“Spine – very bad… But I can help you.”
I hoped Nikolai was right, but part of me prepared for a life permanently examining my shoelaces.
I was in Parnu for the first-ever Parnu Financial Conference. That may not sound particularly inspiring but it was actually one of the friendliest and most interesting conferences I’ve been to. You can read my report on it here.
Unfortunately the day before I drove to Parnu I decided it was time to get healthy. I retrieved my bicycle from the shed, bolted the child seat onto the back and started pushing pedals to drop my son with his grandmother a couple of kilometres away. As I dismounted, an excrutiating pain shot up my back as if I’d just been pinned as part of some sadistic botanist’s butterfly collection.
After a sleepless night spent lying on the floor I dreaded the two hour drive from Riga to Parnu, knowing that my spine would likely lock in place. I hoped no reversing manoeuvres would be required – turning my head to the right was just about manageable but everything to the left of me was invisible, a situation I imagine Trotsky must have encountered.
In order to break the journey up and keep my throbbing back as mobile as possible, I stopped a couple of times on the way, taking a slower, older road up the coast from the Latvian border rather than the quickish but boring Via Baltica. I was rewarded for doing so on the stone-strewn beach at Kabli where knee-high mist rolled up from the Baltic into the reeds of the bird sanctuary just as if the fishing smacks moored far off the coast were trailing smoke machines.
Even so, by the time I got to Parnu I was in a minor form of agony and wondering how I would get through two days of immobility craned over a computer. I took a walk through the pretty, prim streets of the seaside town.
I admired the gorgeous functionalist lines of the Rannahotel and the promenade and listened to more fishing boats working their way back and forth across the horizon, their sounds so much closer than their appearance. I bet with myself that the huge yellow-and-red brick school building was the work of Wilhelm Bockslaff, who built more than a dozen similar structures around Riga, and then I patted myself on the back when a plaque on the wall confirmed my supposition.
But patting myself on the back – even metaphorically – hurt.
On my way back to my hotel I almost tripped over a sign propped against a fence outside a large wooden villa that appeared to be divided into modest apartments and offices. I probably would have done so had I been able to raise my head.
“Nikolai – Massaaz” it said in Estonian, Finnish and English along with some blurb about the various conditions Nikolai could tackle. A lot of them seemed to describe exactly what was going on between my shoulder blades so I wrote down the number and went to lie down on my too-soft hotel bed.
Twenty-four hours later I was lying face down on Nikolai’s massage table, half of me hoping he really could help, the other half dreading what could be excrutiating lifelong pain if he was a quack.
Nikolai possessed that combination of immense strength and skill mitigated by careful gentleness often found in former boxers and military men. He could have passed for either. He looked to be in his mid fifties but it would not surprise me to learn he was an older man who happened to be in outstanding physical shape. He kneaded and stretched me, pressing with just enough power to stay on the right side of pain.
When my hour was up, Nikolai told me – we communicated in fragments of English and Russian – I had just experienced “medical massage” and that I needed a course of five to sort out my problem. Unfortunately I was only in Parnu two days, but booked a second session the following day by pointing at the clock.
“Medical massage” was no longer popular in Parnu, Nikolai said sadly. Tastes changed and tourists preferred modern “pampering” type treatments with no real medical benefit, he explained.
Before I left, Nikolai pulled out a ring binder and flicked through a few pages of Estonian newspaper reports attesting to his skills and customer testimonies including lots from Finns.
Then at the back of the file was a Russian magazine article featuring a formidable looking woman with her ample bosom full of ample ribbons and medals.
“This was my teacher,” Nikolai said proudly. “Andropov’s personal masseur!”
Walking back to my hotel I ached and felt woozy but knew Nikolai had done a fantastic job. But the first thing I did back in my room was go online and check what caused Comrade Andropov’s premature death. Not massage.