Not a Cliche
Vabali in Berlin is what someone on an American style holiday show would call an ‘oasis of calm’. It is right in the middle of Berlin but even when you are sitting naked in Pandangan, the upstairs sauna, with a picture window and a wide view, all you can see is trees. No one can see you except the reclining Buddha outside the window. And the other naked people all around you.
Ruby was there to sort her life out and Vabali Berlin is where we started. Gently perspiring, breathing and silent. Looking at trees and lawns and ambling bodies slipping into the hot tub in the garden. A rambling hippy theme park with a coloured map and blackboards with timed activities involving oils and leaves and little pots of salt. It was Germany after all. Vabali is a green and calico surprise quietly spreading out amidst the traffic and trains of Hauptbahnhof.
After the warm-up we went to a slow disco in a silent church. It was called Bhuana – Organic Lounge Sauna. It had wooden slatted windows with lights that imperceptibly changed colour; the colour was the quality of 1970’s ice lollies – organic ones obviously. My favourite was the luminous orange. Ruby said her’s was the purple.
If you have ever been to the south east coast of England you will know how pebbly the pebbles are and how icey the sea. The kind of sea that not only makes you gasp, but makes you ache to your core. You have to get out immediately, but you can’t because the undertow pulls you back. I once met a new boyfriend called Adam in the sea at Brighton. We only got together because I was stuck in the tumbling pebbles unable to swim back to shore, treading water and panicking. He helped me regain the beach. England is so romantic. At Vabali you have to walk through the freezing pebble bath in a meditative way and then the warm one, then back into the cold one. I love it – it is cold water for lightweights. You can tell who has experienced English sea by how slowly they walk or how loudly they complain.
Textile Free Facility…
There are bamboo fringed signs that say the facility is ‘textile free’ – words to chill the average Brit. Years ago I went on a school ski trip to Austria with other uptight teachers. We all sat in the sauna staring fixedly and silently ahead. In the pub crawl at the end of term, Tony the head of Year 9, drunkenly confessed,
“Jinpa, I have been holding on to this, but I have to tell you…I looked!”
When it is time to swim in the milky blue outdoor pool with steam rising, you have to disrobe on a raised step like Cleopatra, before descending gracefully and wafting off into the water. I’ve been away in body flaunting Europe for years, yet still, I can’t help but walk slightly too awkwardly and curvily to avoid showing my pussy, and feel nothing like Elizabeth Taylor. No one cares because they are mostly Geman. Ruby tells me she got her period here once in public, whilst she was drunk. This time she is here to sort her life out.
In the outdoor hot tub, we lounge like mermaids and talk about my ambitious neuroplasticity training for my chronic back pain, and Ruby’s adventurous and talented mum. There is precise watery grit under my toes on the hot tub floor, and I lie on a gently bubbling hot jet of water. It does nothing for pain, but it does some intricate work on my soul.
Last time I came here I had a Hugo, which is an aperitif made with prosecco and elderflower cordial. I had it the last five times as well. It was like the drink version of a midnight blue jacuzzi with snowflakes melting on your eyelashes. This time it is like drinking from an alcohol-laced alpine spring on a mountain. Given Ruby’s reasons for being at Vabali, she initially hesitated about the Hugo, but she made the right choice.
The sun mixed with the wind and we walked slowly around the garden through the trees, in our white robes, like rich people. We hadn’t started to sort Ruby’s life yet but there was no rush; we were still drinking the Hugos. From my perspective, her life seemed full of fairground rides, nuanced interactions with thinkers and lovers, and her, standing bemused and lighthearted, looking down on it. In her enormous fake fur coat and vintage trim, she had the measure of it all. But I guess it is relative.
Once when I was at Vabali with my friend Suzie, we had waited in Sita, the Frauen Sauna, for ages for the man to come to give us a chocolate body mask. By the time he arrived the sauna was full and we were too hot to stay any longer so we left as he passed us with a tub of melted chocolate. Another time I had made it to the coffee sauna with loads of other women. The translation of Frauen is ‘Ladies’ – it doesn’t really work at Vabali. We are women. After rubbing coffee grounds all over our cellulite it dawned on us en masse that it was horribly icky, and we arose as one body to wash it off. But there was only one shower for the Frauen Sauna so we stood awkwardly polite in a naked coffee-begrimed queue, dying inside, but smiling serenely on the surface, willing the woman ahead of us to hurry the fuck up. Ruby said she didn’t like the idea of smearing herself with food. I saw her point. I am not sure why it is mainly the women’s sauna that has the food thing, and I am not going to wonder.
Ruby Gets Sorted
Trying not to clatter in the calm, we drank German herbal tea and then fell asleep on the water beds in a darkened room. Ruby has alabaster skin and red hair falling all the way down her back like a pre-raphaelite virgin. And when she walks, it is like a tentative, delicate, baby animal. Which is weird as she is vehemently, raucously argumentative, and takes no prisoners. She is sometimes riddled with self-doubt. She has pet rats – which escape. By now I thought she must be feeling pretty sorted out.
Being at Vabali Spa is like being at a Berlin club. You spend many many hours with no idea or care for the time. You wander around feeling spaced out looking for your friends, and don’t really care if you find them, as you will make others. You are sure that one of the other rooms has an amazing vibe and is where it is all happening and although you love the bit you are in, you simply have to go and explore the other bits. And they are great too. The main difference is that by the time you get home, you are squeaky clean not grimy, you have spent 100 euros not 20, and you feel amazing – not like a wrung-out dishcloth. Oh, and you have not had to mentally prepare before using the toilet.
In the afternoon we sat down in the smoking area to sort out Ruby’s life. She had thought ahead and fished out a notebook and a pen with a dolphin in it from a plastic bag. She then rummaged further and produced tobacco, filters and papers. Finally, she put on some large angular sunglasses and sat poised with a pen, looking at me expectantly.
It took about an hour to do it properly. She thought she was about ten years worth of unsorted, but I quickly realised she was merely a version of her plastic bag – she just needed a bit of rummaging and re-arranging. By the time the sun touched the treetops Ruby had given me a hug, and we were drinking springtime Rose. On paper at least, Ruby’s life was sorted. Call me the Wolf.
We celebrated by going to the Banja sauna where we were relieved when a woman shook big bunches of leaves at us, rather than hitting us with them. Then we went to Vabali Di Luna – the infusion sauna, and a hot guy with a small sarong used a huge cloth fan to beat burning grapefruit-filled air at us. We sat on the bottom step with a clear sightline to the door. But actually, it was a German woman who had to do the scuttle of shame. We just stayed for the stinging salt scrub and left calmly with the other pros. Sorted.