Oct 19, 2014

Tap Dance Into Oblivion: Gramma de Bourissiac


My friend Megan comes in town from San Francisco and wants to try the Hammam (Middle Eastern style baths and spa) at La Mosquée de Paris, the great Paris Mosque, in the 5th arrondissement. We meet there on a day open only to women to get the works. Everything about the place is like traveling through space and time. It's an out-of-body, out-of-Paris experience.

The building is lovely with the Moorish arches that transport you right to Northern Africa. And the price is right: 48(~$65) for unlimited use of the baths and hot rooms, a body scrub, 20 minute massage, black soap, and mint tea.


I bring my sporty board shorts which, I can tell you in hindsight, are a fashion faux pas but extremely practical for sitting on questionably clean surfaces. Everybody else is either nude or in simple bikini bottom. We are given a little plastic cup with a packet of liquid soap, which is exactly the color and texture of phlegm (so why is it called "black soap"?) to be used in the pre-shower.

The main room is hot, with marble lined alcoves in which to sit and relax. It seems like it would have felt really elegant 70 years ago, or perhaps the last time they gave it a thorough scrubbing (these may be one and the same). There is a faucet with cold water, and Megan and I find ourselves gradually pouring more and more of it onto ourselves, as we talk about life, San Francisco, Paris, friends, children, parenting, shared experiences, unique experiences, exposed breasts, and all the things that help you get to know a relatively new friend better. There is another client at the hammam, probably in her mid-fifties, who walks back and forth a great deal. She is quite thin, with globe-shaped, enormous breasts that stick straight out from her chest. False or not, they just beg to be honked. Never in my life have I had such an urge to reach out and squeeze another woman's breasts.

The next room is much, much hotter -- in the actual sense, not euphamistically. There is a thick layer of fog hovering a few inches over the cold-tub. Even I am not short enough to bend myself over or submerge myself low enough to breathe in the few inches of non-steamy air above the water, though I contort myself for a few seconds trying. I can't stand breathing in saunas or steam-rooms, so I run out of the room, boobs a-flappin'.

After this, we wait our turn for gommage, a body scrubbing with a rough mitt worn by an even rougher lady. She is a big old mannish grandma -- sweaty, and about as unfriendly as they come. The woman before me is obese, with great flaps and folds all over her body, and her gommage takes about 40 minutes. After, the gommage lady hoses off the table, pulls out a different -- but still used -- mitt from a bucket and hoses that down, then orders me up on the plastic table, first face down, then face up. She only scrubs me for about 8 minutes, but we calculate that if you go by surface area, that's probably equivalent.

While I am on the table, Megan learns she can go out and buy her own, new and unused mitt for the exfoliation. It is too late for me, however, and I am wondering what kind of horrible skin disease I will contract through this unbelievably unsanitary sharing of tables and mitts. When I say "wondering," I don't actually want to know. If you know, please keep it to yourself and let me hope for the best. It's bad enough that Megan happened to be telling me a story just yesterday about when she was in a hospital in Japan in the early '90s and watched a nurse rinse hypodermic needles under warm water in order to re-use them. Luckily, she was in that hospital for a bum knee and managed to avoid getting any shots. Will I be so lucky? Only time will tell.

By the time Grandma Scrub Brush, the battle axe, is done with me, I look like I have been sprinkled with gray confetti of dead skin. So, naturally, I take another shower. Once Megan is done, we head out to the mercifully cooler massage room, where a wonderfully cheerful Moroccan lady slathers me with lavender-scented oil and gives me a truly excellent massage in a colorful Moroccon/Algerian room.


Afterwards, however, Megan and I try to shower to get the oil off, but we are so thickly coated with impermeable oil that it is if we have been industrially waterproofed. Since nothing will penetrate the oil, and we have used up our black soap in the pre-shower, we are forced to slide our clothes onto our oily skin. Later I shower at home and she showers at her hotel, and still neither of us will be able to get completely oil-free, especially where they massaged our heads.

Oily, relaxed, and possibly newly infected with some horrible skin condition, we finish off our excellent morning with a fragrant, warm chicken tagine. It is perfect for this cold, rainy day. We top it off with mint tea and a couple pastries from a huge selection of baklava-like desserts with rose-water, pistachio, almonds, and honey.

