Tuesday, October 2, 2007


On September 21st I was the the squeakiest clean that I've been since leaving home. Possibly the cleanest I've been since the last time my mom washed me.

One of the scary things about traveling is putting yourself into situations where you have no idea what to do or how to behave. It's also one of the exciting things, and frequently pays off with a unique experience. When I was in Budapest I blew the chance to go to one of the baths because I was too shy, so I wasn't going to let the chance to go to a Turkish hamam go by. Buoyed by the reports of fellow hostelers in Selçuk, I strode up to the door of the hamam during the ladies only block of time on Friday afternoon and was promptly asked, "Fräulein?" Yeah, fräulein. Geez, my boobs are fairly midsized, and I was wearing a baby doll t-shirt. Maybe it was because I had the smallest boobs in current company, by far. Anyway, my gender firmly established, we next established that I did not speak German, that none of the other ladies there spoke any English, and that I had no clue what I was supposed to do. I mean, I sort of knew what was going on from a combination of my guidebook and what others told me about their various hamam visits, but still, actually being in one for the first time and being the odd fräulein out in a room of middle-aged Turkish ladies clad in towels and plastic sandals, clearly in their element, is a little daunting. Fortunately, they were all really friendly, and with a combination of Turkish, pointing, gestures, and smiles, got me through the whole thing. They may have rolled their eyes behind my back, I don't know. If they did, I probably deserved it.

All the Turks were just enjoying the basic services as well as having a social hour, but I was there for the full treatment.

first: lock up valuables. Since I wouldn't have any pockets on me during this, I locked my money into a little drawer and kept the key around my wrist.

second: lose clothing. But, how much? No one there was completely naked, but some were wearing more underwear items than others. I erred on the side of caution, and left on more than less.

Having mastered the art of undressing myself, I managed through step two well enough, but after that I was lost again. Emerging from the dressing room wrapped in a woven towel, I did my best lost puppy impression until I was pointed to the

third: hot room. Being evolved beyond cavewoman, I got through the door okay and was immediately at a loss of what to do again. Directed to one of the numerous taps and low marble basins lining the walls, I was told to "douche." I didn't know how long I was supposed to douche, so I just splashed water around until I was yanked out and directed to the hot block, losing one item of underwear in the process. The hot block is a heated slab of marble in the middle of the room, and you just lounge around on it, lizard-like, baking whichever body part you like. Nothing sizzled when I sat down, but it was pretty piping hot, and I wasn't able to lie on my stomach for too long. I could feel trickling all over my body, and didn't know if it was residual water, or if I was just sweating buckets. I spent a lot of time contemplating the dome of the hamam, sprinkled with small round holes, that usually have domes windows in them.After maybe fifteen minutes, I

fourth: cool down. Standing up off the hot block too quickly, I almost pitched over from lightheadedness. Wrapped back up in my towel, I sat in the room temperature lobby sipping a bottle of water that a masseuse handed me. After another fifteen minutes or so, it was time to

fifth: go back into the hot room. I got wet again, and then one of the masseuses, armed with a scrubby glove, proceeded to removed five weeks of dead skin. I tried to not look at what was coming off of me.

sixth: rinse off again.

seventh: bubble time! No rubber duckies were in attendance. The masseuse shined up my newly exfoliated hide with lots of bubbles, washed my hair, and gave me a soap massage. The bath was conducted on another marble slab in the steam room, but I can't recall if it was heated or not. I do recall the masseuse slapping my ass to get me to turn over. She had complete mastery over one English word; "Turn."

Let's note that at that point that I was still wearing my underwear (knickers for any British readers). Two others girls at the hostel had gone to a hamam in Istanbul, where they were instructed to take it "All off!". Shortly after taking it all off, their towels were snatched away by the masseuse. With a curious look in her eye, Carolyn asked me how much of my body was washed, and I said about 93% was covered. Her? 100%. "She washed everything."

eighth: rinse off again, and thus concludes an assisted bath in a hamam. Oil massages are common, but cost extra. I normally don't care to receive massages from strangers, but since I'm here...

ninth: I thought I had tough legs, but almost had to ask the masseuse to ease up. If I spoke Turkish I might have, but as it was, I just gritted my teeth. Yelping would have been too undignified. And then I'm done. Covered in oil. After all that, it was a damn shame to put on my dirty clothes again, and I wasn't sure if I was supposed to sit around until my skin absorbed some of the oil. I ended up just getting dressed. Next time I go to a haman, I will make sure to take a clean change of clothes for afterwards. Not that any of my clothes were clean, but a few items were less dirty than others.

tenth: tip your masseuse. The whole thing, including her tip, cost me 40 YTL. Not cheap, but definitely worth it for the cultural experience, and a treat after living on the cheap for a few weeks. Plus, I really did need to be scrubbed clean.

The weirdest thing at the bath – they kept calling me "Madame." The French pronunciation, not American, stress on the first syllable; "MAH-dahm." The first time they said it I didn't realize they were talking to me. And then later that day I bought postcards, and the vendor called me the same. I think I'm more a broad than a madame.

While the whole process would have been a little smoother had I been able to speak Turkish, or anyone there English, I'm kind of glad there was the wall of the language barrier that forced me to resolve to other measures. It made the whole experience more authentic. Turkey is the first country I've visited where the language barrier started posing a challenge. I know enough French to get around Romance language countries, almost everything in Greece was also labeled in English, but in Turkey I had my first moments of truly not be able to comprehend. There's nothing familiar in the language to help nudge you along, so learning words and phrases comes down to memorization. It took me two days to learn how to say, "I don't understand Turkish," and the only way I was able to do it was constantly looking it up and repeating it to myself. English isn't as common here as in Western Europe. I have a suspicion that lots of people don't travel because they are afraid of the language barrier, but unless you're heading to an undeveloped, foreign frontier, it's an unreasonable fear. It may be stressful at times, but there's always a way to communicate without words. Traveling is also a good way to get a dose of humility about foreign languages in general. Smattering of French aside, I really only speak one language, and every day I meet polyglots who have mastered at least two, frequently several. I have to loll my single-language tongue out in shame, but it only makes me more determined to learn. So when you see me back home, remind me to practice my French.

No comments: