“Le Bain Turc,” by Jean Auguste Dominique Ingres, 1862
(No, it’s not actually anything like that.)
Warning to sensitive readers: This entry contains references to bodies, nudity, and unmentionable garments. Nothing graphic, but PG-13. If you’re reading it aloud to your children, are a direct relation to the author of this blog, or a time-traveling Victorian gentlewoman, go back and read some of my Greatest Hits entries – my love letter to Mombasa, perhaps, or The Gift of Teaching.
On my final day in Istanbul, I had an extensive time gap between Chucking-Out Time at my hotel (a strict noon) and boarding time for my “train” (actually a bus, that takes you to a train, that takes you to another bus, that takes you to a second train) to Romania. I spent some time that morning sifting through the unwieldy stack of brochures I’d picked up in my four days: bus tour? Already seen all the major historical sites. More nargile cafes? Not sure my lungs could take it. Museum of Modern Turkish Art? Museums are among my favorite things in this life, but I’ve been to so many in the past two months that if I had to listen to one more audioguide go on about the fascinating marble relief statuary of Emperor Nobswagger the Sixth I was going to have a loud, public nervous breakdown. Turkish bath? Oh, yes. That might do very nicely, and take up as much time as I needed, to boot.
For many Americans, the words “Turkish Bath” or “Bath House” may bring to mind cruisey evening destinations in cities like San Francisco or New York, where well-built young men and closeted Republican politicians go for some special mingling. But in many other parts of the world, such as Japan, Korea, Finland, or (case in point) Turkey, public baths are a social fixture. Also called hammams, they date back to the days of Byzantium. The experience is usually focused on steam and water of varying temperatures (very hot –> very cold) with a soapy scrub at the end to de-sweat oneself, but can also additional rejuvenating beauty services for an added fee. Today, many people still unwind after work or weekends in their gender-segregated saunas, or dish out cash for extra products and services like salt scrubs, mud baths, or massages. It’s basically a day spa, but with predominantly common areas.
As I checked out of my hotel, I asked the receptionist if he had any thoughts on my idea. He gave me a dark look. “Everyone says they are places for enjoyment, but I only went once. I asked for a massage. But he did not massage, he hit. It was like putting torture on my body. Ever since I have …”
He trailed off momentarily, searching for the best way to describe his feelings in English, before settling on, “Deep-seated phobia.” This statement he punctuated with a visible shudder.
Perhaps reading my crestfallen look, he hastily added, “But the rest of my family, they all go, at least one time per week. My brothers have member cards for service discount.”
I thanked him for his input and set out, brochure clutched tightly in my hand. Baths range in price and opulence from simple $15 steam soaks up to many hundreds of dollars for aesthetic services and a private bath servant. The place I’d chosen was decidedly middle-of-the-road: some tourists, some Turkish women, easy-to-find location. I was quite pleased when I discovered that it was a beautifully-appointed building dating back to the 16th century, with period replica furnishings and an endless supply of traditional juice beverages. A smiling receptionist showed me to a changing area, where I quickly donned the provided faux-silk wrap and stashed my things in a locker.
Here, I must take you back in time a few hours to fully explain my experience: After I’d decided this was how I was going to kill an afternoon waiting for my train, I’d read up on internet tips for Turkish Bath etiquette. Take your shoes off outside and carry them, always tip for extra services, etc. However, there was a great deal of debate about what was appropriate to wear to such a place. Some said the traditional way was the only way: full monty. Others argued in favor of wearing something on the lower half of your body, like a bikini bottom or those awkward hospital-gown-material disposable underbritches they give you at waxing salons. (Who just keeps those lying around?) I thought about this and dug through my luggage, producing the only two items that were a) clean, b) provided some degree of personal coverage, and c) would not go translucent instantly when exposed to water (i.e. not pastel.)
The options were my bikini bottom, which after two thorough sink-washings still reeked vaguely of sea salt and the sturgeon viscera used to chum the water during my shark adventures, or a pair of cotton bikini-briefs bought on a lark at one of Target’s 5-for-the-price-of-1 post-holiday clearance sales. In keeping with the winter theme, they were a jolly shade of fuschia, and bore a repeating pattern of steaming hot cocoa mugs sprinkled with marshmallows. Not the sort of dignified thing you’d expect of a woman mature enough to attend a Turkish Bath, but I was desperate and they were the lesser evil of two intrinsically poor options, so I sighed and stuffed them into the bottom of my purse for later retrieval.
