Saturday, October 13, 2012

Time for a Bath

It would be one of the last times I glided through the hotel’s revolving door and merged like a fish into the current of humanity that flowed between the buildings lining the swankiest pedestrian avenue in Istanbul.  One of my last adventures.  And we were on our own to navigate our way.

“Where is the subway station, anyway?” I asked Beth as we walked down the steep portion of the street, where the road narrows and shops brimming with vibrant scarfs or swollen-bellied stringed instruments or cascading bins of Turkish Delight do their best to distract attention.   The Galata Tower seemed to wink at us as we passed beneath its watchful eye, perhaps wishing us its own farewell.

“We are almost there!” Beth chirped as Carol and I followed along.  The July sun blazed down upon us as we mounted the train platform—nothing “sub” about this particular station.  Instead of enjoying even a moment of respite in a blast of air conditioning, I simply allowed the sweat to trickle, roll, flood down my back, legs, arms.  I’d experienced this nearly every day for the past 40 days or so, learning by about day 10 (long before the tour of Greece was over and before the tour of Turkey had even begun) not to even bother fighting it.  Sweaty was one continual sensation.  Sticky was another.  Daily sweat mingled with the sunscreen I applied in layers at regular hourly intervals in an attempt to protect my “cheap Irish skin” from the ravages of the Mediterranean sun to produce a tacky substance that adhered to every inch of my body.  By day 11 I finally got used to that too.  Today, that residual stickiness had just become another layer of skin.

A giant poster for Magnum ice cream bars taunted us with its image of a giant frozen treat as we stood on the train platform, melting in the sun.  But my eyes were more drawn to the barrage of letters that were splattered across the icy image.  Most individual letters were recognizable to me, but several “c”s and “s”s had that Turkish, artistic “swish” at the bottom and some of the vowels were capped with one or a pair of dots.  And I couldn’t make any meaning from the letters as they were grouped; it had been many days since I had even tried.  The subway map was so difficult for me to decipher—TOO many words!—that I simply gave up my type-A tendencies and let Beth and Carol lead me to our destination.  Our last adventure.

“Didn’t Liza and Kay go to the hamam in Ankara?” Carol asked as we waited for our train. 

“Yes!  With Susan and Amy too.  Don’t you remember, we saw them running to catch a cab while we were exploring the Citadel that day,” Beth replied.

“Afterwards.  What did they say about the hamam afterwards?” Carol queried.

“Kay insisted that I feel the skin on her arm,” Carol replied.  “It was really soft.”

“Yeah, but did you hear how it got that way?”  I jumped in.  “She said her attendant nearly peeled off all her skin with that sponge.  I’m not too sure how I feel about that.”

“They also kept talking about lying on a big piece of marble,” Carol commented.  “But I just don’t have a real good image of what that looks like.”

“Well, I guess we’ll find out for ourselves soon enough!” I chimed.

If you travel to Turkey, you might as well experience a Turkish bath.

The gleaming, modern Turkish rail train stopped right in front of a building constructed by Sinan, the most famous of Turkish architects, in the year 1584.  400 years before the year that serves as the title of George Orwell’s famous novel.  A building that old.  That’s where we were going for our Turkish bath.  Mind-blowing. 

Public “bathing” has been a human endeavor for more than a millennium.  Roman baths, for example, are the first to come to mind.  In fact, just a week before walking into this modern-day hamam in Istanbul, I had strolled the ruins of the ancient Roman baths in Ephesus where the men of that culture regularly gathered.  Of course there has always been a hygienic aspect to bathing, but a public bathhouse is the forum for an undeniably social experience.   Back in Ankara, Liza and Kay were pleasantly astounded that an afternoon at the baths was as much a mother/daughter bonding experience for the locals as it was a tourist experience for them. 

“The women’s baths are off to the right,” directed the girl at the front desk.  I traded my sweat-drenched clothes for a skimpy bikini and a towel and made my way to the first stop in the bath: the heated marble stone in the sauna-like room.  There, I stretched out on my towel and waited for my personal attendant, who, I was pretty certain, would not be speaking a word of English.

The sauna-like room was cavernous: round, made of stone, with a towering, domed ceiling.  It looked remarkably like the mosques I had toured just days before.  (Oh yeah, Mimar Sinan designed this building, just as he designed several mosques in Istanbul too!)  The sun winked through small windows that encircled the top part of the dome giving the large room just enough diffused light for business.  The “heated marble stone” on which I lay was more like a circular marble platform.  It was about eighteen inches tall and at least 20 feet in diameter, right in the middle of the room.  Women lay around the circumference of the stone; some were being bubble washed by their attendants and others were just stretched out in relaxation.  I closed my eyes, taking the warmth of the stone and the atmosphere into my body and sweating it out as well.

Taking in the sounds around me had an almost hypnotic effect.  Voices bounced around the stone walls before making their way to my ears, a jumble of Turkish echoing through my brain, more like music than language.  I was transfixed, transported, being taken away.  Taken away from everything that had become my world in the last 40 days.  The bus with the microphone system that Ali and Stathis used as they narrated to us about sites we were passing by.  The 16 of us Fulbrighters who had become more like family than fellow travelers.  The platters of food that were laid before us at every meal.

My attendant took me by the hand and led me to a different part of the heated stone where she took a sponge and began to scrub my body.  Layer upon layer of dead skin, sweat, sunscreen, and filth was removed with every scrub of the sponge.  But what about the thousands of memories that I had accumulated during my trip?  Were they in danger of being removed right along with the grime that had been trapped in my skin since the day I landed in Greece and strolled along the Aegean Sea in Thessaloniki?  So many memories….the glitter of gold on display at the site of Philip II’s tomb…the glow of marble columns reflecting the setting sun at Delphi…the cacophony of protests in Syntagma Square…the mental struggle to capture and retain just a few words of Turkish during our language lessons.  Scrub….bubble…scrub….bubble.  …slicing through hunks of honeycomb and smearing its golden gooiness atop sesame encrusted simit for breakfast…catching glimpses of the Parthenon between the buildings of modern day Athens…pondering the wind patterns of the Dardanelles and wondering how ancient mariners ever actually made their way to Byzantium…  The grime on my body was being peeled away and disappearing.  How long would it be before my memories would fade, fade, fade until only the most transparent of images remained?

No, I decided then and there.  My attendant would not, could not scrape away my memories as she scraped away the dead skin from my body.  Instead, her labor would serve to thrust each reminiscence deeper and deeper into my very being, penetrating my skin until each recollection became a part of me.  Dizzying patterns of lotus flowers swirling in reds, blues and greens on Iznik ceramics…the siren red flag of Turkey embellished with the omnipresent image of Ataturk…the undulating chant of protestors along Istiklal Caddesi…street vendors hawking roasted ears of corn in Aristotle Square in Salonica…  They are part of me, these memories, I will never relinquish them.

My skin glowed pink as I discarded my bath-bikini and pulled my own shorts and shirt back on.  It was soft, smooth, just as Kay’s had been after her hamam experience a few weeks ago.  I was clean.  I was revived.  I was ready to board a plane that would take me back the life I had known in North America.  But I knew that the person who would be landing in Boston in mere hours would not be the same person who had left there six weeks before.  Greece and Turkey had truly become a part of me.

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