Tuesday, April 6, 2010

My Turkish Bath

I was told I couldn't leave Turkey without having a Turkish bath. I was resistant. I had more things I wanted to do and see. I wanted to walk through Topkapi once more. Besides I wasn't even sure I wanted a Turkish bath. It would mean a scrub and a soaping and I am more a massage oil kind of girl, but who could resist a 700 year old hamam (ie Turkish bath), built by the architect Hayreddin in 1475 that had been in continual use every since. It seemed like one of those things you had to do. And it was right near the Grand Bazaar where I'd had yet to venture.

So on my last day, at the last hour, really, I decided to go. A driver picked me up at five o'clock at my hotel. He was young and unshaven and he tossed his cigarette away as I got into the car. I was starting to have more doubts even as he explained that he was late because traffic was so bad and he'd take the back roads. As he wound his way through the narrow streets of Istanbul, I plied him with questions until he told me that his family had owned the hamam for generations and that now it was his father's and soon it would be his. But he seemed disaffected. His car smelled of smoke and something else and he was hesitant to talk to me. I suspected the worst, but Fatih at my hotel had told me that the Gedikpasa Bath was one of the best.

As we drove we negotiated a price. I didn't really want the scrub/soap thing. I mean I bathe daily so what was the point? What I wanted was a nice oily rub, the kind I was used to. Besides I had fallen flat on my face in Istanbul just days before so I just wanted someone to make me feel good for the flight home. Oil massage alone, 30 Turkish lira, plus use of the bath, so many lira, but with soap and scrub...etc. Well, when in Rome, I told him I'd go for the soap and scrub, and then maybe we could end with an oil massage. Agreed, he said as we pulled into a narrow street. Then he pointed to a flight of stairs that disappeared into a darkened building. You go down here, he told me. And he was gone.

I made my way down the dingy staircase, not sure of what lay at the bottom, but, opening the door, I walked into a large, warm, steamy room where I prepaid for my services and then was taken to a door. This was perhaps the lady and the tiger moment, but the door opened and a woman wearing a long gray sweater (and it was very hot now) took me by the hand as if I was her long lost daughter. She led me into a large room where two enormous women were sipping chai. No one looked up at me. The woman, whose name was Fatia (perhaps female for conqueror???) gave me a plaid Turkish bath wrap and showed me to my dressing room where I took off everything, wrapped the plaid thing around me, and as I emerged was led once again by Fatia into a very very warm, steamy room.

In the middle of the room was a large marble slab where an opulent woman was being slathered in soap and rubbed down. She lay completely naked and exposed, and her masseuse wore only a thong and very skimpy bra. The room itself was a very tall, dingy domed structure with lots of sinks around the periphery. Before I could turn around and leave, Fatia took me to the sauna, told me to relax for ten minutes, and left me.

Ten minutes can be a long time if you don't know what's coming next and I certainly didn't expect what I saw. But after what seemed like an interminable wait a very large almost naked woman, dressed only in a thong that disappeared beneath her rolls of fat, came to get me. She was braless and her enormous flowing breasts hung from her mother earth body as she took me by the hand.

"Come," she said.

I followed her to the marble slab where several women were now being scrubbed and soaped. "My name is Nazia," said my guide. And with that she removed my bath towel which she placed on the marble slab and motioned for me to lie down. What choice did I have? A goddess was commanding me and I obeyed.

I lay face down as Nazia, who had now put on some kind of a bra, proceeded to scrub every inch of me with a rough glove. From and back, face, feet, underarms, you name it. Nazia turned and twisted me and when she was done, put me back on my face and proceeded to wash. With what seemed to me some kind of oily soap that somehow comes out of what appears to be a pillow case, Nazia slathered me and washed every inch of me. She didn't miss a crack or cranny. She gathered me in her arms and, with my face sunk into her ample breasts, she washed my back, my thighs and the rest of me. Whenever she wanted me to turn, she made a high-pitched kissing sound (all the masseuses did) that I later learned is how a Turkish mother kisses her baby).

I relaxed in her arms. We had no language between us, but I honestly don't think I've ever been this close to a woman before. Not physically at any rate. But it was more than that. I melted in the heat in her arms. I was completely comfortable with my face pressed against her breasts. Then she made that strange smacking sound and once more took me by the hand and led me to a sink by the side of the hamam. "Douce," she told me.

I wasn't exactly sure what was expected, but Nazia sat at a nearby sink where she took a small plastic container and poured water over her breasts and down the front of her thong. She had been sniffling during our treatment and I watched as she blew her nose into her hand, then rinsed that off as well. Normally this would repulse me, but I loved her. What more can I say? I really loved her.

When we were done, she took me once again by the hand back to the marble slab and told me once again to lie down. And then she disappeared. I had no idea where she had gone, but I was cold and wet and lay for what seemed like a long time to me on that marble slab. Other masseurs were working on other women (I should add that this was the woman only part of the bath), but no one paid me any heed.

Then the door opened and Fatia appeared, out of her long gray sweater, transformed into a leopard-skin bikini with Nazia no where in sight. I had no idea really what was happening, but suddenly Fatia was pouring hot oil all over my body and rubbing me and Nazia returned and for an all too brief moment the two women worked on my back. For hands swirling over my muscles. This must be heaven, I thought, until Nazia withdrew. She blew a kiss to me on her hand. "Bye bye," she said.

"Where are you going?" I asked her for I had become unnaturally attached. She was now my mother.

She made the international gesture of going home to sleep and once more blew me a kiss as Fatia continued to massage and oil me and then when she was done, much to my chagrin, she did another one of those soapings again until I was cleaner than I'd ever been since I was perhaps two years old. Then Fatia took me to the sink where she washed and scrubbed my scalp and poured water over me until I thought I would just lie down on the floor of the Turkish bath and rest.

But that was not to be. When she was done, she dunked me in a cold bath and left me there. Then stuff me into the sauna one more time for good measure until like a roast in the oven I was done.

When I left the bath, it was late. Dark out already and the Grand Bazaar was closed. I wasn't hungry so I took the tram back to my room where I watched Harry Potter in Turkish and, somehow understood every word, until I drifted off to sleep.


  1. Really enjoyed reading this story, Mary. I had a Turkish bath experience years ago, and reading about yours brought it back! Hope your travels are going smoothly.

  2. Mary, this is amazing, so compelling, so funny. I laughed heartily. Great storytelling, wonderful scenes.


  3. I only just saw these comments. No idea why. But thank you so much. I really loved my Turkish bath.!!!