Flash back forward to the locker room: I pulled these out, examined them, and hastily stowed them in my purse again. I assumed someone would correct me if I erred in manners, and until then, cocoa mugs? REALLY? I snugged my wrap up under my arms and went back out to meet my fate.
The receptionist led me by the hand through an intricately-carved wooden door into a steam room. “Come,” she said, before hurrying ahead with a set of keys. I started to follow, then noticed, to my abject horror, a trio of women giggling and splashing each other in one corner – wearing bathing suits. I clutched my wrap and froze mid-step, imagining the headlines to follow: “TOURIST ARRESTED FOR INDECENT EXPOSURE. POLICE CHIEF COMMENTS: ‘Eww.’” The receptionist noticed I was no longer behind her, and called again, “COME,” in the tone one uses for a loveable-but-impish puppy who is beginning to wear on your nerves.
I hastened to catch up and she glanced at the women in the corner. “Americans,” she said darkly, her face bearing a look of private disapproval. She finished with a quiet cluck of her tongue and led me to a marble bench next to a deep basin, which at that moment was being filled with cool water flowing from an ornate pair of taps.
“SIT,” she barked, and I rushed to obey. Before my bum touched the bench, she hastily yanked my sarong into my lap, grabbed an intricately-carved bronze bowl, dunked it in the basin, and dumped it unceremoniously over my head. (It was the second most awkward time I’ve been abruptly stripped by a helpful stranger. On this trip.) “SHOWER,” she said, leaning close towards my face. Before I could share with her any of the especially colorful expletives I save up for just such occasions – or indeed, before I could form a verbal response of any kind – she repeated the series of actions. I sputtered and stammered and tried to push the hair out of my eyes, all the while thinking, Now this isn’t what I was led to expect at all. This is costing me the price of three kilograms of the finest baklava in the land, or a week’s worth of matinee movie tickets, or any number of other things more pleasant than being waterboarded by a stranger. (And let’s face it: we all know that for all the dodgy places I’ve lived/traveled in my short life, I could probably find someone who would be willing to waterboard me at the taxpayer’s expensive, no cost to me.)
Following this second sudden baptism, she dropped the bowl into my lap and began to walk away, calling “SCRUB! DIRTY,” over her shoulder as a parting piece of advice. I could only imagine she had been attending the same night school of Hospitality Communications as the Burundian cab drivers. I tried in vain to follow her instructions while re-wrapping my bathing sarong before saying, “Ah, to hell with it” and dropping it on the floor. To my great relief, I saw the women around me doing the same – although this relief was rather short-lived, because you can only get so much comfort out of being in a room full of naked strangers. (Unless you’re an adult film star, I suppose, but that’s a polar-opposite scenario.)
In addition to the usual steam-and-splashing routine, I’d booked an anti-stress package at the front desk, so within 15 minutes, an old woman similarly dressed in a silk wrap appeared and informed me she was going to be my bath attendant. She led me to an octagonal marble dais in the center of the room, perfectly positioned beneath a brilliant stained glass dome. On each edge of the octagon, a violet silk sheet had been placed. If flopping facedown naked onto a stage surrounded by other flopping naked people sounds like a living nightmare, then you’re wrong: in the nightmares, you’re doing this while also being told your university degree is invalid and you’re expected to immediately re-take your Calculus final but you haven’t got any pencils. Other than that, yes. It’s like the nightmare.
Although I imagine a sizeable portion of my readership would have no choice but to describe me as “devastatingly sexy,” like all women in modern America, I struggle with body image. It’s as much a part of our culture as apple pie or trying to talk our way out of speeding tickets. Watching the recent summer Olympics is incredibly inspiring, but unlike watching other people at a normal gym, it’s different in that you cannot tell yourself that if you weren’t terribly busy with extremely important things (such as eating biltong on the couch while watching the Summer Olympics) you could look/achieve the same as them. Suffice to say, from the beginning, this was not the most comfortable experience I’d ever had. As I shuffled towards the dais, I was constantly trying to swath myself in my wringing-wet sarong. But aside from the aforementioned Bikini Team, I was the only one. The other occupants could care less about my presence, so concerned they were with their own foam explosions or sea-salt scrubs. A body is a body is a body: we’ve all got one, and by virtue of surviving day to day (lungs breathing! Heart pumping! Brain storing information!) they’re all capable of nigh-miraculous acts. I’m forever reminding myself of my own set of skills, talents, and abilities that bring incredible joy to my life. A sea cucumber or any lower animal would envy us, with all its primitive parts, and never fuss over anything that sags or jiggles in an unbecoming fashion.
