Bathing a la Turk October 25th

Dear Reader,
The information I'm about to record here may be a little personal. But when have I ever shied away from the personal on a very public space? I love to bathe. I would say it's my hobby, but that's already filled by sleeping and judging people is next on the waiting list (I've already accepted the fact that I'm going to Hell after years of waiting in painful purgatory).
In college I was fortunate enough to have to share a bathroom with only my room mate and not pay for the hot water. So during the winter months I'd fill the tub with scalding hot water and cook myself weekly. When I spent a semester abroad in St. Petersburg, I really wanted to try a banya, but never had the time. Instead, while in Finland with my mother, we went to a sauna. That was probably one of the most peaceful, rejuvenating and relaxing experiences of my life to date and I have since had a desire to sort of collect bathing experiences; trying a sweat lodge, for instance, or a Turkish bath.
There were two things I made clear to Kirsty when we (she, really) was planning the trip: I *had* to see the Hagia Sophia, and I had to go to a Turkish bath. Anything else I was happy to do, of course, but if those didn't make the itinerary the trip would be a wash in my opinion. No pun intended.
Kirsty had picked two listings from The Book that sounded good: the Cemberlitas hammam, which might be the oldest operating bath in Istanbul having been constructed in 1546, and the other one that I forgot, since we didn't go to that one.
For all our obsession with hygiene and cleanliness, I do think it's a shame that North Americans can't latch onto the social concept of bathing. Reportedly, hammams were annexed to one's neighbourhood mosque (that whole cleanliness being next to Godliness) and you'd go there to catch up on the latest gossip and arrange a marriage between your niece and your frenemy's son (keep your friends close and your enemies closer).
On some level, Cemberlitas reminded me of Capadocia with its dusty and warm earth tone pallet. As we had seen in Goreme, clay makes for excellent construction of bathrooms, so it was the primary material (and colour) here. Kirsty paid for two traditional baths and we were given two red Turkish towels, a loofah, and a tablet that had something written in Turkish. We were directed to a sort of locker room and told that when we were ready to go down to the hot room and we would be taken care of. Oh, and underwear was required.
Kirsty cringed and sighed with relief at that.
The locker room, I don't mind saying, was beautiful. It was dry, clean, wood paneled and illuminated with warm incandescent lights. Rows of sandals waited patiently on the floor for a bathing beauty to slip her feet into, having deposited her belongings in a locker and slipped the elastic with the key around her wrist. I won't deny that I was slipping into a half fantasy that after this we were going to be entertained by the Sultan himself who would fall hopelessly (needless to say) in love with the Grabowska girls.
Contributing to this fantasy was the stairway descending from the lockers, to the bath. It came complete with a fountain and three Turkish grannies rinsing Turkish towels in it, beckoning to our pale selves and encouraging us to proceed through the heavy wooden doors.
The only imagery I can employ to describe our surroundings is that of a large, marble birdcage. Actually that's quite fitting now that I think on it. I'm talking about the so-called warm room. Or maybe it's the hot room. It felt fairly hot to me. Not quite as hot as a sauna, but still.
A domed roof soared above us, pierced through with apertures in the shape of stars or hexagons. Antechambers with faucets and brass bowls jutted from the walls and a large octagonal marble platform was smack-dab in the middle, with lithe tanned bodies lounged upon it. They appeared to be melting with relaxation. Spry women in black bikinis (for lack of a better description) rotated about the octagon scrubbing, lathering and massaging the bodies with as much force and efficiency as kneading bread dough. I think it would have been entirely silent if it hadn't been for the sound of water and the constant chattering of these women over the bodies (it may seem a little morbid to you, Dear Reader, that I keep referring to my fellow bathers as though they were corpses. But I swear to God, they were about as lifeless as cadavers).
Somehow, no doubt because I had taken off my glasses and was therefore blind as a bat, I lost sight of Kirsty. I ducked into one of the antechambers and lounged on the marble floor since there were no benches. I was already a bit slippery with sweat on my limbs. It certainly was steamy in there, but in a really nice, relaxing way; not in the hot muggy way like a May afternoon in the Deep South.
The idea with Saunas or hammams or banyas is that first you sweat out all the dirt from your body and then you get scrubbed down and washed down. Add to this the contrast between extreme heat from the steam and extreme cold water (in Saunas you alternate between the steam room and swimming in the pool) and by the time you leave you're positively glowing with health and cleanliness.
At a certain point a black-bikini clad Turk popped her head in and somehow communicated to me that if I had a tablet (which I did), I better spread myself on the octagon. So I lay my red Turkish towel (I really wish I had bought one) on the marble and stretched out on my stomach. Another woman's feet were only a few inches from my nose but there was a certain lack of tension in them that made it clear she was miles away. A Turk was working away on her body, I could see her muscles working as she mushed the woman's flesh.
A few minutes later another Turk with copious amounts of black hair spilling out from the pile upon her head set down a bucket and smiled at me as she held out her hand. I assumed this was for the tablet so I gave it to her. She put it away somewhere. Then she stretched out her hand again and I gave her the loofah, since it was the only other object I had to give away.
