Intercultural Bewilderment: My Turkish Bath Adventure

As the child of Hippie parents and a graduate of college near Portland, Oregon, one thing is certain: I’m no prude. I don’t pay much attention to movie ratings. I’m not offended by nudity in the slightest. I didn’t even blink twice whenever I saw that strange ad with the huge naked boobs on every streetlight while I was in Prague earlier this year. And flashing the entire audience of a midnight showing of a production I was in in college with the other female members of the cast now seems like small potatoes compared to parading around in my skivvies in front of half my hometown for “Rocky Horror” last year.

But even for free-range Hippiekids with a history of being semi-naked onstage like me, the hammam is quite the intercultural adventure.

A hammam is a public bathhouse. Hammams can be found in Islamic cultures, as well as Islamic communities across the world (for example, I saw several while living in Marseille, France, which has a large population of Middle-Eastern immigrants). The word “hammam” means “spreader of warmth,” and the institution revolves around hot water and steam.

While in Istanbul, my traveling companion and I went for her first hammam experience. I had been once before, on my first trip to Turkey. The first hammam I went to was a much more down-to-earth, local bath than this one, but since it was my friend’s first time, we decided to go to one of the nicer hammams in the city. We paid at the door and received a towel, a pair of simple black underwear bottoms to wear (no bikini top), and a loofah-like scrubber, and headed into the bath.

What did we find?

Boobs. Lots and lots of boobs. Huge boobs! Tiny boobs! Boobs as big and flat as saucers, boobs as small and round as under-ripe lemons! Old boobs! Young boobs! An entire “One Boob, Two Boobs” Dr. Seuss book could have been written about the experience, except there were no red or blue ones to be found. Other than that, it was the boobie parade variety hour in there, and it was quite the sight! Amazingly, it still felt like a totally safe space. I never once felt uncomfortable lying there topless with all those other women I’d never met.

Quite honestly though, as a 23 year-old American woman, I had never seen so many naked breasts at once in my entire life. American culture simply doesn’t do nakedness. Heck, even when we have all our clothes on, we have the famous American “personal space bubble” to deal with!

…Which made the next part of our hammam adventure all the more interesting. Before my turn, we were told to lie down on the large stone platform in the center of the room with the other boobs women. After sweating and steaming my way to total relaxation, I was called over by one of the attendants and told to lay face down on my towel. The attendant then used the scrubber and some luxuriously soapy lather to scrub me down all over. And when I say all over, I mean all over. I don’t know the name of my Turkish bath attendant that day, but I still feel like I know her very, very well. You might say we’re bosom buddies! Har, har.

Actually, that may be the best way to describe it, based on what happened next. After the scrub-down, the attendant gave me a short massage of my arms, hands and shoulders. Upon feeling the tension in my shoulders, she apparently decided to focus there and try to get a little leverage.

How?

By smushing my face directly into her chest.

As I sat there topless, with my face buried between two enormous Turkish breasts, and a stranger’s hands digging into my shoulder muscles, I was absolutely bewildered. It wasn’t a feeling of uncomfortableness, really; rather, it was just total surprise, and a shocking wonder at how I should react.

A dramatic reenactment of how my face looked while stuck between two foreign boobs in the Turkish bath.

And that is precisely what I will miss most about living abroad. The constant surprise, the constant challenge, the constant interaction with the “other” that inevitably leaves you contemplating the familiar. Why are Americans so modest? What are the pros and cons of such a culture? How does it affect our notions of sexuality, and feminism too?

What do you think?

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About wrap me in phyllo dough

travel addict. greece-obsessed. grad student. bottomless pit.
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11 Responses to Intercultural Bewilderment: My Turkish Bath Adventure

  1. This all reminds me of the episode of Seinfeld in which Elaine fell in the sauna. That is all I can say on this matter.:)

    • I haven’t seen that one! I did, however, watch the eclair-in-the-trash episode the other day, which may be my all-time favorite. I’ll have to look up the sauna episode now though, after my hammam adventure!

