Soaking up the sea

This morning I was enveloped in a womb of seaweed paste, covered head to foot in a green gorp, then wrapped in plastic like a log of fresh cheese. For an hour, I incubated in the basic elements of the sea, again going off into that strange half-conscious dream state, a slightly hallucinatory soup of sounds and thoughts of my childhood, people I’ve loved, dead relatives, fears, joys, regrets. Many regrets.

And then Claire came back into the room, gently waking me, telling me to take a shower, wash off the elements of the ocean.

Vous êtes complet,” she said. “Vous pouvez rentrer.”

I am complete. I can go home.

photo by David Lansing

photo by David Lansing

I spent a very long time under the hot shower, thinking about all this, and then I dressed and went back to the reception room where Claire was waiting for me. I gave her my red robe and towel as well as the red slippers, which, she says, I can keep. For a souvenir. Perfect.

“How do you feel?” she asked.

“Like a man who has been reborn,” I told her.

She nodded. “This is something we often hear. It is a good feeling, yes? It makes your heart happy? Now you are balanced from the sea.”

Tomorrow morning I will drive over the arching bridge that connects the island to the mainland and back to Bordeaux where I will catch a flight to Nice. I will miss Île de Ré. But I will take some of it back with me. From the salt, the oysters, and the wine, but mostly from the sea.  

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An intensive day at the thalasso. First I go down a long white corridor where people shuffle by in robes and slippers (talk about god’s waiting room) to a room marked douche a jet. Claire using hand motions, instructs me to stand at the far end of a tiled room, my naked backside to her. She turns on a thick hose and methodically sprays my naked body with warm seawater. First my legs, than my ass, back, shoulders. Turn to the left and repeat. To the right, repeat. Face her, eyes closed, and she flushes my front with the hard spray of seawater. The whole affair leaves me trembling and feeling slightly humiliated. I like it.

The next treatment is called modelage sons affusion. With me lying naked on a plastic table and seawater spraying in from multiple jets above my body, Claire and an assistant massage and coat me in a thick, waxy white layer of goo. Their arms move over me like those of an octopus. Each muscle on the left side of my body is massaged and matched by the other masseuse massaging the same muscles on my right side. The only sound in the room comes from the soft spray of sea water (no Enya in this spa) and the involuntary sighs I emit.

photo by David Lansing

photo by David Lansing

I’m not sure what to make of all this. It’s very unlike the traditional American spa treatments which tend to make you feel good about yourself. Here, everything seems designed to slightly humiliate you. It makes you feel like an unclean baby coming out of the womb. Also, there’s something oddly religious about the whole thing. I mean, today I kept feeling like I was little more than a corpse being prepared for my first head-to-head with The Big Man. And Claire and her assistants were really just angels.

Tomorrow I have my final treatment: a seaweed wrap. To get the elements of the ocean into my skin. I don’t know about dust to dust. Perhaps it should be ocean to ocean. 

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Dull soup

The restaurant at the Atlante Hotel is a rather forlorn place. Or perhaps it just feels that way because of the weather: gray, flat, still. I sit at a table looking out at a lighthouse, blinking forlornly, offshore. Two old men in a dinghy slowly row ashore from a fishing boat moored off the banks. A path paved in crushed limestone parallels the shore and I can see a few couples catching the sea air before dinner. But their arms are crossed, their hands buried in their trouser pockets. They look down at their feet, bored. With each other, with the day, with their lives? Who knows.

photo by David Lansing

photo by David Lansing

My waiter looks like Joel Gray in “Cabaret,” right down to the mascara, and speaks better English than I do. I order a glass of the Île de Ré cognac as an aperitif. It’s served in a special inverted bell-shaped glass which sits in a cocktail glass of crushed ice—like a bowl of pale honey surrounded by thick granules of salt.

