Not because Iâ€™m a hundred years old but for other reasons which wonâ€™t be of interest toÂ the reader (fortunately not health reasons), I happen to have visited many spas inÂ Germany, both well known and lesser known ones. Baden Baden, Bad Mergentheim, BadÂ Kissingen, Bad Bocklet, Bad Ems, Bad BrĂĽckenau, Bad Nauheim, Bad Kreuznach asÂ well as many others with the prefix Bad, meaning bath, and Iâ€™m not sure which is theÂ most beautiful.
They are all so neat, lovely, clean, tidy, with elegant old or modernÂ buildings, many flowers and fountains in the parks, a lot of benches where old people canÂ rest, with swimming pools and springs where thermal water comes full of iron, sulphurÂ and many more metallic elements. And besides all this, one can find a palace or aÂ medieval castle, a friendly cafĂ© where one can have a sweet or a restaurant for a schnitzelÂ with fries and a beer. â€śGemĂĽtlichâ€ť, as the Germans call it, itâ€™s like the American wordÂ â€ścozyâ€ť: all that is warming body and soul, all that offers calmness, relaxation, familiarity,Â a pleasant environment in other words.
Bad Kissingen must be the flagship of the German spas.
A Mykonos for the old, aÂ Mallorca in Germany, an island without sea.
With so many tourists coming and going, itÂ gives me the impression of a Greek island, even though itâ€™s a completely differentÂ landscape. This impression is underlined by a beach bar playing loud music, surroundedÂ by chaises longues and sun umbrellas on the bank of the Saale, the river running throughÂ the city. Itâ€™s an artificial beach which resounds of an island. On top of that, the wholeÂ vacation atmosphere and the fact that all these people are here for holidays, remind meÂ more and more of the islands in my country, Greece. Anyway, people tend toÂ look for similarities and parallels with familiar things, thatâ€™s why for me holidays equalÂ islands.
I havenâ€™t yet been to the Greek spa town of Aidepsos but I can picture it like BadÂ Kissingen. A gold mine for hotel owners and other business people, with bad qualityÂ restaurants â€“ of course there are exceptions where one can eat well- because it is a well-known fact that senior citizens arenâ€™t very selective, they eat big quantities but the qualityÂ isnâ€™t a priority. Everything seems good to them, as long as they can fill their stomach andÂ have company during their meals.
One observes the elderly here in Bad Kissingen, and there remains no room forÂ imagination in regardsÂ to oneâ€™s future. If you are so lucky as to live after seventy, itâ€™sÂ possible that one of your limbs will suffer one way or another. Rheumatism, arthritis, youÂ will shrink and bend, and become hunchbacked, your feet will swell, your fingers willÂ become deformed, youâ€™ll start limping or your damned scoliosis will start showing, theÂ one with which you were diagnosed as a child but you didnâ€™t listen to the orthopedicÂ doctor when he told you to do some exercises in order to beat it.
But even if you get through it all without a scar, Alzheimerâ€™s or any other form ofÂ dementia is lurking, in order to make you look or feel lost in space, opinionated like aÂ toddler, happy-silly.
You can make a fool of yourself in other ways, too: by peeing in your bed, by makingÂ advances to your nurse or to your women relatives when they come to visit. And if all ofÂ the above isnâ€™t enough, there is cataract, hearing loss, a stroke, or a heart attack,Â Parkinsonâ€™s disease and so many more as you canâ€™t imagine.
By looking at these white-haired heads your own life passes in front of your eyes like aÂ film.
You can watch your last years on earth. And if this is a bit sad, you may wonder asÂ you look at the white-haired heads what their own lives have been like. Still, appearancesÂ can be deceiving. As a child, I used to observe my grandfather, a rather difficult old man,Â halved by a stroke that had paralysed one leg and one arm, an old man who couldnâ€™tÂ go anywhere without his walking stick. It was impossible for me to imagine how much heÂ had seen, how many things he had done in his life. Adventures of all sorts.
And when one looked at my father, during his last days, with his look so empty, with hisÂ eyes so lost because of the dementia, one would be unable to believe that this man whoÂ held his newspaper upside down pretending to read it, had really read during his lifetimeÂ entire encyclopaedias and countless volumes of literature, history, mathematics, etc. OneÂ would be unable to believe that this man used to be the soul of the party, always shiningÂ not only thanks to his knowledge, but also thanks to his intelligence, his sense of humour,Â to a charm emanating from his personality and his looks.
