Thursday, March 20, 2008

17 November: Girls Just Wanna Have Fun (The IWC Spa Weekend)

It’s time at last for the IWC’s first annual spa weekend! I have been looking forward to this exciting event for months, and I’m so glad that they managed to fit it into the schedule before I left. I’ve never been to a spa before – heck, I’ve never even gotten so much as a back massage – so I have no idea what to expect. I talked Katrina into coming and us newbies decided to sign up for a simple facial and back massage. The more experienced spa-goers are opting for elaborate treatments like full-body massages and wraps, but I wasn’t ready for anything requiring total nudity quite yet. In total, about fifteen of us are going from the club, including my friends Anne, Shannon, Emily, Brenda, and Rosalie.

The IWC selected the 4-star Hotel Mercure Bad Dürkheim an den Salinen for our members-only weekend of relaxation and luxury. Located about ninety minutes from Stuttgart on the outskirts of the small town of Bad Dürkheim, this was the only hotel they could find with spa services that didn’t require a two-night minimum stay. I offered to be a carpool driver since I had the E-Class at my disposal, so I ended up with Brenda and two German women, Sibylle and Gerlinde, in my car. Originally I was going to take Eliza too, but she unfortunately had to cancel at the last minute.

Brenda met me at my house at 9:30 on this sunny Saturday morning and then we headed over to the university campus near Vaihingen to pick up Sibylle and Gerlinde. The drive up to Bad Dürkheim went quickly and we arrived at the modern, nondescript Hotel Mercure just before noon. Our car was the last to arrive; everyone else from the group had already checked in. I had decided to splurge on a single room for myself but most of the women were sharing rooms. I checked in and received my confirmation for my spa treatments, then took my luggage up to my room on the third floor. The accommodations were simple and tasteful, and a spa robe, slippers and bath sponge were arranged on the bed. I had a view across the parking lot to a vineyard-covered hill topped with a tiny chapel (photo, above). Just beyond the parking lot were the burnt-out remains of the Salinen, which gave the hotel its name. Apparently this was some sort of mineral bath where people could absorb soothing salt-infused air, but it burned down last year – I never did get the whole story. After settling in, I wandered downstairs and followed the sound of laughing American voices into the restaurant, where most of the group was assembled for lunch. I found myself seated between several women I had never met; everyone was friendly and seemed excited about the weekend ahead. I wasn’t very hungry so I just ordered a bowl of tomato soup, but the sandwiches looked very good.

After lunch everyone headed off for their afternoon treatments. I had a few hours to kill so I went upstairs, made myself some instant hot chocolate using the in-room coffee maker, and spent some quality time writing (I had brought my laptop along just in case I had some down time). My first treatment was scheduled for 5:30 and I thought it would be the facial, so I prepared myself by washing my face and wearing loose, comfortable clothing. (Some people went upstairs in nothing but their underwear and a robe, but I figured they would let me change there if that was deemed appropriate.) The spa facilities are located on the top floor of the hotel, and it was obvious from the moment I walked in the door that this place was not originally intended as a spa. It looked more like a temporary set-up in what might have been a storage room at some point. The spa itself was built into the space beneath the eaves of the building, with a low, sloped ceiling and what looked like pre-fab fiberglass walls separating the individual treatment rooms.

Somewhat skeptical, I walked in and gave my name to the young woman who appeared from one of the back rooms. She informed me that I was actually having my 25-minute back massage this afternoon, not the facial as I had expected. This meant that I would not begin my facial until 3:30 tomorrow afternoon, so my driving mates would have to wait until after 5:00 to head home to Stuttgart. Unfortunately they did not have any openings for an earlier treatment, so I would have to check with everyone tonight and make sure that they were okay getting home a bit later tomorrow evening.

I was shown into one of the small white-walled treatment rooms, with a massage table in the middle covered in towels and tranquil music playing in the background. The young woman indicated that I should strip down to the waist and lie on the table; she left the room while I did this, which I appreciated. I know the Germans are totally comfortable with nudity, especially when it comes to their beloved “wellness” facilities like spas and saunas, but seeing as how this was my first time in a spa of any kind, I was feeling a bit self-conscious! The woman came back a few minutes later, rubbed me down with a warm massage oil, and proceeded to give me the wimpiest back massage you can possibly imagine. Don’t get me wrong, it felt nice, but it was like getting a tiny appetizer when you are expecting a generous main course. She hardly used any pressure at all and the whole thing was over just about the time when I was really starting to relax. By my clock it was done in less than 20 minutes. If I had spoken better German I might have complained, but since I hardly knew what I should expect, I decided to let it slide. Feeling a bit let down, I headed back to my room, thinking that I might take a swim in the pool before dinner. I ran into Katrina on the way; she had just come from the pool area and said not to bother because it was crowded with rambunctious kids. Hmmm….this was not turning out to be very relaxing or luxurious so far! Katrina had both her facial and back massage today and had the same experience with the massage, but fortunately her facial sounded pretty nice.

Instead of going to the pool, I took a long hot shower before going down to the lounge to join the rest of the group for pre-dinner drinks. As we gathered it came out that three of us were pregnant (me, Rosalie, and an American woman named Gail) – and all at about the same stage! Fortunately the bar menu included a virgin Caipirinha (Brazilian margarita), my favorite drink. It wasn’t quite as good without the rum, but it was a whole lot better than mineral water.

