Here is the thing about having double pneumonia- hygiene goes out the window.
I was so tired, and my lung capacity was so pathetically small, that a trip down the hall to the bathroom was an exhausting, epic event. I specifically remember one morning being daunted, completely daunted, by the actions of reaching for the toilet paper and then reaching back to wipe. That’s how physically weak I was.
I didn’t shower the whole time I was in the hosiptal, of course, though one lovely afternoon someone came around and shampooed my hair. (I cannot express what a wonderful service this is for hospitals to have. Having clean, freshly blowdried hair made such a difference that day… I forgot that I was in a hospital alone, that I was scared and lonely, that none of the nurses spoke English, that I had no idea how much it was costing other than a LOT. For the ten minutes or so before I fell asleep, clear tuckered out from the effort of sitting in a chair for fifteen minutes, I sran my fingers through me silky, degreased hair and felt a little better, a little prettier, a little more in control.) I managed a shower when I got home, but I spent most of it sitting on the shower stall floor, pep talking myself up to do things like raise my arm so I could wash my armpit. I wasn’t in great shape for most of the ten days I recovered at home. I think in that time I took three showers, though towards the end I was at least changing my pyjamas more frequently.
Where am I going with this? What does this have to do with living in Istanbul? Bear with me.
I’ve been back to work for exactly a week now and it has been difficult. I’m tired, physically and emotionally. I’m still going to bed before ten most nights. My lung capacity still isn’t great. But most distressing, I thought this morning in the shower when I was shaving my legs for the first time in a ridiculously long time, (call the plumber!) was how disgusting my skin was. After all it had been through- heavy duty anti-biotics, overheated hospital air, poor nutrition, weeks without moving or getting dressed or doing anything, really, that would shake some of the dead skin cells off- it was dry and flakey and not remotely touchably soft. The hidden cost of illness: vanity.
Time for a hamam.
So after work I went to Azizye Hamam in Kadikoy, which I’ve written about before. I like Azizye for a number of reasons: it’s lovely, with it’s old tile work, and the light filtering down hazily from the small, deeply recessed windows in the domed ceiling. It’s one of if not the only hamam in Istanbul that still heats the water with wood fires. Going there is an authentic Turkish bath experience. Despite their foreigner-friendly website, it does not coddle or cater to tourists. Also, I’m a creature of habit. When I find something I like, be it a dish on the menu of a restaurant, (holla! B of Bolton Hill’s much missed pasta with speck and saffron sauce!) or a particular hamam, I just go for what I know every time.
After I put my things in a cubicle and stripped down to my underwear, I walked up some marble steps into the main room, and took the only available spot left- behind the belly stone on the right. I sat on the heated stone bench, leaned back against the heated stone wall, (I did not realize what a flippng mess of knots my back is until I did this) and turned on the taps above the prettily carved stone basin on my left. There was a plastic bowl floating in the water, and I used it to dowse myself with lukewarm water repeatedly. Around the perimeter of the main room, doing the same thing, were ten or so other ladies, mostly middle aged and somewhat stout, all chattering and soaping eah other’s backs, or just sitting there, elbows on knees, grimly and repeatedly pouring water over their heads. Aross from me a very large woman was leaning back while a younger woman ran a pumice stone over her feet. On the belly stone, two women were in the process of getting scrubbed and soaped by two stout middle aged women wearing nothing but their underwear.
When she was scrubbed and rinsed, the woman closer to me came and sat in the spot catty-corner to me and started talking to the woman next to her in English. When they paused I said,
“Where are you from?”
Australia. One of the ladies lived in Moda and taught at a language school, and the other was visiting. We chit-chatted for a half-hour or so about teaching, and ex-pat life, and things to do and see in Istanbul.
“Have you been here before?” the ex-pat, G, asked.
“A few times, yeah,” I said. She told me about going to some of the fancier, more expensive hamams that offer things like massages and facials.
“This,” she gestured, “is really just about cleaning, huh?”
The large woman across from me had her hands in her underwear, laboriously soaping her genitals for at least the second time.
“Yes,” I said. “They aren’t really fussy or luxurious. How much was the place you went to before?”
“Oh, just to get into the hamam was 80 lira, I think. With a massage and a facial- we paid something like 140.”
“Lord,” I said. Azizye is 40 lira, (recently increased from 30) for a steam and a scrub and soap. “So it might be nice for special occassions,” I said, “birthdays or something.”
“Yeah. And I have to say, the massage wasn’t that great.”
“It’s not great here,” I laughed.
“No but- I heard of a place close to Bostanci where you can get a good massage. They have all different kinds, you know, and I think it’s only fifty or sixty lira for an hour or an hour and a half.”
“Good to know,” I said, grimacing and twisting. My back was beginning to complain about sitting on a stone bench, however lovely warm, and my lungs were beginning to complain about the heat and moisture. I wished I’d remembered to bring a water bottle.
“This is the kind of place you could come every week for a treat, isn’t it,” the visitor said. “Would you ever come here by yourself?”
“Oh no,” the ex-pat said quickly. They both looked at me for an awkward half sec. “but you do, don’t you.”
I do a lot of things by myself. It’s kind of my M.O.
“How did you hear about this place?” I asked.
“Oh I found this review online, somewhere. I think it was written by an American woman who came here with her mom.”
“Oh,” I said. “I wrote that. That was me.”
“Really? Oh my goodness. You wrote that? You’re the reason we’re here!”
What a strange small world this is.
We chatted for another quarter of an hour or so, and then they left to get on with their afternoon, and I stared at the tile wall and the whisps of steam floating up to the ceiling. I looked around dispassionately at the half naked ladies ringed around the room. A woman my grandmother’s age and donut-ey shape was now bent over, her back to me, soaping something. She’d discarded her undies and I could see her whole business. Next to her, with a look of mild disgust on her face, was a young woman, trim and perky, who was wearing a bathing suit top. She probably had the best tits in the room, but she was the only one not letting them flop out for anyone to see.
Youth is wasted on the etc.
I was sloshing water over myself mechanically now, and getting antsy. Someone needs to come out with a line of water-proof books for adults to read in baths and hamams, or Kindle needs to make a water-proof cover.
Finally one of the attendents called me over and I lay on the stone while she scrubbed me all over with a rough mitten. I sat up so she could rinse all the pills of gray dead skin from me, and then she slapped me on the flank to indicate that I should lay down again so she could soap me. When that was done she brought me back to the basin and roughly shampooed my hair. She dumped bowls of alternating hot and cold water over my head and then, grinning broadly , said,
“I… finish!” triumphantly. She’s been my attendent three times now. It was the first time she spoke a word of English. I applauded.
I dried off in the cubby and got dressed, marvelling over my new and improved skin, feeling about ten pounds lighter and much, much better.