It’s been a brutal, brutal winter here in New England. You know it’s bad when you wake up, see it’s 18 degrees out, and think, “Hey, not too cold this morning?” It’s significant progress that the drifts along our walkway have been reduced to merely waist high. Here in Massachusetts, nearly 200 roofs have caved in, and more people than you might guess find themselves flinging pantyhose filled with snow melt onto their roofs at 11 pm at night… NOT THAT I KNOW ANYTHING ABOUT THAT. (And it was the side facing away from our neighbors, so you can’t have proof!)
So I thought I’d bring you a warm thought I’ve been holding on to for half a year now.
When we were in Istanbul, we went to a 300 year old turkish bath called Cagaloglu Hamami (C is pronounced as “J” and the “G”s are more or less silent, so it was pronounced “Ja-la-lu” in case you ever go looking for it.)
Now, we were in Istanbul in August. Shockingly, it is HOT in Istanbul in August. Every day it was hovering around 100 degrees (although this wasn’t as bad as you might think, since the hill city on the water got lots of nice cool breezes off the Bosphorus straight and the Golden Horn). So already, before we went in to the shady confines of the baths, we were hot. The baths, like many in Turkey, are completely symmetrical. The men head off in one direction, the women in the other. We paid our money and split off into our different directions, scrubby mitts in hand.
I changed in a courtyard (women only) with a tall fountain in the middle and booths all around. The booths had high windows, doors with old-fashioned keys, dark stained wood, and narrow benches to place clothes on. I walked on impossible wooden shoes, wrapped only in a thin sheet, down to meet my masseuse — an inevitably soft, middle-aged woman who had just come back from a smoke break. She was wearing a black bathing suit and carrying a towel.
She brought me through a transition room to the baths themselves — ancient marble delights with silver taps constantly flowing with cool water. The entire room was made of marble. There were alcoves, a sweat-room, some partial walls for partial privacy, and a dome with pinpricks of light coming through opalescent ancient glass. It was very old luxury, not decrepit, but far from modern. In the middle was a large octagonal slab of marble — each side being just slightly shorter than a tall modern woman. I suspect they were perfectly sized for our less nourished forebears. And on each one of these sides was a woman, with her black-bathing-suited, comfortably-proportioned, middle-aged masseuse. Most of these women were in the same condition they would be for a bath or a shower at home. (What can I say, I fear the search engine traffic if I explain more clearly!)
My lady left me there, in an alcove, looking around in wonder but trying not to stare, with a silver basin in my hand and cool water running behind me. I sat until I got hot. I surreptitiously tried to figure out what to do. I poured a libation over my head. It felt marvelous, sluicing through the heat and making my towel cling cooly.
I waited a long time. I was beginning to be afraid I’d missed something in translation. I tried to slow my breathing, to just enjoy, to not be shocked that in the middle of this Islamic country I was surrounded by women completely at ease with themselves, with their bodies, with other women.
Finally, my black-bathing-suited woman returned. She lead me to my place on the marble slab, holding my hand solicitously — like I hold my sons on the slippery ice. The octagon was warm to the touch. 300 years ago, they had designed these baths to be heated by water and steam running past the marble on the other side. I could not see them, but furnaces were roaring to make this place even hotter than the 100 degree heat outside. I laid down on the warm marble, and she sluiced me again with water.
The massage was an amazing experience. It was actually a bath – as promised. There was soap. She washed my hair. She exfoliated with the scrubby mitt. One woman began singing an old Anatolian song, and the others joined in before trailing off into laughter. At the end of it, I was clean, and covered once more in the cool water before drying off and returning to the busy, narrow streets of Constantine’s city.
I think of those pinpricks of light, in the dome of the baths, now. As I trudge through the weary, narrowed world of February, I remember the surprising sensation of hot marble. I marvel that it is possible to sit, relaxed, sans garments, without fear of chill. With my vistas cut off now — by snow banks and hurry — I think of the far sights of Hagia Sophia and the Blue Mosque, towering above the millenia-long important churning waters on the gateway between Asia and Europe, East and West. And I remember that today’s frigid contraction is not forever.