What else could I say to a Turkish hamam matron scrubbing me with bubble bath? But I’m getting ahead of myself. My Tucsonan/Istanbul friend Gail suggested it: “Would you like to go to the Cemberlitas Hamami the night before you fly home? They’re having a special.”
“Sounds perfect,” I replied. And it was.
Tucked away on a busy Istanbul street, across from a mosque hundreds of years old, near both a MacDonald’s and a Burger King, I found it. There was no way of knowing that the heavy doors next door to an outdoor stand squeezing fresh pomegranate juice would lead downstairs to a 15th century Turkish bath.
After putting my clothes in a locker, I wrapped myself in what seemed like a big cotton dish towel and went out to the common room. A dark-haired, short woman in a flowered cotton housedress — like my mother wore in the ’50s — greeted me.
A number was pinned to her dress. I asked her name. I think it was Ulsa, but I couldn’t tell because she didn’t speak much English.
We entered a chamber into another world. In the center was a giant marble slab, covered with half-naked women of all sizes. In a moment I was one of them. Ulsa had pulled the dish towel off me. “Lie down,” she said.
I did what I was told. Next she poured a bowl of warm water over me. She left. I saw Gail waving to me from her spot across the slab. I couldn’t really relax, not knowing what would happen next. Around 15 minutes later Ulsa reappeared — unabashed — in a bikini that barely covered her plump body.
More warm water poured over me. Mounds of bubble bath somehow appeared over the front of my body. Ulsa donned her scrubbing mitt and went to work, flipping me over, this way and that, as she did her job.
Somewhere along the way she started to sing a lullaby. I figured she was singing to me. I smiled at her and said, “You must be a good mother.” She smiled back. I was ready to go home.