Sunday, February 9, 2014

Turkish Bath

I didn’t enjoy the movie Taken 2 nearly as much as Taken, but the setting certainly caught my attention, and I spent a lot of today thinking about the fight scene in the hamam, because that’s where I spent most of my day.  Not the same hamam, of course, and there was no fighting, but my day was certainly a “significant emotional event,” as one of my bosses used to say.

A hamam is a traditional Turkish bath house, and today I screwed my courage to the sticking point, and let it not fail, and stepped WAAAAY out of my comfort zone to visit a hamam with a few girlfriends.  The ringleader was Bahar, a lovely, lovely Turkish woman; the purveyor of Persian carpets and friendship at the concessionaires outside the little Base Exchange in downtown Izmir.  She is a community fixture mothering all of us Americans – and dozens of feral dogs.  Like most Turks, she goes to the hamam quite regularly; she brings us Americans along whenever she can.  She set up this visit as a last hamam trip for one of our gals heading back to the U.S.  Along with Bahar and the nearly departed, we had another U.S. NATO officer – a hardened veteran of the hamam – and a civilian wife visiting her husband here in Turkey; the wife and I were the only ones who hadn’t been to the hamam before.
I told Bahar that I wanted the full hamam experience, and I made sure she knew I was quite worried about this experience, so she could tell the ladies to treat me well.  The ladies were all very nice, but not a one of them spoke a lick of English.  

We were the first customers in the hamam – here’s the website:  Check out the “Galerie” for pictures of inside the building.  The pictures only show male customers and staff; the hamam is gender-segregated by business hours and days, so there were absolutely no males anywhere in the vicinity during our visit.  I try not to think about my butt sitting where some guy’s butt had been sitting just a few hours before.

The lobby area is a rough decagon with a central coal-burning stove for kahve/coffee and ҫay/tea and just to keep the place warm.  The room was ringed by changing rooms on the main floor and up at least one more floor, perhaps two.  Everything was dark old wood and marble, and clotheslines hung with tartan bath sheets crisscrossed the open space between the gallery balconies on the floor(s) above.  We were to have brought shampoo and body wash, and shower shoes and spare underwear or bikini bottoms.  One gal forgot her shower shoes, so the attendants, dressed in plaid lumberjack-style button-up shirts and seemingly nothing else, issued her traditional wood and leather sandals, along with the tartan bath sheets issued to each of us.

There was no easing into this experience:  we crossed over my threshold for personal comfort upon arrival, when we were assigned changing rooms to store our stuff in.  Not in the hamam 5 minutes, and already I’m stripping to my underwear with a relative stranger.  I’m not too talented with a bath sheet, so when the thing kept slipping down, my companion happily grabbed it for me, tugging and tucking to make it stay in place.

Next stop was the waxing room, two of us at a time.  Many Middle Easterners feel cleaner and more comfortable after a good waxing with honey or sugar wax.  While I found the entire experience horribly embarrassing, the ladies just absolutely do not care.  It’s all business as usual, nothing they haven’t seen before.  I felt like a chicken being prepped for Sunday dinner.  I laughed hysterically the entire time; it was dreadful.  At least we were early enough for a room.  When we left, ladies were being waxed while sitting in the lobby, one arm in the air and then the other – or standing on a chair, turning this way and that to get their legs done.

After the humiliations of the waxing room, my attendant grabbed me by the shoulders and steered me into the main room of the hamam.  Another decagon, completely of marble, with a high domed ceiling set with small panes of colored glass above large marble platform.  The room was steamy and filled with nearly naked girls and women of all ages, shapes, sizes.  My attendant yanked off my tartan, folded it into a pad for me to sit on, and set me up next to a basin of hot water with a bowl.  The rest of my little group was there, too, all chatting away and sluicing themselves with hot water.  One by one we were taken to the platform, where we spread out our bath sheet and lay down on it so the attendants, wearing only bikinis now, first scrubbed us with a loofah mitt evidently made of the coarsest grit sandpaper available.  Did I mention the waxing first?  I did.  And the sandpaper?  Ah, yes.  They scrubbed everywhere…everywhere.

After scrubbing vigorously to remove dirt, dead skin cells, and the last shreds of dignity, the attendants washed us down with a different sort of scrubby cloth and lots of body wash.  Again, they washed just everywhere.  I swear, I must have the cleanest butt cheeks on the planet.  What a weird experience.  And yet completely impersonal, nothing at all intimate or inappropriate.  The receptionist at the fancy Swissotel Spa said the hamam attendants wash you down like a baby.  Actually, I felt more like a dog at the groomers – being scrubbed and shampooed; prodded to turn over, turn around, stand up, sit down; rinsed off with bowlfuls of hot water splashing down my face, into my eyes and ears and up my nose; nothing in my control.  Taken on the whole, though, honestly, it wasn’t a bad experience.

After “having a wash”, as Bahar called it, we were wrapped in fresh dry towels and taken thru the lobby and up a tight marble staircase to the next floor for oil massages.  One gal had her massage on the balcony, overlooking the lobby.  Two of us were massaged in a room together.  It all sounds very decadent and intimate, evoking images of 1001 Arabian Nights, but really, it was all just business and body care, no more intimate than a shampoo and haircut.  Once we felt up to it, we wandered back down the marble stairs, changed into our clothes, paid, and left.  Lots of ladies hang out and chat over kahve and ҫay in the lobby among the customers getting their legs and armpits waxed, but our little group was starving and ready to head out to lunch.

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