Opinion

My Polish massage: a story with a moral

Photo of Alex B. Berezow
Alex B. Berezow
Editor, Real Clear Science

Everyone likes a good massage, especially if it’s cheap. Whenever I visit my in-laws in Poland, I always make sure to take advantage of the good exchange rate and the lower cost of labor: A 60-minute, full-body massage is priced at just over $38. As that famous Kazakh, Borat, would say, “Very nice!”

The massage therapist I visit is a middle-aged woman who is a former psychologist. She also happens to be built like a truck driver and has a mightily strong grip. Apparently, at some point, instead of talking to her clients, she decided it would be much more fun to rough them up a little. It was a wise career move; she’s excellent at her job.

Massages in Europe aren’t like the ones in the United States. In the States, you are allowed to take all of your clothes off, but the entire bottom half of your body is tucked under a bed sheet. Not so in Poland. Instead, they give you a towel to cover your crevice and/or appendage. The rest of your body is left uncovered, and in my case, vulnerable to the vice-like grip of the She-Beast.

After disrobing and climbing onto the table, my masseuse sets a peaceful mood with some New Age music. As I listen to the soothing tunes of the synthesizer, I try to relax. But, my masseuse has other ideas. She knows I don’t speak Polish very well, so she tries to educate me with a few grammar lessons. That usually goes well enough, until she starts asking me questions. That’s when the massage gets a little weird.

She’s very much into alternative medicine. Being a scientist, I know that most of it — with only a few exceptions — is a load of garbage. I usually have back pain, and one technique she tried involved lightly brushing my back with her hand, like she was dusting away cookie crumbs. Then, she walked out of the room, supposedly taking the pain with her. Obviously, it didn’t work, but it was a great deal for her: She got to rest outside the room and bill me for the entire hour, while I lay naked on the table wondering what’s going on.

But that was harmless compared to what happened another time. That was when my lack of knowledge of the Polish language caused me physical pain. I’m always ashamed to admit to her just how little I understand of what she says, so I generally feign understanding and typically respond to any question with, “Yes.” Sometimes I throw in a “no” just to mix things up a bit. I wish I had said no to this question.

Unbeknownst to me, my massage therapist asked for permission to use what I now believe to be some sort of medieval torture device on my back. It felt like a toilet plunger, and the powerful suction it caused left enormous hickies all over my back that turned purple. I looked like I had gotten beaten up by a bunch of soccer hooligans. And as you might have guessed, my back wasn’t cured.

The moral of the story? Don’t automatically say, “Yes,” whenever your Polish massage therapist asks you a question you don’t understand. Because you might just walk out in far more pain than when you came in.

Alex B. Berezow is the editor of RealClearScience and co-author of the new book Science Left Behind. His articles have appeared in CNN, USA Today, The Wall Street Journal, The Los Angeles Times, and The Economist, among other outlets.