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Wet and Naked in Istanbul

A large Turkish man has my arms crossed in front of my chest and is slowing crushing me to death. I grunt. He looks at me funny. You try not grunting while the life is being squeezed out of you, pal. But I notice that none of the other wet, naked men surrounding me are making a sound, so I’m clearly doing something wrong.

We’re all sweating profusely in a large, domed steam room in Chemberlitash Hamami, the great, historic Istanbul bath house, designed by the great Sinan himself. The nice girl at the entrance told me the full luxury service cost 95 lira, tip included. The large Turkish man destroying my spine, however, makes it clear this is not the case.

“Yeah, it was great.”
“No complaint?”
“No complaints.”
“You give service!” He rubs his forefinger and thumb together, the international symbol for cash.
“Whatever you say, sir.”

It takes a little getting used to, the Turkish bath, that is. You’re allowing another grown man to lather you up in soap, shampoo you, and rub you down with a rough cloth that will scrub several layers of skin off, particularly if you’ve been in the sun. It’s enormously relaxing, particularly after you’ve been lying on your back in a steam room for a quarter of an hour, letting the usual anxieties of solo travel melt away under the heat of the steam. Would, anyway, if you could actually get over your many nagging concerns and neuroses, on top of the fact that you’re naked, in a strange city, in a strange country, completely at the mercy of the large men with their hands on all your pressure points.

But you do find yourself relaxing after all, because you can’t help it, because in this heat and steam your body practically faints as a precautionary measure anyway and because you’ve been on your feet for the last few days wandering the city. And when the heat starts, and you lie down, you do, in fact, relax.

What’s the worst that could happen?

You could get a little TOO relaxed.

You could, find all sorts of autonomic responses letting loose in this environment.

You could, in short, pop a boner.

“You want Yeshuldirek Hammami, I think.”

Yeshuldirek is the city’s gay hammami. Quite nice, according to the guidebook, but not what you’re looking for.

“I’m not gay,” you respond wearily.

“Is wrong hammami!”

“Look, I’m just remembering something from the other day, alright? It’ll be gone in a second, I’m thinking about baseball.”

“You want to buy a carpet?”


“You want to buy a carpet? My cousin has very nice shop around corner, I show you.”

“Wait, I thought you barely spoke English?”

This scence does not, in fact, happen to me, although the scenario plays out in my head as I desperately try to steer my mind away from some recent, pleasant events and toward the Michael Jackson funeral, the Tour de France, and the slowly collapsing US dollar. Oddly though, everyone in Turkey is *very* eager to either sell you a carpet or direct you to a relative of theirs who can.

It’s becoming a bit of a habit to title these posts “Wet and naked in…”, for which I can only say is totally appropriate for someone who was voted most likely to be arrested for indecent exposure his senior year in high school.

[Auth note: I’m not making that up]
[Ed note: *Sigh* no, he’s really not}

Despite the nervousness of my first trip to a hammani, and the ever-present possibility of sudden bonerhood, the bath is, in fact, an experience not to be missed. I end up getting the works, which includes an oil massage as well, the sort of deep-tissue massage you’re used to getting in New York. You can pay a much cheaper price to use the facilities and clean yourself, but since I may never get to Istanbul again, I opt for the full monty. It’s a fantastic massage in a historic setting, and I of course meet someone from Long Island on the table next to me while we’re both being pounded into burger. He leaves before I do, and I never see his face, he only sees the back of my head.

Outside I try chatting up the girl at the entrance, who speaks flawless English, looks vaguely Slavic, and I figure must be European.

“Where are you from?”

“Near Istanbul.”

I comment on her perfect English.

“I’m studying English Literature.”

What masochistic streak runs through the Turks that has turned them all into Literature majors? Don’t you realize that down that path lies ruination, heartache, and professional malaise? Don’t you realize that you’ll be ME in ten years?

She’s studying the Beat poets. Their girlfriends, more specifically, and is working on her masters degree.

I’m about to ask her if she know’s a decent place for dinner when she asks if I’m in the market for a carpet.

  1. Frank Cozza
    July 9, 2009 at 5:53 pm

    Vagabond: Just figured out how to blog you. Hope all is well. Your blog makes the most interesting reading. Basis for a novel??

    • nycwastrel
      July 9, 2009 at 6:09 pm

      From your lips to God’s ears. And from here on out, use the handle “Vagabond” for me. Always better to keep things on the anonymous side.

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