The Turkish Bath

Thursday, June 21, 2001

Istanbul

Alice and I are in Istanbul, and we want to take a bath. A real bath, not a sanitized one at a hotel. So we have been wandering around the charming streets of the former Constantinople at the direction of our Lonely Planet guide. The first bath we found was full of men and also seemed really gross. The second was also full of men and smelled like mildew. This one is our third try: a “hidden gem” the guide says is popular with locals and is women-only, and which seems tidy and presentable from the outside.

So we bravely open the door and discover a flight of stairs so abrubtly inside it we almost tumble down. At the bottom of the stairs there is another door, and behind it a curtain. Then across a little vestibule there is another flight of stairs. It’s already a bit of an adventure and we’re not even anywhere yet! Finally at the bottom we discover someone who appears to be in charge. She is also stark raving nekkid, as one might say. She seems totally unconcerned both by her own nudity and our unexpected arrival.

The lady shoos us into a little dressing room and hands us generous wraps. We stare at each other. Then we both shrug and strip. When in Istanbul, right?

When we emerge, bashful, Naked Lady hands us each plastic slippers and leads us out of the sort-of modern room.

Immediately on the other side of the door we are in the fifteenth century. We did Topkapi Palace this morning and saw the Sultans’ baths and these don’t look any different. There has obviously been a little modernization — there are metal taps here and there — but for the most part it’s like we’ve fallen through a time portal. Our guide gestures into a room as we pass and it’s obviously the toilets: clean, beautiful marble, but squatters nonetheless. It’s a technology that works and hasn’t needed updating since the 1400s!

Next we come into a huge rectangular room. At the shorter ends of the rectangle the room is lined with stone benches interspersed with deep, font-like sinks that appear to be brimming with hot water. We can see that there are three rectangular rooms like this in a row, stacked along their long walls and connected by elaborate archways. The middle room also has a huge, worn marble table right in the center. It’s neither quite as hot nor as steamy as a sauna back home. In fact, it’s a little chilly, walking like this, because it is damp and we are naked, and there is nobody else here in this space obviously built for crowds.

Our naked friend leads us to the middle room and gestures us down onto two benches. She hands each of us a metal cup and mimes dipping water from the fonts and pouring it over ourselves. We don’t, because we have wraps on, and it seems like pouring water will involve unwrapping. She mimes the procedure again and tugs a little on my wrap. I take a deep breath and let her take it, and quickly curl into something like a fetal position as I pour a cupful of water over my head. It is fabulously warm and I am in love.

800px-Turkish_Bathscape

Our friend wanders off, now that she knows we’ve grasped the basic mechanics of this process. Alice and I sit mostly without speaking, pouring water on ourselves whenever we start to feel a chill, which is a lot. I wish I could submerge myself in the font, but more than that I wish we had a clue what was going on. Is this what it means, to take a Turkish bath? Are we just going to sit here and pour water on ourselves forever? It reminds me of the pre-baths one takes in Japan, but those are about getting clean before stepping into a communal hot tub. An obvious hot tub. There is no human-sized tub here. As gorgeous as the antique room is, it’s functionally very simple, and we don’t see much that we could be doing that we aren’t already doing.

“So… at what point do we go back out and get her, you think?” Alice finally ventures.

“No clue. I’m actually wondering if it was the wisest thing we’ve ever done, leaving all our stuff out there.”

Alice rolls her eyes at my constant paranoia. “We came here. You think she was hanging out down here naked and waiting to see if she could catch some backpackers? And we don’t have much to steal.” She thinks for a minute and then adds, “Although… it would be pretty funny if she stole our underwear and just left us here.”

I chuckle. That would be funny. And it’s impossible. Right?

We each pour more water on ourselves.

Suddenly, our naked friend — who is inexplicably wearing panties now — reappears, carrying a bucket and a loofa-mitt. She grabs Alice and tows her to the giant marble slab, pushing her down onto her stomach. She fills the bucket from a font near the table and without preamble attacks Alice as if she were refinishing old furniture. Alice flinches and tries to relax, but she turns her head to me and mouths: “Owww…”

When she has removed every removable molecule of Alice’s skin, the bathkeeper summons me for my turn. It’s pretty terrible, and I discover with horror what I hadn’t been able to see before: she’s really scrubbing everywhere. I tell the voice in my head that’s suddenly worried about germs to take a hike. Authentic experience, I chant, like a mantra, trying not to notice where this stranger’s hands are going.

After we are each free of dead epidermis, the bathkeeper soaps Alice up from head to toe, then throws another bucket of water over her. It’s tough to believe she isn’t getting some enjoyment out of this, as we flinch and splutter and clearly have no idea what to expect. I’m next, and when we are both scrubbed and rinsed, she says something to us in Turkish and gestures out the main door, then back to the fonts. Then she leaves, taking her bucket and mitt with her, leaving us alone with the silent weight of two stories of Istanbul street above our heads.

Alice breaks the silence. “Okay, so… I guess that answered that question.”

“Did she… was there… inappropriate touching, for you?”

“Oh yeah.”

We avoid each other’s eyes.

I wander back to my bench and Alice shortly resumes hers. Dip and pour. Sit. Dip and pour. The water feels strange on my skin, nerve endings still tingling, and I realize it’s not unpleasant. In fact it feels great. I don’t think my skin has ever in my memory been this smooth. And as the nerve endings quiet and the initial shock subsides, the bloodflow stimulated by the trauma empinkens me and really does feel refreshing.

Eventually we get hungry, so we wrap ourselves back up and walk through the outer rectangular room. I peek my head around the corner of the doorway and find our bathkeeper friend, still clad in only panties, watching soap operas on a tiny television under the reception desk. She looks up at me and grins and waves, so we decide we’re not missing a critical last step. We get dressed. We pay her a meager few dollars for her time and resources and hike up the two incredibly steep flights of stairs.

It isn’t until we’re through the final curtain-door combo that Alice says the thing I’ve been thinking.

“So we’re here for three more days, right? Because… I could do that again.”

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