The Turkish Bath: A Love Grown Cold

/ By Josh

A while back I was on the road in Karaman, and, as Fred and I often do when exploring a new city, we decided to pop into a Turkish bath. There was nothing out of the ordinary: high domed ceilings, white plaster, marble everywhere, the sound of splashing water and voices rendered unintelligible echoing on the smooth stone and domes. As per usual the other visitors milled about the steam filled rooms wearing peştemal, the kilt of the Turkish Bath, complete with a red, white, and yellow tartan when a tellak (the staff at a Turkish Bath) motioned to me, asking if I would be getting a scrub and massage.

While I said yes, I realized then that I didn’t really want to.

Somehow, I didn’t really feel the way I used to about the Turkish Bath.

Aziziye Turkish Bath Kadıköy

During my first years in Turkey a visit to a Turkish Bath was incredibly novel. It was new, extremely weird, and while certainly not an essential part of Turkish culture, the Bath was very much an essentially Turkish experience. While many of Istanbul’s sights and attractions had been affected by westernization and modernization the Turkish Bathhouses we visited were somehow more authentic.

We would bring guests to the Turkish Baths, throwing them in to the deep end of cultural weirdness. While a person usually feels vulnerable when they’re jet-lagged and fresh in the culture, that feeling is heightened by being wet, alone, and basically naked. Even better was taking friends with glasses who were made blind by fogged lenses.

Karaman Turkish Bath

I had always enjoyed the experience, so why had my feelings changed?

Chatting with Fred that night over dinner, we realized that the issue was novelty. While there was never a time where the Turkish Bath experience was NOT weird, the novelty of it all made it exciting. Now however, the novelty and excitement had gone and without it, all the remaining oddities had become a mildly pricey discomfort.

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Getting a knuckle violently thrust into the arch of my foot had always hurt, but now it wasn’t even funny. The surprisingly painful thing where they jiggle my calf muscle so vigorously that it threatens to separate from my bones was now predictable as well as painful and the questionable chiropractic techniques made me consider what it would be like to lose the use of my legs.

The faint scent of mold and the calcium built up on the ancient marble once meant I was taking part in something truly historic, now it made me worry about contracting foot fungus or skin disease.

I realized that I was going through the torture more for the sake of writing a review than because I really wanted to.

Even in the midst of the heat and steam, my affection had gone cold.

Does this mean that my days of visiting Turkish Baths and writing incredibly useful reviews are over?

That’s a joke, no one reads the reviews.

No. Instead I will use the Turkish Bath as a metaphor.

Turkish Bath image
The entrance of Imaret Hamamı in Afyon.

As I said in the previous blog, I have an OCD-like compulsion to visit and review every interesting place in Turkey (though I doubt I’ll live long enough to get to them all). And while the posted signs at Bathhouses do exaggerate the health benefits, steam rooms, saunas, and Turkish Baths are very good for you. Beyond the health benefits, getting scrubbed with the aggressive kese glove removes so much dead skin that I hate to think what would pile up on my body if I didn’t go every couple months.

So, unlike Ryan Gosling, who was too scarred by his experience, I think I will keep visiting Turkish Baths. The fact is, after seven years in Turkey, its not really about the novelty anymore. I guess that goes for Turkish Baths, or, more generally, life in another culture in general. Eventually the honeymoon where everything is seen as amazing and special, comes to an end and you need to learn to just enjoy things for what they really are. The chaos of the crowded streets was once part of the mystique of the place. I could hate how much harder it is to get places in a hurry, or I could simply accept it as a part of Turkey.

Maybe I won’t visit Turkish Baths as much as before, but even without being new and novel, it’s still a small piece of this amazing country and culture that I love.