a much-needed, good scrub…

This is a stock photo from the internet. I would have been thrown out if
I had a camera in a hammam. The layout is very similar to the hammam in this story.
I try to take a deeper breath as we enter the “Bahceli Hammam” ‘s cold room. The room that is supposed to be cold, is already too hot for me. I look for an empty locker, and look around to see what the dresscode, or the nakedness limit is.
My mother in law, my husband’s aunt and myself are on a mission to get a good scrub and much needed relaxing bath. My husband is from Eskisehir, it’s currently a liberal city with a big student population due to Anadolu University. Hammam is a big part of this city’s day-to-day life. When my husband and I started to date, he was going to go to his hometown and visit his family for some reason. Then he told me he would probably go to hammam first, then go home… I remember thinking “is he weird?”. Then I guess he saw the “freak alert” look in my eyes, and explained in detail that Eskisehir was home to one of the best thermal waters in the world. He went on to say it was still a big thing to go to hammam a few times a week. Since my husband is pretty cool and a pretty good looking guy, I left the conversation with a raised brow.

I am originally from Mersin, which is 100F+ degrees in the summer, and average about 75F in the winter… The only hammam I saw in my life was Galatasaray hammam in Istanbul. My Mom took my brother and I when we were about 7-8 years old. I remember my brother freaking out once we entered. It should have been a life changing experience to see tons of naked women and gush of steam coming at you at that age. I still remember my brother running out and sitting in the cold room with wide open eyes. Of course, being the curious traveler I have always been, I held my great Aunt’s hand and let her give me a good bath. I remember the wonderful light in the room and the hot steam…

When Turkey started going through all the modern changes and trying to clone ourselves into Western Europe, most of the hammams in the cities have been closed. It wasn’t until the 90s, that several hotels revived the old tradition again for the tourists… However, I was never tempted to go into those tiny hamam look-alikes. Then a few old historic hammams in Istanbul started to find some marketing articles in the newspapers. I guess noone can even challenge the architecture and the beauty of any of those old hammams. I am so glad they weren’t torn down and most are reopened today… When I was in college we talked about going to hammam a few times, but then it never happened. So I have been left with my only memory as a child until I went to a real hammam in Eskisehir…

A few times during our wedding preparation days, my husband’s family women made jokes about taking me to a hammam. There is a practical joke in Turkish culture that the brides are taken to hammam to see if there is anything wrong with them that they are hiding…. – I guess these days the most of what people hide are in their minds and in their hearts. So seeing a missing toe is not a big deal anymore-…

My first Eskisehir hamam experience was a few years ago… they finally convinced me to go. E’s late grandma, his aunt, my mother in law and I went. My mother in law is not originally from Eskisehir either, so we both have our limits for hot water… That experience was a memorable one… I have never seen that much naked women in my adult life. The first few moments is really weird. Then there is a funny feeling like a crowded bar where people are just going about their own business and socializing at the same time. When I was on the steps to go into the main section with 20 more topless women I thought it was similar to waiting for your drink in a bar. Everyone whines about the crowd, but still chit chats and enjoys their time…

This time we opted to go at a less crowded time of the day… I still feel like a rookie for this hammam trip, and there is definete hammam etiquette you need to follow. Don’t even let it cross your mind that all the nakedness allows room for disrespect. There are many older women in the hammams, who are never shy of correcting misbehavior. Even though I am a pretty laid back person about social conduct, I admit to “fear from the elderly” and try to do my best to get approval from this social group. I am pretty good friends with my mother in law, and she is a very open person. So I follow her steps… We paid, 6 liras (about 5 dollars) for a private bath, Aunt O wanted the main section and that’s 4 liras. Things move pretty fast, so there is no time to feel like tourist here. People are there to take a bath, and then they have to go shopping, go home and cook… There is a lady that takes your shoes, offers non-skid slippers.. it’s pretty similar to a coat hanger in a bar (I told you the etiquette is very similar to bar scene)… She gave a number for our shoes in exchange for 0.25 liras.

We entered the cold room, and it was pretty hot in there for me. Since the weather was cold outside, I was in my jeans and my fleece wind jacket. I immediately felt like I was overdressed for a hot summer day. The cold room is a part of the hammam where your body gets used to the heat, and you get to rest here after your bath. In Bahceli hammam this section also has the lockers. I asked my mother-in-law about the dress code… and how much or how little clothing was appropriate since I didn’t remember from last time. She said, “only undies” was the proper way… I took a quick glance around and yes, that was what it is… We went into our private bath after we called the nice “locker lady” to lock the doors. Your underpants, a bar of soap, shampoo, hamam tasi (a metal bowl to hold water) a kese (a coarse bath glove) is all you need in an Eskisehir hammam. Some touristic hammams might require otherwise, but here, this is the etiquette…

This hammam’s private bath rooms are pretty plain. It is very similar to a master bathroom size room, with a white tub, marble floors, a beautiful marble sink bowl and thick pipes that carry the water. I am not a big fan of sitting in a tub, so we opt to sit on the bench next to the marble bowl. The hot water is… well extremely hot… so we turned on the cold water to adjust for the extreme heat. The funny thing about both times at this hammam is the cold water is also pretty hot for me… well, after a few bowls of water I get used to it. We immediately call the scrub lady… this is something that almost all Turkish people have heard of, and somebody giving you a scrub in a hammam is expected. But I still feel weird about the subject. I also feel weird about massages, I had quite a bit of them while I was training for a marathon, but I am still not very comfortable about a stranger squeezing and poking me… In the case of hammam, the scrubber is also half naked. I cannot stop wondering how one must feel coming to work everyday to scrub people, in that much heat.. and in a half naked body.. both for the customer and the scrubber… A definete respect grows inside me for this person…

My respect is well deserved. The scrub lady is an upbeat, chatty, funny lady… she has a strong but gentle hand. I told her that I am not from Eskisehir and she needs to be gentle with me. My MIL tells her that I am a bride to the city… Scrub lady quickly dismisses and says “brides can take quite a bit… they are pretty strong”… She then asks if I have kids.. I mention my 2 totsicles. She looks to be 35, and she also mentions kids. One 19-year-old one 17. I ask her if she had them early. “Yes” she says. “I was only 25″… My quick math brings her to mid 40s, but she really looks young… Then she informs us that she is divorced, with a humble and sad voice… “aahhh” I say.. “that’s the secret for your youth”…. she cheers up again and talks about her son and his bride-to-be… she continues to tell how much her husband drank and how much happier she is now… and if she married she wouldn’t marry for money but would marry for a good heart, telling all this while continuing to do her job. I keep thinking all things and environments might change, but the matters of the heart, marriages, the stories of men and women are pretty much the same everywhere. After the back and the front scrub she also offers a wonderful massage. From head to toe, I am in hammam bliss… I am scrubbed, washed with soapy water and given a massage…

to be continued… (the observations from the main section, the real deal about a hammam)….

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One response to “a much-needed, good scrub…

  1. ooh ne guzel sihhatlar olsun. ikinci yarisini bekliyorum merakla 😉

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