No pain, no gain

by Anna Torvalds

This story is part of our 'Funny Spa Stories' series, featuring tales from luxury hotel guests which were sent in for our travel writing competition.

Photo by Ahmed Rabea.


A bad hair day is one thing; but a bad hairdo can turn strong, independent women into quivering wimps, meekly paying exorbitant sums to their hairdressers, and then sneaking home to cry.

Hair is mistakenly touted as a woman's crowning glory. After all, it represents only a small part of the body. Even smaller here in Finland since our hair is usually very thin and wispy. We quiver before hairdressers, and we fear spa beauticians more. If possible, we go to Estonia.

Estonian women are very beautiful. For historic reasons, they know how to get the greatest effect from the scantiest of materials. With big international brands, they have now achieved total mastery. They apply glamour as easily as they breathe. They have made a commercial success out of pruning and primping their sensible, over-egalitarian Finnish sisters. In our sturdy footwear, we open-mouthed watch them sprint effortlessly over cobblestones in their high heels. We tend to defer to them in all matters feminine and beautiful.

Accordingly, it was with a certain humility that I signed up at a spa in Pärnu in Estonia. On a cold spring day, the establishments along the famous sandy dunes looked forbidding, lined up like correctional facilities along the deserted beach. I assumed their interiors to be warmly welcoming, maybe upholstered in pastel shades, with glinting pools and soft music.

Perhaps they are.

Mine turned out to have more of an industrial charm, with factory pipes of stainless steel on ceilings and walls of echoing corridors and vaults. Inside I was hailed, in the international language of grunts, by a gruff masseuse. Her demeanour intimated that she'd seen more than her share of flabby middle-aged women and couldn't care less. In the torture chamber itself, the ambience was compounded by a loud Russian-language radio programme exulting in military brass bands interspersed with menacing-sounding commentary.

My handler's stern sign language was unmistakable. A work bench covered with plastic was her chosen instrument. Upon it I went, and, for what seemed like the next several hours, I was brutally pounded and pummelled and kneaded. The Olympic-strength physical powers of my tormentor had me whimpering with pain, but my protests were drowned by the radio marching on. My tears went unnoticed. Both figuratively and literally, she was on top of me.

Only later did I learn of the concept of sports massage - as opposed to delicious treatments like mud baths and aromatherapy and chocolate sponge-downs and whatnot. Being no wimp, of course I shall never let on how unpleasant it was.

After all, it wasn't a bad hair day.

And wouldn't you guess, this was a repeat performance.

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