Last month, while the girls were off from school, Simone and I spent a day on Rehov Shenkein in Tel Aviv. Known for its trendy boutiques and hip cafes, Shenkein is diagonally across from the Carmel shuk, a good 10-minute walk from the seashore and Philippe’s office.
Aside from simply strolling on a hot fall day, Simone and I had a list of things we wanted to do—buy a bar mitzvah present, replace my stolen sunglasses and eat lunch out. And while she was obsessing about shopping, I was focused on my feet.
Not a regular pedicure goer, I often end up with rough skin, calluses and broken nails. After almost six weeks in a cast, I was witnessing my body wither from head to toe, especially the areas I couldn’t attend to like the soles of my feet. And I wanted to treat myself to something different, something that the girls had done a year ago—a fish pedicure–on Shenkein.
After an hour wait for lunch at Orna and Ella café, where we filled our bellies with sweet potato pancakes and grilled tofu topped with pomegranate seeds, Simone and I headed directly to the nail salon with the fish tank and bench in its storefront. In it were hundreds of nondescript cream-colored fish swimming in dizzying circles with their little black eyes peering right and left. Called Garra rufa, they are also known as doctor, nibble, kangal and physio fish. According to Wikipedia, they hail from the river basins of the northern and central Middle East, mainly in Turkey, Syria, Iraq and Iran.
The first time I had ever heard of a fish pedicure was a couple of years back after my friend Cathleen and her family spent Passover in Israel. While in Eilat, the five of them sat around a pool of doctor fish and stuck their feet in for a new definition of pedicure. They feed on the dead skin, she explained, and supposedly they only consume the affected areas, leaving the healthy skin alone.
I remember not understanding, unable to picture the scene. Until last year, when the girls and I, out with a friend and her two girls, stumbled upon this salon on Shenkein, the sign on the window and the fish tank staring us in the face. The four of them squealed in delight, jumping up and down, begging us to indulge them with the 30-minute treatment. I noted the place in my long-term memory, committed to returning to experience it myself at a later date.
A young man, perhaps the owner of the salon, greeted us at the door. Eyeing puddles of water on the floor from the AC overhead, I asked him to wipe it before we entered. My slip in France has made me fearful, and I watch every step I take. He saw my cast and obliged, eager to help and to accommodate.
“Te’ni li et ha tikim shelachem,” he said, offering to take our bags from us and hang them on the nearby hooks. He indicated for Simone to sit on the bench, remove her shoes and slowly dip one foot at a time into the water. After she was settled, I followed.
The water was pleasant, perfect for cooling us off in the desert heat. Slowly, the fish started swarming, more at my feet than at Simone’s, a clear indication of whose feet were more neglected. I looked down into the tank and saw hordes of the tiny toothless carp on my right one, heel and ball. The sensation was one of being tickled, lightly, like with a feather. There was one big guy, darker than the rest, perhaps the patriarch or an overeater. His touch was a little rougher than the rest.
“Slicha, adoni,” I called the owner over. “Ha dag ha gadol sham, ho nachmad?” I asked if the big fish was nice.
“Ken, ken, al tidagi,” he said, assuring me not to worry. He asked me if I wanted him to remove it, ready to stick a fish net in and swoop it up.
Reassured that the big fish was benign, I told him he could stay. Maybe, I thought, he would slough off some of the deeper layers of yucky dead skin.
People walked by, many stopping and staring at our legs dangling and our feet surrounded by schools of fish. They gawked and smiled, some even waved. After the fish were done munching on my right foot, they moved to my left.
Two young women came in to reserve a fish pedicure session. Thirty minutes had passed, and our time was up. The guy came over and gently asked us to remove our feet one at a time and handed us each a towel to dry them. I had no choice but to put on my sandals and retrieve my bags and step out into the hot sun. My feet were smooth and silky soft, almost edible.
Fish pedicure might be outlawed in America, but here, in a country where standards are different and people dare, I would definitely go back for more.