Arnaud and I went for my first experience in a real Turkish bath, aka hamam yesterday. We chose one that had been recommended by a couple of people, the Galatasaray Hamam which is very near to the area where I am staying. I had read a little bit about it, how it was historic, and it seemed a good one to start with for a first timer like me. When we got there, we had several packages to choose from: basic bathing (self serve, if you like), bath+scrub, bath+scrub+massage, and bath+scrub+massage+oils. Since this was my first time, and I was not yet sure that I wanted my new tan from Greece to be completely scrubbed away just yet, we opted for the simple bathing plan, which would allow us (I thought) to explore the hamam and luxuriate in the historical setting and various rooms. Once we paid, we were shown to some chairs and told (well, grunted at) to remove our shoes, keep our socks on, and put on what looked like a pair of low heeled women’s shoes from circa 1967. Looking fetching, we then climbed the stairs and were shown to our private cabins where we were to remove our clothes, wrap ourselves in the gingham print thin cloth they gave us, and make our way back downstairs. Once back downstairs, we had to switch footwear, and step into dangerous, ill-fitting wooden clogs to shuffle across the marble floors as another attendent then shepherded us into the main (and only) room of the baths proper. There was a large, main elevated stone in the center of this centuries-old room, and there were a couple of other patrons laying on it. I was sure he was going to set us up on the same stone, but instead he laid out two thin pieces of cloth on the floor to the side, handed us a bar of soap, and barked at us to lay down. I did for a minute and then got up to try to figure out the water basin next to me for, well, washing myself and he shouted at us to lay down again. So we did, for about 15 or 20 minutes, sweating profusely. We sat up for a few minutes and noticed the privileged treatment of those on the main center stone pedestal. They were the ones who had bought the packages that included the scrubdown and massages. There we were, second class citizens, again. That said, with the slap-dash way they were being treated in first class, I was rather glad I opted to ease into the world of hamams with just the bathing part. They were rather brutal with them, and every so often we heard cracks and shrieks of pain from the patrons.
Since the time our rather brusque drill sergeant had laid us down, I was sort of expecting him to come back and tell me when it was ok to wash myself. But after 20 minutes, since he didn’t show up, I decided to take the initiative and try to use the basin and tap next to me to bathe. Suddenly, I could understand a bit why people pay someone else to bathe them. It is not the easiest process in the world. You fill the basin with water, take a little pan to throw some of it over yourself, then lather, rinse, repeat. And apparently, despite being there to bathe, you are to leave your gingham towel-skirt on AT ALL TIMES. I made the foolish mistake of removing mine so that I could, you know, bathe and clean myself. As I was at a particularly delicate juncture of said cleaning, the main burly hamam warden started yelling at me and gesturing as if I were the Whore of Babylon or something. I got that their delicate sensitivities were offended (or too turned on) by my bare buttocks, and I covered up quickly and continued to douse myself, now skirted, with water. I can’t express to you how difficult is it to remove foam from between your legs while wearing a skirt, but I went with it.
Then we laid down and sweat for a bit more, then poured more water, then decided it was time to go out. We were then taken to a room that is in-between the main hot room and the cooling off room/lobby. We were instructed (well, grunted at) to enter the cold shower, which was actually pretty refreshing. After toweling off, we were subjected to what was for me the strangest part of the ritual yet. An efficient, but hurried man with a mustache very tightly wrapped me up in a long sort of skirt, super-securely tied a towel around my shoulders and midsection, and (I kid you not) put my hair in a kind of towel bun like god-damned Elizabeth Taylor. Then I was marched out to the lobby to sit in one of a group of chairs in a circle facing a sad fountain. I couldn’t help but giggle when Arnaud and subsequent drag queens were brought out after me, still wearing our uneasy clogs, each looking like some sort of white towel version of Carmen Miranda. Between the shoes, the various costume changes, and the skirts, this was one of the gayest, campiest experiences I had ever had, and I could not stop laughing.
After sitting for a while and enjoying a water and cooling off, we were directed to put back on grandma’s shoes and head up to our changing cells two floors up. We got changed and came downstairs and then left. While I don’t think I would return to this particular hamam, it was an interesting introduction to the culture and will give me a baseline to judge other experiences against. And I did end up feeling pretty refreshed actually, despite the stress of trying to breathe in a very hot room and figure out what to do and not to do. Maybe next time I will shell out for the full treatment and see how it goes. My only regret is that I wasn’t able to snap photos of Arnaud and myself in our fetching outfits.