She smiled, slipped it on her hand, and pushed back into a recumbent position on my stomach. Then she started to work on me, and I do mean work. First she began to massage me, never asking whether I wanted a "hard" massage or not, she just took it for granted. Obviously she knew what she was doing because her fingers quickly felt out a painful knot in my left trapeze muscle that had bothered me so much before I left New York. She went after it with the tenacity and focus of one digging out stubborn weeds in the garden. I bore it as best I could, knowing that it would all be so worth it, but it was really starting to hurt. I'm about thirty seconds from screaming with pain I thought to myself, and almost as though she could hear me,she stopped. She then scrubbed me with the loofah so ferociously and thoroughly that the other person's feet began to inch closer and closer to my nose as I pushed along the marble.
She was not restricting the loofah merely to my upper back. Oh no, this was a scrub of my shoulders, my back, my arms, my bottom (the edges of the loofah dipping alarmingly far down the waistband of my underwear), my legs, and the soles of my feet which she firmly seized and scrubbed as though they where unruly children who had gotten themselves incredibly dirty.
Then she gave my butt a sharp smack. I jumped and look up at her. She motioned for me to lie on my back and I quickly switched positions.
She began the process again, pressing just as hard on my chest and I could literally feel my skin rubbing against the rib bones. When she rinsed out the loofah I surreptitiously ran my fingers along my thigh and nearly retched.
There was this weird, gritty substance covering them and it only took me a split second to realize it was dead, dirty skin.
The Turk dowsed me with lukewarm water and then smacked me on the thigh. I rolled over and she dowsed me again.
She pulled a soft cloth from the bucket on the floor and I watched a large soap bubble blossom from it as she wrung it out. She then began to wipe my body with it, using circular motions and I could feel the lather growing. Other bodies, on the opposite side of the octagon were in the same stage of the cleaning, looking as though they were about to be devoured by the blob. I was rinsed off, smacked, and the same treatment applied to my front.
The Turk motioned for me to stand up and go sit by a faucet against the wall. I was trembling with the experience of such a thorough cleansing and eyed her warily as I saw her dip one hand in bucket. She emptied one bucket of water over my head, then positioned herself behind me and began to attack my scalp.
This is probably the closest to water boarding or sensory deprivation I will get (or wish to get). My ears, my eyes, my nose, my mouth, my entire head was enveloped by this foaming lather. So of course I couldn't see, I couldn't hear anything and it was getting increasingly more difficult to breath.
At last she dumped two more buckets of water over my head and the hammam was once more revealed to me. She smiled at me, perhaps trying to reassure me that I was at no point, during the whole experience, in any danger. I can't say I was entirely convinced.
She gestured to an antechamber where I could recover. Since my limbs felt like limp noodles (I once wrote of a sauna that I felt like spaghetti cooked al dente by a Real Italian Nonna, not some Brooklyn guido. But this experience had me feeling as though the Guido had left the pot boiling for half an hour), I fair near collapsed as soon as I was able.
"Rosie?" I heard Kirsty's voice.
"In here," I replied.
She soon wandered in, her normally Lilly-white skin rubbed into a deeper pink. She settled herself across from me. I couldn't see her face because I wasn't wearing my glasses but her voice carried an expression of embarrassed amusement.
"When she scrubbed you down, did her hands kinda go down your underpants?"
"Yep," I nodded.
We finished the experience with a soak in a hot tub that I don't think is entirely part of an authentic Turkish Hammam.
The Book advised us to bring a change of underwear and I was exceptionally glad I did, for obvious reasons. It did feel strange putting on the dusty, sweaty clothes I had been wearing that day, but I had no alternative.
We left, feeling slightly dazed, and just this side of immensely relaxed. Next door was a donair kebap stand and since this was our last day in Turkey, we decided it was time to try one.
Jonah, Mark, Marcus, and Syrah had reportedly lived on donar kebaps their entire trip until they got on the Gulet. But this would be the first one I had in situ unless you count the terrible Iskender Kebap.
It was satisfying, nothing earth shattering or ground breaking, or really all that different from your local donair kebap stand in London or New York. I think I maybe got a cup of pomegranate juice with it.
An hour later, Kirsty looked at her watch.
"We should probably head towards the airport," she said.
This strange and unaccountable sadness came over me. I was having such a good time, and really enjoying the people and the food, the weather. I could understand why people might choose Turkey to become ex-pats in. But I did miss my friends, my family, my wardrobe and, most of all, my bed.
So we boarded a very very crowded tram (think those images of trains in India with people riding on the roof)and traveled from the heart of Istanbul, to the airport.
Actually, it was a fascinating ride. Obviously the less financially well-off demographics were closer to the airport and the closer we got, the more veiled and hajibed women I saw.
At the airport we collected our bags from left luggage and checked-in for our flights. We were somewhat early so we decided to get a coffee from Gloria Jeans (I know). Kirsty ordered a cappuccino and I ordered a Machiatto. They're a new thing with me, a perfect compromise of strong hot coffee with just foamed milk on top. But the barrista was convinced I didn't know what I was getting into. He went so far as to bring out an espresso cup just to illustrate how little coffee I'd be getting.
We passed through security, bought one last bar of pistachio chocolate and boarded the plane to London.
I think Kirsty had the window seat, but I leaned across her, keeping my eyes fixed on the city vista, gorging my eyes one last time on the minarets and the domes.


  1. 雖然說上班很累,不過還是得努力應付每一天,看看文章休息一下,謝謝你哦!........................................


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