Alleys, Aubergines, and the Man-Eating Fish of Rhodes

Getting to Fish Therapy involves mastering the maze of medieval alleys built on the remains of Byzantine paths and Roman roadways. The solid stone houses are stabilized by arches that span the alleys and keep the walls on either side from collapsing or leaning or ever allowing for an urban renewal plan that would widen these streets so that something more than one motor scooter and one pram can pass at once. Occasionally, an open door reveals a long, low, cave-like room bisected twice by the kind of archways you see in Gothic churches—massive stone ribs criss-crossing the room and ending in the corners, north, south, east, west. The houses appear to be three times deeper than they are wide; the largest have three floors. So interesting are these glimpses of interior lives, that you continue alley after alley until you find yourself at a dead-end confronting a sizable Rhodian frau in a flowered smock and striped apron aiming to toss the dishwater into the street whether you stand there or not. She huffs at your camera as you back away. As you dive deeper into the city, a different level of light filters into the alleyways. This happens because the defensive wall that encircles the entire Old Town casts a long shadow that only some streets have evaded. In such a street you might find a dozen or more smaller alleys, wide enough for a bicycle, leading to pensions and boutique hotels offering six or seven rooms duded up like seraglios or Ottoman fantasies. You’ll also find the occasional explanatory placard that tells you that there exists here a Crusader style that combines rude fortress building with touches of French and Spanish domestic architecture. Neither of those styles has been immediately apparent to this eye though the Master’s Palace, quite a splendid fortified castle at the top of the highest hill, is chockablock with French religious furniture—prie-dieus, pews, altars, choir stalls—to complement the mosaics lifted from ancient Roman houses on the surrounding islands. It’s rather like the Peshtigo Fire Museum I wrote a book about 30 years ago: nothing in the museum comes from Peshtigo because everything there went up in the fire. Apparently everything here vanished when the Ottomans took over.

(I think this paragraph begins to give you the maze-like sense of traversing the Old Town of Rhodes, though maybe the paragraph is a touch smoother than Rhodes’ roads which are entirely constructed of egg-sized stones pushed into a concrete base. In places, the white and black stones are set in handsome patterns. Everywhere, the musical humming of wheels is a joy for little boys on bicycles who play tunes by speeding up and slowing down, hitting the rounded stones straight on or on a bias.)

Such a long walk calls for lunch and a couple of dishes tried for the first time. Chick Pea Soup: made with whole chick peas, quite a bit of olive oil, lemon juice, and, probably, chicken stock. Served lukewarm while the peas are still crunchy. Aubergine: cut into long strips, sautéed in olive oil, sprinkled with crumbled feta cheese, and festooned with Chinese parsley. (I’d use dill here, I think, and maybe a handful of pine nuts, but I’m not complaining. The neighborhood cats, however, did complain. They do not fancy Chick Pea Soup or Fancy-Pants Aubergine. They glowered at me till the veal steak arrived, and then they were all sweetness and loving caresses of my ankles. Across the square the caged parrot made spectacular wolf whistles at every woman who passed. And when eleven cats chased after a single tossed scrap of meat, the parrot hissed and screeched and provided both sides of a bloody battle. To passing men, he can say hello in 8 or 9 languages.)

The history of fish therapy is a little murky. The young woman tending the shop said the therapy originated in Turkey. But the necessary fish, the Garre Rufa, are from Thailand. These happy therapists are somewhat oversized guppies, and they shine a silver-blue in the clear sweet water tanks. Here’s what the brochure says, in six languages, none of which is Spanish or French: “Close your eyes and enjoy the unique feeling, which only small fish called Garre Rufa, known as ‘fish doctors,’ can give you. During the treatment, the fish suck only the dead skin from the feet, leaving them soft and rejuvenated. The fish releases an enzyme which helps restore and regenerate the skin and simultaneously they energize needle points which help balance of the nervous system. This natural peeling method is the best and most amusing way for a day of relaxation….”

It’s all true, and heavenly to boot.

The shop lies just below street level in one of those cave-like arched openings whose depth seems to disappear in blackness. Along the walls are orange plastic benches elevated five feet above the floor. Below them, the tanks, a dozen in all, are arranged so that twelve people can dangle their toes in bliss at once. The Garre Rufa swim aimlessly in the unused tanks, ignoring each other, but moving at brisk speed, giving off bright glints of blue light. But as soon as your feet enter the tank, a sense of purposiveness overtakes them in mid fin waggle, and they are on you, scores, maybe hundreds of them all vying for the tastiest dead meat. They have no teeth, so they content themselves with sucking on your toes and insteps creating a semi-erotic, demi-ludicrous sensation that causes the handsome young attendant to avert her eyes from yours. Then the piscine armada regroups and, like banditos, “zhey head for ze heels.” They apply themselves as assiduously as leeches (the mention of which made the attendant grimace when I told her my father collected them for a pharmacist on Staten Island in 1920). But every once in a while, one Garre Rufa would drift away in an apparent ecstasy, float upside down, do a loop or two around an ankle and re-attach on a digit or cuticle.

Einstein said relativity is easy: Two seconds sitting on a hot stove is an eternity; two hours with a pretty girl seems a second. Half an hour with your feet in the tank, for only ten euros, is perhaps less than a pretty girl, but then she’d better be really pretty.

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