I sip the cognac, glance at the other bored or tired diners around me, all of us silently sitting here as the sun sets. Terroir is an interesting word. It generally means that something—oysters, wine, cheese—derives its special character partially as a result of the land, the nutrients, and the weather from which it comes. But there is a terroir to dining as well. A most excellent fish soup may taste quite ordinary in a setting that fails to inspire. Conversely, some pretty simple fare has tasted extraordinary to me because of the glow of a candle, the scent of seaweed in the air, the clarion of a flock of seagulls.

But tonight the dinner is as dull as the weather. I skip the cheese plate, pay my bill, and walk back to my room, passing a solitary windmill, silhouetted against the sky, in a field of yellow flowers. It looks like rain is approaching. Summer is over. It is time to leave the island. 

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The purge

There is one other thing for which Île de Ré is well known: their thalassos. If you don’t know, a thalasso is a spa that is near the sea and uses the benefits of sea water in their treatments. In fact, the root word (thalassa) is Greek for “sea.” They say the composition of ocean water is very close to the composition of plasma in our body. We are, in other words, made mostly of sea water. How perfect is that?

photo by David Lansing

photo by David Lansing

So I have arranged to spend my last few days on the island at a thalasso in Sainte-Marie-de-Ré. My therapist, Claire, issues me a red robe, a red towel, and—yes—red slippers. She instructs me to prepare myself for my first treatment, a hydrotherapy soak in warm saltwater. After I’ve changed, she leads me into a small room with a large tub facing a window looking out on the Atlantic. She checks the temperature of the water and says, “You should soak for at least an hour. To enrich yourself. We are sea animals—we need the minerals and elements that the sea provides.” Then she closes the door and leaves me to myself.

I feel as vulnerable as an exposed oyster, enveloped up to my chin in warm, green sea water. Outside, the ocean shimmers like shards of broken glass. Seabirds fly low over the waves. I close my eyes as hydrojets—like gentle hands—push and pull my limbs.

I can’t possibly be sleeping, yet I am in some sort of strange dream-like state. Like when you’re on a plane and you’re both dreaming and aware of sound and movement around you. The images in my head swirl and blend—the ocean, fish, swimming, children laughing, the voices of old lovers. It is like I’m being purged of something. Or reborn.

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Dinner at the fish ponds

When I finally find Les Viviers, after driving around in circles in Loix for half an hour, I’m certain this is going to be a mistake. After all, there’s an old fishing boat crumbling in the open field across the street and overgrown hedges hide any evidence of the restaurant itself. Still, Eric assured me that this place has the best seafood on the island, so I decide to give it a go.

The other side of the hedge is a different world. The first thing you see is this enormous jade-colored pond (les viviers means the fish ponds) lined with bamboo and spiky succulents. This place is tres hip from the house music to the rosewood and zinc tables and chairs. It definitely feels more L.A. than Île de Ré. A young woman in a gypsy blouse escorts me to a couch on the deck overlooking the pond and explains how the menu works.

photo by David Lansing

photo by David Lansing

Relax, have something to drink, some olives and almonds, she says, and when I’m ready, she’ll escort me back to the kitchen where I can see all the fresh seafood and personally pick out my dinner.

So I order a glass of La Couple rose champagne and just hang out, watching the blue sky fade to black. In the kitchen, the seafood is arrayed in tubs and tanks—all kinds of local fish, crabs, lobsters, and, of course, oysters. I go for the plancha langoustines, carpaccio of bar, and the hommard de Vivier plancha.

 The carpaccio is sweet and firm, tartly drenched in lemon juice, olive oil, and fennel (they insist on calling it anise). And on the table is a little glass cruet of fleur de sel, which comes not just from this island or even this village, but from the salt ponds just down the road.

The way the lobster is prepared couldn’t be simpler. It is halved, grilled shell-side down for only a minute or two, flipped and quickly heated on the flesh side and finished with a brush of butter and a kiss of fleur de sel and pepper. That’s it. It is so wonderful that never have I been sadder to have a meal end.

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