In A Turkish Hamam

There are hundreds of things I would like too see, visit, taste and experience here in Turkey. The Turkish bath was definitely was of those. I wrote about it a column for magazine Glanc and I would like to share it with you here on my blog. 

Sevgi, who’s looking after my child as I walk through a barely noticeable door near Ankara’s main square Kizilay, has given me clear instructions: hurry up, in a poor weather like this it is usually crowded in the afternoons. And ask for Hüsniye. She’s the best.

So, for the first time in my life, I am in a hammam. Well, I have been to hammams three times, but you could say this is the first proper Turkish one, hidden from tourists and therefore slightly tedious and stuffy. From many notifications on walls there is only one translated into English (Do not enter in slippers!) and nobody speaks any English at all. I feel like a strange apparition, Alice in the Wonderland, repeating "no Turkish" while the receptionist leads me by hand into the dressing room. By using a gesture of pulling out my panties’ hem out of my jeans I’m asking whether I have to take them off as well. No, at least I can leave something on. So I strip off the rest of my clothes and the receptionist puts out her cigarette. We descend a several stairs and submerge into a room full of steaming heat. "Hüsniye!" the woman shouts and another woman emerges from a cloud of foam immediately, grabs my hand and leads me straight into the sauna, even if I just came from the -8 degrees outside. 

"Sevgi," she nods at me encouragingly, like she knows everything from my nanny, only curious what exactly would I like? There is another woman already sweating in the sauna, who is supposed to speak "a little English", which means that she is translating quite universal expressions from Turkish that I can understand myself – massage, double massage, peeling, "kahve" which I remember means coffee. Then she says another word in English: forty-four. Forty-four lire. And seven. And then five. I don’t know how much is what, not even mentioning how much is it altogether. So I’m asking whether they accept credit cards which I simplify as "Visa" when I realize nobody understands. Oh no, no Visa. I am drawing the number seventy in the air. They understand – I have only seventy lire in cash on me, so they can do whatever they see fit, but only up to this amount.

And so, already warmed up, I’m sitting at one of the fountains ("kurna" in Turkish – I read it in a guide) alongside a huge marble room. While I use a plastic bowl to pour hot water over myself I am looking around the hammam, of course strictly female, as men have their entrance from the other side of the building. Hammams go way back in history. They were originally built in a close proximity to mosques so people could meet the demands of Islam, that is, to purify themselves thoroughly. However, they were used abundantly for social meetings which has prevailed until today. I am observing all the jiggling breasts, muscles, fat, half-covered butts, cellulite, group of friends, mothers with daughters and I’m smiling just for myself when I remember how I met a woman in USA wearing a neoprene to a sauna. What would they think if they saw all this here? What would they say about my masseuse dressed in a black sports bra, with her massive belly tucked in short leggings which she occasionally lifts with two fingers and pours a bowl of water into them? I don’t know why but all seven masseuses who work here look like sweaty sumo wrestlers. Large Turkish women, apparently all quite elderly, but with no wrinkles at all. No wonder – working shifts in such humidity.

I’m not sure how to splash myself correctly, how many bowls is too few and how many is enough. But at this point Hüsniye leads me to a large hot stone at the center of the room. I lie on top of it – she leaves me to warm up for a couple of minutes before she begins to rub me down with a rough cloth. She doesn’t take it easy with me and in her mightiness she works through my body pretty hard. She rubs down every millimeter with the cloth and doesn’t even miss in between my toes. Well, looks like I didn’t know how to exfoliate properly until today. The peeling I do once in a while in the shower is apparently just for show. But here, my skin is literally peeling off as if someone furiously rubbed a giant drawing with an eraser. There is so many bits falling of my skin that Hüsniye whistles with recognition. She repeats several times the process of splashing me, the rock and her intimate parts and, while I continue lying down, she fetches us both some mineral water. I chug it down and can’t wait for the next part – the pampering. Using a soap bar in a cloth bag, Hüsniye makes an enormous amount of smooth foam. She then layers it all over my body while massaging and patting me gently, starting at my toes and working her way up, burying her hands into my hair and rubbing and rubbing… After, she dips my hair in a basin filled with ice-cold water and from under her bosom she pulls out a miniature mask and conditioner. Carefully she works both into my hair and leads me back to "my" fountain where I am supposed to splash myself over and over until I feel like I have enough.

In a traditional hammam nobody tells me it is time to leave. I’ll go when I want to. It just takes one nod at Hüsniye for her to wrap me up in lightly washed-out towels. Then to continue up the stairs towards the reception, where I can relax in a chair and drink Turkish tea, There is even a hair dresser waiting just in case I’d like to leave the hammam with a perfect blow dry. But for this I not only have no extra cash but also no energy. I am feeling incredibly but pleasantly tired and I can’t stop touching my baby-soft skin. Is the effect still there? Yup, it is. So now, if you excuse me, I am going to have a nap…