He had to pay for some things he used to say in his good days, it seems. Maybe for thisÂ â€ścast a glance to old age, pleaseâ€ť, whichÂ he repeated jokingly, imitating the words of an oldÂ beggar in the centre of Athens.
Some day I, too, will have a rigid, slow body, even if now my spirit is still quick.
Already at 39 I felt for the first time something changing in regards to my body. I hadÂ always been a â€ślapdogâ€ť, I had always enjoyed sitting on the couch reading a book, but atÂ 39, I suddenly felt I was getting tired more easily than before. I belong to these luckyÂ people who always look younger, but today, a decade after those first changes, I discernÂ other clear signs of old age, not only grey hair. On my hands the veins form a relief and IÂ prefer not to wear rings as not to underline the trunk-like circles on the skin of the fingerÂ knuckles. By the way, these were the first signs of old age I noticed on myself.
Better not to talk of the breasts, what a defeat, and as for my once-upon-a-time firm skin,Â it looks like a knitting pattern thanks to the many folds of the cellulite. The spots on theÂ skin multiply geometrically and my hair is getting thinner every day.
Sometimes I wonder whether my need for so many confessions through writing is not soÂ much related to the era of Internet and blogs, but has to do with letting go of my constantÂ secrecy â€“ this letting go is surely another symptom of old age marching towards me.
There are, however, old people who resist. Like this lady who was sitting beside me theÂ other day in the eye doctorâ€™s waiting room. She turned to me at a certain point and saidÂ angrily: “I have lots of time in my hands. What I donâ€™t have is patience!”
On the other hand, science is progressing and will preserve us humans as ruins or liveÂ mummies as long as we have the money to pay. Still, the spectacle wonâ€™t be pleasant toÂ the other people, and for ourselves to be in this state wonâ€™t be extremely pleasant either.
Weâ€™ll be merely inhabiting the planet, fighting with all our means to keep our old glory,Â some traces of our previous beauty or of the sound, clear mind we had when we wereÂ young.
Of my bodily or mental skills, one has unfortunately left me, one that made me type fast,Â like a mad person on my keyboard. Fortunately another one has also left me, this rareÂ desire, to feel like being risky and driving my small car on a central avenue in Athens or on theÂ seaside road like an F1 champion.
Bad Kissingen is visited by old people who come here for their â€śKurâ€ť, the thermal cure.
Some of them are ill, emaciated, almost dead. Others are healthy, good-looking oldÂ people. There are old men on crutches, in wheelchairs, or should I say old women, sinceÂ women are the majority here. Men are fragile beings and thatâ€™s the reason why thereÂ arenâ€™t so many of them. This is an old peopleâ€™s society, getting older everyday as thereÂ arenâ€™t enough babies born in Europe. The old ladies look way too old, rusty, all similar toÂ one another, in their trousers and sneakers, with their white hair, not dyed and just readyÂ from the hairdresserâ€™s as it is the habit in Greece. There are here of course some who lookÂ more elegant, with their necklaces, their colourful blouses and their simple wrist watches.
The picture scares me and pleases me at the same time. It scares me because I canâ€™t helpÂ calculating: in fifteen years Iâ€™ll be like this old lady, in twenty years like that old lady,Â because as I already said Iâ€™ve seen the signs on my body and I can recognize them. TheÂ picture pleases me on the other hand because what I see in front of me are people whoÂ have completed their family or professional circle, and they are getting old with dignity,Â satisfied by what they have achieved. I canâ€™t tell if some of them are troubled byÂ questions such as these: â€śDid I do everything I could, did I offer other people all that IÂ could offer, did I, according to the Christian parable, do all the best I could with theÂ talents entrusted to me, was I a good parent?â€ť They look content, however, they lookÂ pleased and satisfied.
Three times a day, in the morning, in the afternoon and early in theÂ evening, like a medicine, they enjoy old-fashioned classical music concerts sitting on theÂ white benches of the spa town. If it rains they can do the same inside the large hall whereÂ they drink the mineral water.
