone shelf beside the oven and motions me to lie face down.
For the next several minutes, my lungs bursting from the heat, he whips me all over with a bunch of oak leaves, specially imported, he says, from Russia. This is the moment my shorts are stripped down. My buttocks, for everyone else in the room to see, must also benefit from the touch of the twigs. Occasionally, without warning, he empties buckets of ice-cold water over my head. The shock each time is intense.
Jennifer had given me probably the poshest rubdown available anywhere in the city. But for my money I would take the wheezing and slightly grotty schvitz over the genteel pampering of the Mandarin Spa any day of the week. The Mandarin spa could frankly be in any big city in the world. But the 10th Street Baths are unique. There I was taken out of myself. And taken too to an old New York of 100 years ago that otherwise would no longer exist.
We are used to labelling America as a country obsessed with its own patriotism. So, I am left slightly perplexed by the experience of New York's bid for the Olympic Games. I heard Jacques Chirac on the radio explaining in Singapore how the Paris bid was really France's bid, because the whole country was behind it. Here, even New Yorkers seemed at best diffident about it; the rest of the country couldn't have cared less. An informal survey in this week's New York magazine showed a majority of this city's denizens pleased that the Olympics are not coming here.
Maybe it was the organisers of the New York bid who failed to stir popular enthusiasm. We had billboards promoting it, like you did, but they were hardly eye-catching. Or maybe America simply has Olympics fatigue after Los Angeles, Salt Lake City and Atlanta. Or maybe it is just American arrogance. Most Brits, I think, consider winning the games an honour, a feather in the country's cap. Americans presumably are so confident in their own pre-eminence that winning the Games was neither here nor there.Reuse content