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Famous European Spa Towns

Christian Kerber European spa

Photo: Christian Kerber

And so, during the days I spent ogling vast hotels, drinking endless mugs of odd, brownish water and waiting to see if I felt any healthier—and relaxing, it’s true, into a familiar routine of baths and walks and potato-laden Central European meals—I kept hoping to come across a ghost. A dapper man in his early seventies, say; a hypochondriac, but one still amiably interested in your health problems as well as his, chatting with a somewhat stooped woman in German, or Polish, or Hungarian. A person, in other words, like my grandfather, the kind of career expatriate, born a citizen of a country that stopped existing 90 years ago, perfectly at home in this world that right now still exists largely in the imagination.

But naturally he didn’t turn up. I looked for him in the sidewalk cafés, where signs advertised fees for hourly Internet usage; I looked for him in the Kolonada, where one afternoon I sat eating a tepid grilled cheese sandwich, trying to eavesdrop on the babble of German and Russian and Polish nearby, languages I’d grown up overhearing if not quite understanding; I searched in the Nostalgia Restaurant, where one night I had a surprisingly good goulash with a wonderful local wine served by a waiter whose crisply expert English put my attempts at even rudimentary Czech to shame. A bit glumly, I promenaded and bathed and strolled and ate during those days, relaxed but unfulfilled.

And then, on my last morning in Marienbad, I went down after a restless night to the enormous, empty breakfast room at the Hotel Esplanade for a final meal. I was, at that early hour, the only guest amid a little crowd of waiters and chefs and experienced the inevitable feeling of silliness that for middle-class people goes with being waited on hand and foot. And yet it was precisely this tension between the grandeur of the setting and the slightly clownish emotion of the moment that jarred me into an imaginative leap that finally allowed me to reconcile the "new" reality of Marienbad with the old world I had been seeking.

As I looked at the six young waiters and chefs, with their Slavic pallor and high cheekbones, furtively adjusting the absurdly high toques and the blue neckerchiefs of their brand-new uniforms while they stood beneath the enormous flat-screen monitor hanging from the ceiling, it occurred to me that perhaps it had always been like this—had always been the case that when you were in these dreamlike places, you had to keep adjusting your fantasy to accommodate the reality of actual life. Perhaps you always wrinkled your nose at the clumpy tourists, rolled your eyes at the ostentatiously expensive clothes of the Russian nouveaux riches in the next room, breakfasted self-consciously while watching the waiters fidget with their collars and the maids suddenly spring into action to clear dirty dishes and adjust a place setting when the manager walked by. Perhaps the music always struck you as too saccharine; perhaps, even then, the paint was too fresh and the carpet too bright. Perhaps it was never a generic, romanticized "then," but always somebody’s quite ordinary "now"—my grandfather’s in 1971, my great-grandfather’s on a morning in 1912 when he, too, sat down to breakfast with nothing more on his mind than how to spend another blissfully monotonous day.

This, I now think, is the secret that these places were whispering to me, in their different ways. It is surely no accident that the element these spas so famously share is running water—always the same, yet always moving. This should have been my clue about the real value of the baths, which others before me surely discovered and which I came to appreciate rather late. Be careful of looking for the past: you may be so intent on the dreamy then that the now will vanish before your watchful eyes.

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