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The International Writers Magazine: When in Turkey

A Turkish Cleaning Behind the Ears
• Emma Kerss
Ellie and I find ourselves standing at the arched stone entry to an old bathhouse on the corner of a cobblestone alley way somewhere deep in the heart of Istanbul. Sardar, local to this city and our host for the week-long trip, has just dropped us off to spend the day in the traditional Turkish way. With a shrug of the shoulders and brief glance at each other, so as to say, “well, here we go!” we step in, open and ready for whatever may come of this day.

Turkish Bath

After having already spent a full week in unpredictable Istanbul, Ellie and I were well prepared to be completely unprepared for what was to come of our day at the traditional Turkish Baths. All we new was that, traditionally, bathhouses were always same-sexed, so presumably, we’d be in some kind of a day-spa setting, with other women. Hopefully it would be relaxing, cleansing and fun.

Not quite!

We arrive to the counter, negotiate the standard prices with a young lady, maybe a few years older than us, and she guides us in very limited English, to a row of brightly illuminated changing stalls. In half English, and half quasi-sign language, this girl motions for us to undress, wrap ourselves in the small white towels she is pushing into our hands and slip on a pair of the wooden and leather clogs that are tucked away in the corner of each stall. We follow instructions, and as we both emerge from our stalls to face each other, we burst into inappropriate laughter at how utterly ridiculous our four-inch-tall wooden clogs look. These shoes are nearly impossible to walk in, and we announce our presence with every banging step we take through the small tile corridor…until we make our way back to the front desk for the next set of directions.

Clank! Clank! Clank! Clank!

We make our way back to the front desk for the next set of directions:
The young lady points us towards a door to our left and then calls out something in Turkish, and an old lady approaches, sporting a really large, worn out pair of white knickers and a similar pair of the outrageous wooden clogs. Her breasts droop down on either side of her protruding belly and everything wobbles as she clanks towards us. Ellie and I are both taken aback, stifling nervous laughter as this wrinkly, unabashed naked woman approaches, shouting commands in Turkish. She herds us in through a random side door and immediately yanks off our towels before retreating back through the door. Ellie and I find ourselves standing stark naked in the middle of a large empty dome-shaped marble room.

I am immediately aware of my nakedness.

After recovering from the initial abruptness of our encounter with the strange naked lady, we once again, fall into fits of laughter, both modestly trying to cover our bits as we clank further into this beautiful room, just us, wearing only oversized wooden clogs, and completely unsure of what to do with ourselves.

Not your average bath, I’d say!

The room is white and gray swirled marble slabs, all the way around the base of the walls, the floors, and in the middle is a circular bench of the same smooth stone. There are water faucets every three feet on the outer walls with a few buckets sporadically strewn about. The marble is wet all along the floor and the benches; the buckets are filled and sloshed throughout the large room as the stones are heated from beneath. Steam fills the room and the marble stones are soothingly hot to the touch. The sun shines brightly through ornate colored glass panels in the dome ceiling, illuminating the marble in an array of colors and shapes. It’s a beautiful room, that echoes loudly with every sound that’s made. Within no time we were in a deep state of relaxation, laying restfully on the silky warm stones. It really was a cleansing experience, and one of such deep-rooted tradition!

After half an hour of lazy lounging, our half-naked lady friend reappears with another lady, also in her mid-fifties or so, and also only wearing old cotton underwear and wooden clogs. They approach us, as we lay on the benches and what follows is magical: these old ladies begin to wash us, with a hot wash clothe and velvety soap, scrubbing our backs and bodies with sudsy water from a bucket, in such a manner as a mother would adoringly bathe her child. My lady massaged my back, neck and shoulders with careful, tender hands. She lovingly rubbed in the soapy water, softly humming me into deep relaxation. After about twenty minutes of being bathed, I was in a semi-conscious state of bliss. Eyes closed, breathing deeply and enjoying the warm sensation of the marble on my body; I was in a Turkish bath trance!

But suddenly, WHOOOSH!

I am shocked back to alert by a wave of cold water, so icy it sucks the breath out of me. My lady is at one of the faucets at the wall, filling a bucket with cold water and relentlessly throwing it at me! I sit there blinking in confusion at her, gasping for breath at the shock of the cold; and then another WHOOSH! It is such an abrupt way to come back from such a relaxing massage, surely this CAN’T be part of the tradition?! I went from feeling pampered to feeling like a stinky dog, being hosed down in the backyard. Once again, Ellie and I find ourselves telepathically What-the-heck?-ing each other from across the bench, again, stifling laughter at how bizarre this whole experience was proving to be. Her lady, too, was haphazardly launching cold water in our direction.

From nurture to torture! Did we do something wrong!?

Next, my lady grunts for me to sit on the floor, in between her clogged feet as she sits on the bench. I do as she commands, feeling somewhat like I’m being punished and nervous for what she might do next. Once again, she emphatically dumps an entire bucket of cold water over my head. I brush away the wet hair from my face; this massage has somehow gone wrong! She uses her fingers to wipe my face, and scrub behind my ears before braiding my wet hair. Despite the cold water, her motherly touch has returned, and even though I can’t understand a word she says to me, I intuitively know she is a kind person. I, once again, feel like a young child, being bathed and cared for. I’ve discovered there is nothing quite like having your ears scrubbed by an old Turkish lady!

Once our braids are finished, the two old ladies disappear, leaving Ellie and me to enjoy a final few moments in this hot marble lounge, after which we walk proudly naked out the door, through the lobby and to the long corridor of changing rooms. We reluctantly return our wooden clogs, and reluctantly return back to reality. We nod polite thank-you’s to our lovely old naked ladies as we make our exit. Our morning was spent in wonderful, hot-and-cold, naked, funny confusion. Our Turkish bath experience had not failed to deliver! Nowhere else in the world can I think of a place where a bath involves stained-glass windows, wooden clogs, half-naked old ladies, and a good ear scrubbing.

Every simple little thing in Istanbul is truly an adventure!

Emma My name is Emma Kerss, and I currently have a travel blog out of China:

* The Lonely Planet Bath House Guide

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