The Greek island of Santorini is known for its blue-domed churches, every bit as spectacular as the similarly hued waters of the Aegean Sea. My wife, Betty, and I were in the midst of a leisurely stroll through the village of Oia (pronounced “E-ah”) when a storefront caught my eye.
From the outside, it looked like a well-appointed beauty parlor. But once we stepped inside, it was clear this was not a stop for a wash, cut, and blow-dry. Customers — men and women — were seated on benches with their bare feet resting in what looked like fish tanks.
That’s because they were fish tanks. Betty and I had wandered into a fish spa. One exfoliation and foot massage, please!
The expression on the face of one of the clients said it all, or at least enough for me to find the source of her apparent nirvana. And there it was, among the smooth white pebbles at the bottom of an aquarium. Scores of little fish — Garra rufa, a.k.a. kissing fish — feasted on her feet like so many piranha munching on a hapless swimmer in a horror movie.
The woman giggled as the fish covered both of her feet and nibbled on, well, whatever there was to nibble on. I looked at Betty and she said, “Yuck!” I said, “I’ve got to try this!” The spa proprietor laughed and said, “A big man deserves big fish.”
Of course I immediately wondered if there was a back room where they kept the real man-eaters for a “big man” like me. I pictured leaving with a peg leg and a fish story for the ages.
But the big fish turned out to be no more than three quarters of an inch long, and as soon as I dropped my feet into that luxurious water, they were on me faster than sharks on a chum line.
According to the shop’s brochure, these fish like the dead skin cells that all of us have in abundance on our feet. I thought it best not to ponder that statement, and just lean back and focus on what it feels like to be the main course during a feeding frenzy.
When individual Garra Ruffa chewed on me, it tickled. But when 10 to 15 gathered at a time, mainly at my heel, it felt like I’d slipped into a vibrating boot. Not a bad way to spend 10 minutes wondering how in the world we’d chanced upon something like this.
When Betty realized I wouldn’t become a ghoulish headline in a tabloid newspaper, she joined in the fun. Her fish seemed to focus on the soft spots between her toes. What that says about Betty as a host is open to interpretation.
It’s an encounter with the unexpected that livens up the grind of the workaday world. The same can be said for a vacation, where so much is planned and scheduled ahead of time. It’s one thing to stumble upon an interesting café or piece of art in an alleyway in the heart of Rome. It’s quite another to be a late-afternoon snack for a school of fish, and live to write the tale.
John Edmondson is a teacher in Hampstead.