The wonderful orchestra is adequately trained to meet theÂ needs of its audience, metaphorically an all-weather orchestra, which isnâ€™t bothered byÂ noises and other interventions. This orchestra isnâ€™t bothered by mobile phones ringing allÂ the time and never answered by their owners who canâ€™t hear them, isnâ€™t bothered by oldÂ ladies who remember their youth and wish to dance with trembling feet during the livelierÂ musical pieces. It isnâ€™t bothered by walking sticks falling suddenly with a loud bang onÂ the floor nor by the untimely applause of some foreigners in the audience who areÂ married to German women. In their culture there is no such thing as classical musicÂ pieces divided in many parts. The orchestra isnâ€™t bothered by the dry coughing of oldÂ men or by anything else. (But I shouldnâ€™t be unfair: the majority of the audience areÂ extremely disciplined people who treat the concerts with an almost religious respect). InÂ the evening, if the senior citizens donâ€™t go to bed very early, they can gamble at theÂ casino. In the morning they go walking in the woods â€“ most of them have an athleticÂ figure, despite their age – or sightseeing.
Of course there is loneliness here, too. Many people wander alone, having a lot of time toÂ observe passers-by since their sight doesnâ€™t make reading easy for them.
There is loneliness which canâ€™t be covered by the professional company of women fromÂ East European countries, who come here to work as nurses. They, too, look all alike.
They are stout, with short hair dyed in a reddish colour, they have a plain Slavic faceÂ which was never pretty, and a body which brings to mind those doped women athletes ofÂ the ex-Communist regimes. They all, without exception, wear small golden bangleÂ earrings, a trademark of their origin, their only piece of jewelry, maybe the only valuableÂ thing they ever got or willÂ ever get in their lives.
These women make me think. They make me think of the families they left behind (IÂ used to observe them in Greece before the crisis, where they had to take care of difficultÂ old people or of spoilt children), these women who cried everytime they rememberedÂ their own children left behind in Georgia, in Ukraine, in Russia, in Bulgaria. TheseÂ women who had gone through so much, who ate with an incredible appetite everythingÂ they were offered in the homes where they worked, as if they had never seen a plate ofÂ food before. I hope these women will go to Heaven. Who cares if they arenâ€™t pretty orÂ graceful? They are so patient, full of compassion and faith, they are hard-working andÂ feel solidarity towards their fellow men. They are real angels and I wish my own soulÂ could be compared to a tenth of theirs, so that I could go to Heaven, too.
A sort of Heaven, however, is Bad Kissingen for the elderly. Or at least an antechamberÂ to Heaven, thanks to its beauty and its cleanliness.
The Germans love their country andÂ take good care of their tourists, local or foreigners, young or old. And becauseÂ everything is so well organised, you get the impression that this good and calm result hasÂ been effortless. Yet, many people have worked silently, discreetly and with a smile,Â without panting and puffing, without sweating, or showing off how tired they are.
In 1856 the prolific composer Rossini was a guest of the city, and a plaque on the wall ofÂ a building commemorates his visit.
As you walk in the streets, you see some senior citizens who are eccentric and quiteÂ different fromÂ all the others. For example the couple who think they are in Florida or inÂ Cannes. A couple not reconciled with their age. She is dressed in red, her hair is ravenÂ black and the skin on her face covered with many layers of make-up. His clothes are aÂ young manâ€™s clothes and his skin has an orange tone, burnt by the solarium. I feel likeÂ crying with pity for them. Another couple are eternal fans of Harley-Davidson, even atÂ this age. Clad entirely in black leather, they have long uncombed hair (the remaining hair,Â that is) and various chains. I feel like laughing at this spectacle. A while later I spotÂ another couple who push a pram. Their grandchild, I suppose. Then I see a dog inside theÂ pram!
Old men and old women in wheelchairs, accompanied by their children or grandchildren,Â or by a nurse or helper across the park, others who autonomously ride their modernÂ scooters or their rolling walkers with a shopping basket. There are those with traditionalÂ walking sticks and crutches and a happy few, with no support at all, who still walk onÂ their two feet, upright, defying the riddle which the Sphinx put to Oedipus.
One is young as long as oneâ€™s spine is flexible, goes the wisdom of India, and it must beÂ so indeed. Iâ€™d like to add that one is young as long as oneâ€™s spirit is young. If you are soÂ lucky as to combine the two, then youâ€™ll never be old.
*Written in August 2013, originally in Greek, and translated by the author herself. All photos courtesy of Lito Seizani.