On nicer days, we could sit outside, which has its own North African charm.

The mosque is not just notable for the unusual architecture, spa, and yummy food, but more importantly for an interesting and inspiring bit of history: during World War II, the Great Mosque of Paris hid and saved hundreds of (and possibly over a thousand) Jews. Those that were of Algerian or North African descent could pass for Muslim, and at least 400 "extra" names are estimated to be on the roster of Muslim children from the time.

Those that weren't of North African descent were funneled through and smuggled out. This was all done under the noses of the Nazis and Vichy government who, suspicious that the Mosque was harboring Jews, would run surprise raids. Many of the children were simply mixed in with the Muslim children, and larger groups were also hidden in the women's area of the mosque -- where even the authorities didn't dare go (they feared antagonizing Algerians, because some troops in Algeria were also fighting the allies). The children's book we have (in translation from the original English version) is fascinating, as is the mosque itself.

But perhaps my favorite part of the day is on our way out where I stop to read the sign by the entrance/exit. It says in English, "Our hammam lends you tap-dancing, in case of oblivion. It is all the same more pleasant to use his."

In French, it reads, "Notre hammam vous prête les claquettes, en cas d'oubli. Il est tout de même plus agréable d'utiliser les siens." The correct translation of this would be "Our hammam will loan you flip-flops, in case you forget to bring yours. It is nevertheless more pleasant to use your own." However, I much prefer their translation to mine. I feel like they've got it right. I want to be loaned tap-dancing, in case of oblivion.

I also learn that "A lot of women prefer to remain high clouds..." Here, the French reads, "Beaucoup de femmes préfèrent rester nues...." and the actual translation is "Many women prefer to remain naked..." Not me. I see this perfect morning differently.  I prefer to remain high clouds, dreaming of honking a woman's grapefruit boobs, sipping mint tea with a friend, and tap dancing into oblivion.

THE CHEESE: Gramma de Bourissiac

Gramma de Bourissiac is a raw goats' milk cheese from the department of Lot -- named after the river Lot that runs through it, in southwestern France, in the Midi-Pyrénées region. It's a farmhouse cheese, made at the Fromagerie des Landes.

Like so many of the goat cheeses from the Dordogne region, this one is excellent. It's thick and creamy, with a soft, oozing layer beneath a delicate white mold crust. It's mild, but with just enough goat and salt and tang to have some character. As far as I can tell, the only place you can buy this cheese outside of the farm itself is at the Laurent Dubois stores in Paris. I suspect that, as with other of his prime cheeses, he has brokered an exclusive deal to carry it.

Gramma de Bourissiac basically sounds, to me, like what you would call Grandma Scrub Brush, the battle axe who exfoliates me under hygienically questionable circumstances.


  1. I hate hammams ( I feel like I am drowning in steam, very claustrophobic), I am not fond of vigourous scrubs, and I abhor being even slightly oily .
    If you add that I don't even like north-african pastries, your day at the mosque sound just hellish to me !
    (Anti-hygienic procedures being in this case the least of my worries)
    And yet, your post and your pictures are just great !
    Actually, I spent a delightful afternoon in this garden a few years ago, drinking mint tea and gossiping with my BFF, I highly recommend it in mild weather.

  2. So, muslims are taking away womens rights systematically with their religious conquest of the world. You decide to financially support them by going to this hammam, brilliant idea.
    4:34 Beat disobedient women

    “Men are the managers of the affairs of women for that Allah has preferred in bounty one of them over another, and for that they have expended of their property. Righteous women are therefore obedient, guarding the secret for Allah’s guarding. And those you fear may be rebellious admonish; banish them to their couches, and beat them. If they then obey you, look not for any way against them; Allah is All-high, All-great.”

  3. Ow it is not a moorish arch, its a roman arch (architectural wise, arches have been around for millennial s, the muslims had thier european slaves (occupied ppl) build their structures hence the comparison with north africa, the caucasian races used to inhabit north africa before they got conquered by the arabs.


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