The stress of being de-stressed in Istanbul

The hectic pace of sight-seeing in Istanbul had made my body feel like a wet noodle. I had bargained at the Grand Bazaar, bought the mandatory Turkish delight at the Spice Market, seen the massive emeralds in the Topkapi Museum, was overwhelmed by the Archaeology Museum and the Alexander sarcophagus, spent time in the massive Blue Mosque, wandered around Galata Tower and was dazzled by the riches of the décor at the Dolmabahce Palace.

All these spectacular sights left me in awe of the grandeur of past times of this country that straddles both Asia and Europe. But as much as I enjoy learning about the history of a country, I was tired and all I could dwell on this late afternoon was the prospect of an “hammam”, the elaborate Turkish baths, with their elegant fountains and basins replicas of those I’d seen in various palaces. As I ambled weakly through the lobby of the Hotel Marmara, where I was staying, I really wanted the experience and soothing effect of the renowned Turkish bath.

Stunned to find there was actually an available appointment, I rushed downstairs to the hammam, not stopping even long enough to deposit my newly purchased souvenirs.

The sparkling clean dressing room was outfitted with the mandatory hair dryers, showers, etc., a familiarity that helped clam my nervousness as I wrapped my modest self in the large knot-fringed sheet which was given me. Had I tied it in correct hammam fashion, I wondered.

Since only one of the attendants could manage a few words in English, he pointed to the “halvet” (sauna), which I surmised from what I had read, was the room which would soften the skin before the massage. Being very Canadian, I turned Maple Leaf red before I had even seated myself on the wooden benches in this small heated cubical, since there, unexpectedly and in plain view, was a male, in a slightly draped sheet.

I pretended this was an illusion due to my serious morning retail therapy. Think Zen, I told myself.

Out again in cool space, swaddled now in a white sheet, I stood bemused by the predicament I had put myself in. What next, I wondered. Within a nanosecond, I was to find out. Suddenly, I was in the ‘sicaklik”, the marbled room, a duplicate of those in the palaces. Here is where you’re expected to perspire before your massage. Once again I was taken aback. In one of the four niches was yet another male. I was under the impression that in a traditional and seriously Muslim country, men and women had separate days or hours for these procedures. “This is so unusual. But now in hotels they don’t separate the sexes any longer,” I was told by the directors of tourism on my return. Apparently, it’s okay for foreigners. It’s not ‘kosher’ for locals nor was it okay for me.

With little else to do, in my puritanical demeanor, I headed to the farthest corner, slunk on to the marble bench and tried to hide behind the wall fountain built into each niche. Same as the palaces, like a princess, I told myself.

And if that weren’t enough for my modesty, in walked the bath attendant and now he too had a sheet wrapped around his waist, while his chest was bare….(and hairy. That much I was able to take note.) So stunned, I wasn’t even aware he had taken a pail of water until he overturned it on my head, a procedure repeated several times until my sheet was somewhat diaphanous and my mascara dripping down onto my neatly applied cheek rouge. Soon, his toga was almost see through too. During all this, it was no wonder I hadn’t observed he had now donned the massage glove and was about to attack my back. Dead skin had no defense from this stiff hand- woven, pure wool mitten. Next, my arms were assaulted and then my legs. When he left, I sat stunned. Alas, my relief was brief. Wasn’t I supposed to be having fun, ridding myself of stress? But no, he returned and in a flash, poured some liquid into the second smaller basin into which he added what looked like a cheesecloth bag. A most extraordinary thing then happened. After he had soaked the pouch, he blew into it and bubbles burst forth.

After several of these stange but nevertheless intriguing breathing exercises, the bubble carrier was dumped over me. This strange but not entirely unpleasant drill continued for several minutes and finally, squishing the deflated bag into wash-cloth size, through the suds, he rubbed my already red and well-exfoliated limbs. My pink and now baby-like epidermis was proof all this had not been in vain. But my joy lasted only seconds. Suddenly, he opened a small jar, emptied it on my already assaulted scalp and gave my recently hair styled hair, a serious wash which I’m unlikely to forget. If I did have shampoo buildup, it didn’t have a change against his fingers.

Again I was anointed, but even I knew at this point there was little else that could possible happen to my now dysfunctioning ego and this Turkish “delight” was about to end.

A dry towel was handed to me to replace the drenched sheet. As I headed toward the locker room, I walked past a mirror. I was shining. Had it all been worth it? Well, I had been spared the “gobektasi”, the hot stone slab in the middle of the room on which most rub-downs take place. One has to be thankful for small mercies.

Dressed and glowing, I reached the lobby and suddenly, had a spurt of energy. I didn’t dwell on how this vigor came about but sprinted out onto the traffic-filled Taxsim Square heading for areas I hadn’t yet seen, my newly rejuvenated and radiant parts still, gratefully, intact.

The cost for being distressed? Approximately 800,000 lira.