I didn’t even realize this was an actual English word – I thought this was the Soviet spin on “spa.” It didn’t occur to me to look up the actual definition, which is “an establishment for the medical treatment of people who are convalescing or have a chronic illness.” Had I known this, I would have changed my approach, or at least been less surprised when the receptionist told me I had to see a doctor to get a “notification” to use the mineral bath or get a massage.
I found a room with the sign “doctor ordinateur.” The doctor had a broad face filled with a wide smile and two bulging eyes, like an Armenian Robin Williams. There was no computer in his office. There seemed to be no computers in the entire sanatorium. Everyone kept records in school exercise books, making columns with rulers.
The doctor spoke perfect English. He seemed far more concerned with what I was doing in Armenia alone (alone!) than with my health. Questions he asked included:
- What are you doing here? How did you hear about Jermuk?
- But how can you get around, how can you [hand waving] buy something?
- But why are you alone?
- Is your husband Armenian? [excitedly] Because your surname is an Armenian name.
The doctor seemed sure I couldn’t get around the sanatorium on my own. He took me down to the well-marked room. Nine women, wearing blue nurses’ outfits with white jackets, sat in the hallway, chatting and laughing. There was no one else around.
Each room had a golden label in Armenian, Russian and English (in that order). Treatments available based on these labels included physiotherapy, aromatherapy, therapeutic exercise, underwater massage, oxygen cocktail/inhalation, gums hydromassage, gastro or intestinal lavage and something called “microclyster.”
When I got called in for my mineral bath, I found a bathtub filling with yellow murky water. In beginner English and pantomime, the nurse instructed me to strip down and get in. Then she left. She came back to turn the water off, of course (after it had started to overflow). The tub had a sliding half-cover, so it was not nearly as odd as it could have been.
The masseuse, Ashot, was a little odd, reluctant to speak to me in any language. Also, I think he might have had a slightly lazy eye. The massage seemed like an attempt to squeeze the effort, quality and effects of a sixty-minute massage into thirty minutes. That said, my back felt pretty good after.
I returned the next morning and went through the spiel again, the masseuse mistaking my back for pizza dough. This time, however, the halls were full of women and men and children, all waiting on little couches outside various rooms. They had booklets labelled “Jermuk Olympia.” I watched two women consult their booklets’ various notations against room numbers. These were their treatment schedules.
An Armenian mentioned that her sister had come from Moscow and spent ten days in Jermuk and only one day visiting their hometown. At the time, I couldn’t understand what there would possibly be to do in Jermuk — a town of four blocks — for so long, but now I realised she may have come for some treatment of some condition. This was very popular in Soviet times, but after Armenian independence, most people weren’t able to afford Jermuk and its sanatoriums. It was bustling when I was there, however, and it now boasts a ski hill for winter tourism. It’s worth a visit just for the fresh air and greenery.