Thursday, 31 December 2009


Shlemeil. Shlmozel. Shmuck. The Yiddish language is full of evocative words. The last few translate mostly as dolts, or dunderheads. The Sh sound is sh-tupendous for getting a feeling out.

So it is with shmeissing. To shmeiss is a verb meaning to strike or hit. Being shmeissed is a unique way of relaxing, and was one of the shtupendous Christmas gifts from my wife to my son and me. No we were not really hit, at least with any force.

Shmeissing is the guy's answer to a spa treatment. It takes place (uniquely, as far as I can tell) in the presence of the world's only accredited shmeisser and huge Jewish bear of a man named Lee Balch, who works in (and not for) the Portchester Baths near Bayswater. Shmeissing is a kind of massage/soaking/steaming/poaching/cleaning/foot-soaking/skin scraping/cold shocking treatment which in the course of an hour will alter your mood. Favourably.

I have a feeling it could become addictive.

The Portchester Baths (plural) is an old Victorian bathhouse with a rabbit warren of various steam rooms, a sauna, hot rooms (a tepidarium-warm, a calderium-warmer,and  a laconicium-the hottest, not to be confused with the sauna), chaise longues, swimming pools, showers etc.--all designed to percolate your body and mind.  That wasn't the original intention. The original purpose was to provide people who had no hot water a chance to bathe (and do their laundry) once a week. The original ones had a fumigation room for delousing clothes and then one for delousing people before they began the process of getting clean. They had a laundry (the steam being useful for both treatments and cleaning) and the freshly deloused kit was returned to the user at the end of his visit. Such precautions are not necessary today, and no, you cannot get your shirts pressed.

You enter past a matronly woman in a guichet who charges you £22 for the privilege. I inquire after Lee, saying: "We're here to get shmeissed." She is in the main, non-committal, replying: "Inside. Downstairs. You'll find him."

Trying to break the ice, I ask her if she has ever been shmeissed. "It is a required taste," she malaprops, and directs us to a young guy who shows us the lockers which are scattered about in a huge room with an assortment of men of varying shapes and sizes (older and larger, I would venture to say) lounging about. The banter is definitely East End, and lest you have doubts about where this story is heading, this is definitely a guy hangout, not a gay one. The bathhouse has  men only days (Monday, Wednesday, and Saturday) and women only days (Tuesday, Thursday, and Sunday AM), and Sunday afternoon is couples day. So it is with Shmeissing.

They issue you with two towels (immense, thick gauge, with that old school laundry smell which says: I can't wait to dry off with this baby). No skimping here. You also get a wrap, which you wrap around your waist, a bit like a Beckham-sari. We go downstairs, and Lee appears, also in a wrap and slippers/flip flops (probably a good idea to bring those, though we didn't).

He is, as advertised, an immense man, and the mind begins to envision being slammed by him with a wet sponge. Hmm.

No fear is necessary. He is very amiable and chatty, and takes us on a tour through the maze of rooms. He suggests we take a sauna first, and then a steam bath, and then we will start the treatment. The schmeissing room has two chairs and two buckets, and then a chair to the side for an onlooker (he does couples on Sundays). The bucket in front of the chair is filled with Epsom salts, and the other one holds the besom, or the big raffia sponge (think mop or an oversized loofah) which he will use to shmeiss. We do his bidding, and return. I go first while my son looks on.

You sit there with your feet in the Epsom bucket while Lee works you over with practiced hands, your neck and shoulders being rid of the various knots and aches. He is (but I repeat myself) a big strong man, and this is done with no modicum of force. It feels great, however.

Lee chats all the time, and when prompted, tells the history of the baths, and how his shmeissing career came about. There is a limit to how much information you can extract when he has your neck in his hands, but that is not the point of the exercise. The point is to relax you, and after an indeterminate period of time, you then adjourn to the steam room at the end of the shmeissing room.

It should be emphasized that shmeissing is not a private affair, hidden away in some treatment room where you might think Max Moseley-like antics are going on behind closed doors in some subterranean lair. Nope. If there are other customers in the steam room, there are other customers in the steam room. What the hey? Do they care? Apparently not.

You then lie down, and get a damned good scrubbing. Not a beating. The besom is used as one would use a mop. Slap.  Mop. Slap. Mop. You get turned over, basted and slapped in appropriate places (no, your nads are safe). He then rinses you off with a hose with cold, and I mean cold, water.

This prepares you for the next step, which is to exit and go into the ice cold plunge pool, which is accessible from both side with steps. Do I go down the steps, or plunge? I inquire. Why do you think they call it plunge? he responds. We both jump in.

I have jumped into the Baltic after a sauna, but that isn't a patch on this. My normal reaction would be to jump out of the water like a tempura shrimp, but he insists I put my head above water and count to 20, slowly. He (though benefitting from a lot do I put it? insulation) says that our body is a furnace, and will heat the water directly around us. Maybe so, but after the allotted time my bones ache and I get the hell out. He then suggests I slap my legs, which are numb.

We then adjourn back to the schmeissing room, where Toby has his turn. Because that room is nice and warm, you immediately begin to experience a sort of euphoria, which is at the same time a feeling of utter cleanliness and relaxation, as though all the bad shit in your system has dissipated into the air. He says it is the thyroxine which is produced naturally. He admits that his thyroid gland doesn't work, and thus he has no natural regulator of temperature in his body (thus explaining his portliness), and has to take it artificially.

I have no such problem, apparently, but I am here to tell you the euphoria you feel is worth much more than the £25 you will part with.

While Toby goes in for his shmeissing I stick my feet back in the Epsom salts, and feel, not to put too fine a point on it, content.

Or as happy as a pig in shit, as I say to Lee when he emerges.

You are under no obligation to leave after your shmeissing. Stick around. Have a nap. Go in the hot rooms. Take another sauna. Whatever. I pay Lee. Cash.

We emerge into another grey drizzly London day with a spring in our step, in stark contrast to the shivering, shuffling masses. We have the feeling that we know something they don't, and we have been well and truly shmeissed. How about that?

If you want to experience this , and in the kindest possible way, you would be a shmuck not to, then here are the details.

Porchester Spa, Queensway, W2 ( 020 7792 3980) Opening hours: 10am- 10pm Men's days : Monday, Wednesday, Saturday Women's days : Tuesday, Thursday, Friday, Sunday morning Couples: Sunday afternoon 

Lee's details are: tel: 07973 218211
His website is:

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