  2. kscarth says:

    I LOVED this entry! Hilarious! Thanks for the laugh. I think modesty in the US is multi-layered, but much of it stems from the culture of wanting to project a certain image. We can strategically hide our flaws with the proper clothing. American children see parents being modest, and then copy the behavior. Sadly, this also points to the idea that we think everyone is looking at and scrutinizing us. Very self-centered thinking really, when usually no one is taking any notice of us. In American culture, we care too much about what others are (or we perceive them to be) thinking of us. But again, great entry!

    • One of the persuasive speeches I gave for Speech & Debate in high school was about our reactions to embarrassment, and how our own self-judgment is much more severe than how others perceive us as a whole. A study was once done in a grocery store, where researchers purposefully set up a huge display of toilet paper in such a way that anyone passing by would inevitably knock it down. They then interviewed the offenders, who were all MORTIFIED, sure that everyone around them must think they were total klutzes. However, when the researchers interviewed the witnesses, they said that it was no big deal and could have happened to anyone! I agree with your assessment of how this perceived scrutiny plays in to our unwillingness to show our flaws, and therefore our modesty. Well said.

  3. I’ve heard the scrubbing sloughs off disconcerting gobs of skin, yet leaves you feeling softer and smoother than ever before. Is there a way to treat yourself to this at home? Are there soapy scrubs and sponges to buy? What seems to be the secret, that we don’t achieve so well with the soaps and scrubs and sponges we buy here in the west?

    • Yes, what you’ve heard is true! When you go, don’t look down at all the icky stuff coming off your skin; just enjoy the after-effects, with the silkiest skin you’ve ever had! After all that scrubbing, your skin will feel butter-soft for days and days.

      As for recreating it at home, I wish I knew! My only two guesses are the following. One, the lather they use is unbelievably bubbly. They make it that way by running the scrubber through soapy water, and then doing this neat trick where they whip it into almost a pillow shape and pull the bubbly lather out of it. I have no idea how it works, but the incredibly rich lather it creates might be part of the trick! And two, perhaps it’s just a matter of having someone else scrub you down. Standing above you, they can get more leverage than you could ever hope to get when washing yourself, and therefore can scrub extra hard (which they’re definitely not shy about!).

  4. doranyc says:

    *snort* that pic is great!! I frequent a Korean spa called Spa Castle out in Queens here in NYC. Very similar feel to the booby room. And I’m giggling now because I’m remember the first time I walked into the booby room with a girlfriend of mine. We were practically covering ourselves with our hands at first. Then we got over it. The booby room, ironically, is my favorite part of the Spa Castle experience because of the OMGJACCUZZZIS!!!111!!1 Now I’m an old pro with the nudeness because I find it refreshing and freeing. And lord knows the old Korean ladies don’t give a sh*t. I have yet to try the scrub. I’ve heard it’s painful and I’m a wuss. Great post!

    • Wow, a Korean spa must be a whole new sort of adventure!! I wonder what other kinds of spas there are out there. Perhaps a whole book could be written on the subject–“Around the World in 50 Booby Rooms” has a nice ring to it, don’t you think? Thanks for sharing. Finally, go for the scrub!! It’s really not so bad, and the glowing skin you get out of it is totally worth it!

      • doranyc says:

        The Koreans are pretty hard core with the spa culture, for sure. And the Eastern Europeans and Russians out here are all over it, too. They love Spa Castle, as well. Spa Castle claims to mix elements of western spas in with the traditional which I’ve heard is definitely true, I really wouldn’t know the difference. One thing they do at Spa Castle that I really appreciate is a 100% no shoe policy and a uniform that everyone is required to wear at all times except for on the roof-top pool level. And the FOOD. OMG the food. Tea eggs and dumplings any one? Frozen yogurt YUM.

        I’m officially volunteering to co-author “Around the World in 50 Booby Rooms” 😉

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