One of the girls I had met at lunch, a boisterous American named Kristine whose husband is a military dentist (I never realized there was such a thing!), shared her hilarious spa experience and had us all on the verge of tears, we were laughing so hard. I can’t possibly replicate her mannerisms, but I’ll try to summarize her story. Despite being a spa newbie, Kristine had decided to go whole-hog with one of the body wraps, so she stripped naked and lay down in the reclined treatment chair. They started wrapping her from the feet up, but stopped around her thighs and left her lying there, pretty much mummified from the wasit down but stark naked on top. The spa attendant offered to bring her some tea, which was then placed on a table nearly out of reach, and since Kristine was practically lying on her back, she couldn’t drink it without great difficulty. While she was thus immobilized (supposedly enjoying the deep penetrating effects of the wrap), she got really bored and desperately wanted to get her magazine, which was lying on a chair on the other side of the room. She finally swung her bound legs out of the chair and “hopped” her way over to retrieve the magazine (keep in mind that her top half was still bare), moving as fast as she could lest someone come into the room and catch her in the act of this rather embarrassing maneuver. Needless to say, it was a rather excrutiating 45 minutes and she was relieved when the whole ordeal was over!

Kristine’s story didn’t end there; she gamely decided to try out the sauna next. One of the rooms had a sign outside that said something involving frei (which usually means “free” or “available”). Kristine’s German is still in development, so she assumed that it meant the room was available. What she didn’t realize was that she was going into the co-ed nude sauna. The place ended up being crowded with naked men (there was some sort of business conference going on at the hotel this weekend) and she had to squeeze in on a lower bench right below some guy who was literally letting it all hang out. Kristine stuck to her guns and kept her towel on, but needless to say, she didn’t linger very long. Fortunately she seems to be a pretty tough cookie and took her first spa experience in stride.

We all filed into the dining area at 7:30 and found an enormous banquet table laid out for us in our very own private room. I sat between Katrina and Emily and across from Brenda and Kristine, so suffice it to say that I was well-entertained. Katrina and I shared a tomato and mozzarella salad to start and then we both had a nice plate of venison. Several people ordered a pasta dish that turned out to be store-bought tortellini smothered in bottled tomato sauce. It was really quite awful, so someone complained. One of our servers, a robust blonde woman with a good sense of humor, came back with one of the chefs to apologize and they offered the offended guests free tiramisu to make up for the disappointing meal. It turned out that they had seven servings of tiramisu left over, so several more of us had it too (including me).

While we were lingering over dessert, Emily suddenly exclaimed, “Check out that zoot suit!” She was staring down the hall towards the reception area, and sure enough, a very dapper-looking black man was standing there in a black-and-white pin-striped zoot suit and black fedora. I can’t say that I had ever heard anyone use the term “zoot suit” in casual conversation before, but this definitely fit the bill. “Do you think he’s American?” I asked, and Emily rolled her eyes in exasperation. A small group of us (Americans all) decided to go down the hall to investigate (strangely, the Europeans among us did not share our interest in the zoot suited-man). We found him milling around the lobby along with a Tina Turner look-alike and a motley assemblage of back-up singers and crewmen. It turned out that they were members of a musical act from Atlanta performing at the wine festival in Bad Dürkheim. We ended up having a nice chat with Mr. Zoot Suit and he even came back to our dining room for a photo op (photo, above).

After this excitement, about half of the group dispersed back to their rooms, but the night was still young and a few of us were interested in checking out the hotel’s subterranean nightclub. We couldn’t hear anything coming from down below so our expectations were quite low; imagine our surprise when we went downstairs and discovered the club crammed to the rafters! The dance floor was crowded with people, every table around the room was full, plus dozens of people were milling around the bar. The music was deafening, the disco ball was spinning, and the whole place was sparkling with tiny white lights. Who knew that the Hotel Mercure was the place to be on a Saturday night in Bad Dürkheim? Our group (me, Katrina, Shannon, Sunny, Anne, Rosalie, and Marina) pressed our way onto the dance floor and did our best to come up with appropriate moves for the less-than-groovy German pop that was blaring over the sound system. At some point the DJ got the crowd doing a line dance, which only Shannon knew the steps to. It was fun for a while but they kept doing it…over and over and over and over again! Emily and Sunny finally went to get drinks while the rest of us waited at a nearby table; a few minutes later, Shannon and I spotted Anne, Brenda, Marina, and Rosalie slipping out the door. We thought they were ditching us so we took off after them. It took us a while to track them down (this involved shouting up and down the elevator shaft a few times), and Anne and Rosalie had already made it back to their rooms and had changed into their pajamas when we finally caught up with them! After a lot of cajoling we made them get dressed and come back down to the club, where poor Emily and Sunny had been left guarding our drinks.

In the end, Shannon, Emily, Sunny and I were the last standing. We went back upstairs to the lounge for another round of drinks and I instructed the bewildered waiter in how to make a Shirley Temple, since I was running out of fun non-alcoholic beverage ideas. It didn’t come out quite right, but it was close enough. At this point Shannon, Emily and Sunny had consumed quite a lot of alcohol and were feeling hunger pangs. Unfortunately the restaurant was long since closed and our inquiries at the reception desk came up with no food options other than a McDonald’s near the Autobahn. Apparently the Hotel Mercure really was the only place to be on a Saturday night in Bad Dürkheim. We finally retired to Shannon and Emily’s room, where they had some chocolate stashed away. It was getting on towards 2 a.m. at this point, and much as I didn’t want the night to end, I decided it was probably time for this future mom to call it quits. Let’s just say it was my last girls’ night out!

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