My self-indulgent woe-is-me cognitive exercises were cut mercifully short by the beginning of my extra bath services: the salt scrub, the foam scrub (which apparently comes standard), the clay mask, and the aromatherapy massage. It’s difficult to focus on that awkward scar on your thigh you got from falling in shorts during summer camp at age 11 when a cheerily-humming stranger is abrading your entire body with salt in the manner of rubbing spices into a pork loin, or gently massaging detoxifying mud into your shoulder blades. The slightest hint of self-deprecation is smothered to death – as you very nearly are also – when you find yourself being slowly suffocated beneath 18 inches of rose-scented foam, as your bath attendant continues to pile it over your entire body, head-crown to toenails, with the gleeful avidity of a child burying his or her parents in sand on a beach holiday.
Indeed, you are unable to entertain any thoughts at all, except a fervent wish to be reincarnated backwards in time as an Ottoman sultana, so you can have someone do this on a daily basis. The experience finished with a light lavender massage, culminating in the “torture” my hotelier had described: with all the gentleness of a little boy playing with a Transformer action figure on Christmas morning, the service attendant set to twisting and bending my shapely limbs, pounding on my spine, wrenching my head from side to side until all 206 bones in my body cracked. Twice. Despite being a rather curious series of sensation while it happened, the end result was quite pleasant. Like a good stretch, I guess, or the forbidden thrill of cracking your knuckles after writing longhand for many pages.
As I stumbled back into the steam-warmed waiting area in a fresh white towel and collected my complimentary post-massage sherbet, I felt like a new person. Not merely in terms of the body image stuff. That was purely secondary to the physical sensations of every endorphin my body has ever created in 24 years of life merrily swimming through my veins. All the strains, aches, twinges, tweaks, bumps, bruises, tingles, tickles, and abrasions from dragging around 30 kilograms of luggage by myself for two months, or folding my uncommonly long limbs into origami shapes to fit into ever-cramped airplane rows, or sleeping on the cement slabs hostels like to call “beds” had all slithered down the drain with the mud and foam. It was an incredible feeling, and not really like one I had ever known before. Total relaxation.
Of course, it all came back, and brought friends, with the stress of some nearly-filched luggage in the Istanbul train station, but that’s a story for another day.
I can’t complain about the day, and would highly recommend it to anyone. Despite my initial ill-ease at the clothing requirements (or lack thereof), I hadn’t had time to feel the prolonged hot crush of humiliation one would expect out of such a situation. At least … not then. The Gods of This Will Make A Good Story Some Day were not done with me yet. I was taking an overnight train through Bulgaria and into Romania that evening, and found myself at the station a little while before my scheduled departure, so I sat down at the attached café for a latte and pastry. It was the same restaurant that once served pre-journey supper to travelers on the fabled Orient Express, and if you’ll forgive my momentary unkindness, it clearly reached its aesthetic heyday then and has been on a downward slide ever since.
Nonetheless, the latte was excellent, and when the time came I began digging through my overstuffed purse for cash to pay the waiter. I dug handfuls of necessities out and piled them unceremoniously on the table: laptop charger, ticket folders, passport, baggy of Kleenex, Snickers bar, breath mints, toothbrush. My wallet was at the bottom, and as I curled my hand around it, the waiter suddenly leaned down beside me. “Madame, you dropped something,” he said quietly, snatching an unseen item from the ground next to my chair and presenting it to me gingerly.
It was the back-up britches. The cocoa mug briefs I’d brought just in case.
He certainly earned his generous tip.
“The Female Turkish Bath or Hammam,” by Jean-Jacques-Francois Lebarbie, 1785