Teachers' Blog

Taking the Waters

Captain Renault: And what, in heaven’s name, brought you to Casablanca?

Rick Blaine: My health. I came to Casablanca for the waters.

Captain Renault: The waters? What waters? We’re in the desert.

Rick Blaine: I was misinformed.

Casablanca (1942), screenplay by J. Epstein, P. Epstein, H. Koch


As a native New Englander, I always saw hot springs as natural jacuzzis. You plonked yourself dumpling-like into pleasantly boiling broth until all tension and achiness got cooked out of your body.  Since first moving to the province of Siena more than twenty-five years ago, that’s the kind of happy use I’ve made of this area’s numerous thermal baths.  (See the excellent blog entry “Soaking in Tuscany’s Hot Springs!” by my colleague, Lisa Nonken.)

A suspicion has lingered, however.  In every formal spa structure, there’s the inevitable mysterious corridor, the daunting passageway to treatment rooms for procedures I’ve never fully managed to imagine. I’m not talking about massages and mud-baths; I mean the unfamiliar, hardcore European stuff we haven’t even heard of back in the States.  We’ve all caught distant echoes of the foreign-sounding expression “taking the waters,” but what does it really mean?

This year, thanks to my wife, I sampled the unknown.  Two years ago, you see, Valeria followed her doctor’s recommendation for a cycle of natural steam inhalations at the nearby town of Rapolano Terme.  Her sinuses ended up so spic-and-span that she coasted through two winters without so much as a sniffle, while I gucked my way through several bouts of flu and bronchitis.  Less than thrilled by the prospect of having to nurse me yet again this year, Valeria urged, coaxed, persuaded, encouraged, pushed me (pick your favorite verb) into taking preventive action — Italian-style. 

Just as she had predicted, my doctor jumped at the suggestion and wasted no time in writing me a prescription for two kinds of thermal treatments — steam inhalation for the bronchi and upper respiratory tract, and the so-called aerosol for deep-cleaning of the lower part of the lungs. While I was there, my doctor prompted, I might as well go whole hog and try the nasal shower, too.

Thermal remedies have been standard practice in Italian medicine since Etruscan and Roman days.  In the 1800s, the Risorgimento hero Giuseppe Garibaldi himself frequented the same Rapolano spa where Valeria and I set up our appointments.  With a prescription from your doctor, you pay next to nothing for the therapy.

The cycle called for twelve consecutive days of treatment; ten minutes of inhalation followed by ten minutes of aerosol.  Every day.  The school-year hadn’t started yet.  Valeria and I could free ourselves for the time involved, and we could even undergo our parallel programs sitting side by side.  I had no excuses, no justification for chickening out.  Okay, I agreed.  Let’s give it a shot.


What amazed me was how normal everything seemed to the people involved, everyone from the thermal spa’s receptionist, who equipped us with electronic cards to keep the tally of our treatments, to the helpful attendant upstairs in the “Inhalatory Center,” who kitted us out with bibs and shower-caps and the aerosol face-mask for my nebulizing procedure and the little up-your-nose forky thing for Valeria’s sinus-steaming. 

The room had row upon row of inhalation booths, each with a varied array of vapor-transforming contraptions.  And to think, I thought, somewhere there are factories that manufacture these things. 

Often the room was packed with folks.  Whole families.  School kids, parents, grandparents, all toking on the warm fog to arm themselves against the winter-cold blues.

Turns out the procedures weren’t nearly as traumatic as I had feared (though the nasal shower remains a punishment I would gladly wish on my enemies).  Will Valeria and I stay healthy this winter, thanks to our impeccable nasal and bronchial cleanliness?  Too early to say.  The cold weather’s only starting to settle in.

Jeff Shapiro

Creative Writing teacher