When in Rome, do as the Romans. When in Turkey, have a Turkish bath.
To get to the women’s bath, we traverse a huge marble hall filled with men enveloped in white towels. They’re reclining in lawn chairs, puffing languidly on fierce Turkish cigarettes. My eyes follow the spirals that drift upward and obscure the amazing marble domed ceiling high above us. Do the men even see it? I wonder.
My guide, Ziya, abandons me in the women’s section. The attendant shows me to the locker room, gives me a key, and with a series of gestures, encourages me to disrobe and proceed to the bathing chamber. In the locker, I find a dish towel. Yes, a dish towel. I wrap it around my body. It is barely wide enough to cover me from my breasts to my tush. Okay girl, you can do this, I tell myself.
My first shock comes in the antechamber. The women have the dishtowels wrapped around their waists. I look around the room. I look down at myself. I lower my dishtowel to my waist.
I ooh and ah over the marble half-circle sinks mounted on the walls. The attendant gestures and I understand I am to wash before soaking in the hot pools.
My second shock comes in the bathing room. The dishtowels have been abandoned. But, all the women are wearing panties. I’m not. My panties are tucked safely in the locker. I abandon my dishtowel to enter the marble hot pool. Naked! Now, I’ve been naked before, but never have I felt so naked as in that roomful of women wearing panties. I slide down the marble edge and sink into the water as fast as I can. I hope I’ve managed to maintain some decorum.
The women are friendly and one invites me, with gestures that are amazingly easy to understand, into the smaller hotter pool which is good for sore joints. I let her know that my arthritic knee is enjoying the heat. Then I make what will later prove to be a mistake. I tell them I’m from Canada. Ah, Canada, one says, and they erupt in a conversation about my country that I don’t understand. But I’m pleased to note the tone and mood seem positive.
Now, the massage. I lie on a slab—marble of course. The masseuse is a genial sort who proceeds to sandpaper me from head to toe with fluffy oversized mitts—marbleized instruments of torture. But why am I surprised? Everything in Turkey is made of marble.
This loofah treatment is followed with a washing. The lovely scent of the soap envelops me. The masseuse whacks me on the back with the flat of her hand, the signal to turn over. I do so. I move too fast. I’m lying on a marble slab. No, I’m not. I’m sliding off like a wet fish. The masseuse grabs me by the ankle and pulls me back. The women erupt in laughter. I hear the word Canada mentioned several times between the guffaws. If only I had said I was from the U.S.
As the laughter dies down, I surrender to the bliss of the full body massage that follows the soaping.
Released at last by the masseuse, I tip her generously and escape to the locker room. I feel like a rag doll, loose and boneless, beautifully scented and more feminine than I ever thought possible. I dress, wave a languorous goodbye to the desk attendant, and glide across the marble floor between the rows of smoking men to find Ziya in the lobby.