Getting Naked in Istanbul

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**Warning this post borders on the TMI, but I thought it was too hilarious not to share



Two weeks ago I found myself completely naked lying on my back staring at the starry ceiling of an antiquated bathhouse deep in the heart of Istanbul thinking “what the hell did I get myself into?”

And no, I was not about to be ravished by some devilishly handsome Turkish man I met over champagne on my first class flight over. I guess not all dreams come true.

My, oh my, where do I even begin?

I do not like being naked in public. Does anyone?

Scratch that, maybe I just have an extraordinarily freaky group of friends or owing to the fact that I went to a women’s college for four years, but I know a surprising amount of people not only don’t have any problems with being stark naked in public, but actually seem to enjoy it. Not me though. As much as I love being naked alone in my own house, I am far from an exhibitionist.

This is, of course, not my fault. The blame falls entirely on a mischievous gap-toothed boy named Sydney Tweet who pulled off my bathing suit top in the crowded daycare pool the summer before 4th grade, scarring me for life.

There are some things you just never get over.

istanbul turkish bath

The Blue Mosque my first day in Istanbul

15 years later, not much has changed, except my fear of being naked in public was brutally reaffirmed last summer in San Sebastian when I lost my bikini top to a rogue wave. But I digress.

After 24 hours of travel and a few nonstop hours sightseeing around Istanbul, my body was begging me for solid hot food, a detox and a long nap. As the sun was setting over the high mosque spires dotted around the Sultanhamet quarter of the old city, I tucked into a 5 course dinner of roasted lamb, savory bread dips and soft, flavorful veggies at a nice little back alley restaurant. With the undivided attention of the entire male wait staff and couple of cats for company, I thought, yes, tomorrow I would wear a longer skirt, while shoveling hummus into my mouth, or maybe pants.

Flicking through my Lonely Planet looking for ideas for the rest of my first night in Istanbul, I decided to try out one of the infamous Turkish Hamam (baths). My back was killing me from the 3 long flights and my overweight backpack, a massage and bath experience seemed like the perfect way to end the day. This is the thing to do in Turkey, right?

God help me.

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The Hagia Sofia

Walking alone to one of the oldest baths in the city, I had no idea what to expect. In spite of being, what my friends consider, a “girly” girl, I have never actually experienced a spa or professional massage in my life. Like I said before, I have some strange personality quirks, and paying to be touched by a complete stranger does not sound at all appealing to me, unless of course it is the dark-haired, tall Turkish man from my fantasies. Or Javier Bardem.

The warm, fragrant lobby was packed with women of all ages, lounging about in slippers and fluffy green towels, chatting and drinking hot tea. As I walked to my own little changing room, I ran into a young American girl I met earlier who had just finished her massage, raving about how wonderful it was and how she was planning to come back the next day for round two. How lovely, I thought to myself, lulled into a false sense of security.

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Lobby of the baths source

Peppy American girl also told me that most people are naked, but I thought it would be ok if I kept my towel around me, having no idea what to expect. The only image I had of massages was lying face down on a table with a towel over you. I changed out of my clothes, leaving my bathing suit in my bag, wrapped my tiny checkered linen towel about my  person as tightly as possible, and pattered off to meet my masseuse, let’s call her Ayla. Rather rotund, exuding a matronly air of authority and knowing about 8 words in English, upon introduction she pinched both my cheeks and said, “You baby! Come!” And grabbed my hand and dragged me off to the steam room.

What did I get myself into?

Telling me to wait ten minutes, Ayla left me to the company of two older women in the enormous octagonal marble room I’d seen in travel brochures. With taps ringing the room, and beautiful star cut holes in the ceiling for light, the hot, steamy place smelled like fresh soap with a touch of fear. In the center of the room was a large octagonal marble platform about 3 feet high and 15 feet wide, and sprawled out on one side was a completely naked old lady.

Ok, be cool, Liz. Don’t stare. People are naked all the time, people are even born naked. It’s fine. Checking to make sure my own itty bitty towel was nice and secure, I found a little corner to sit down and wait, closing my eyes and letting the steam relax me and open my pores (that’s what saunas are for, right? No idea).

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I bought one of the same towels in the markets, they are so incredibly soft

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It kinda looked like this except the room was way bigger and nicer, and it was all woman. And they were stark naked source

My heart sank as I watched the scene before me unfold from the corner of my eye. It’s like witnessing someone being executed knowing that you’re next. It was nothing like the massage I had envisioned. This lady was getting scrubbed, oiled and massaged from head to toe without a stitch of clothing or towel on IN FRONT OF OTHER LADIES. Maybe I’m just naïve, but I thought I would get massaged in a private room. Taking deep breaths I made eye contact with the other woman across the room, clearly she wasn’t expecting this either. At least there were only three of us.

Of course, like how things most often work out in my life, a group of about 8 Russian women came in next, along with a big group of middle aged German ladies, one of whom, lay her towel out on the platform and was wearing bathing suit bottoms. YES! If she could wear bottoms, so could I. Enter Ayla. Eagerly, I hopped up to greet her, beginning to ask if I could go back to my little room and put on my bikini bottoms before our session.

Adjusting the straps of her own enormous bathing suit, she replied in gruff English, “no swimming suit” and pulled my towel right off of me. 

Sweet baby Jesus, what the hell was I in for?

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Left standing by the door without a shred of clothing or dignity, hopping from foot to foot, I emitted and odd sort of “EEP” sound before throwing up my hands to my face, trying not to have an anxiety attack. I’m the kind of girl who hyperventilates at my annual visit to the female fear factory (aka the gyn) and who changes in the bathroom stall at the gym. I am American, we don’t DO public nudity.

Ayla was of course oblivious to my inner freak-out and laid the towel out on the marble platform directly next to the door. Fabulous, not only would I be naked in front of a large group of women, I would also be positioned directly in front of the door, greeting everyone who entered the room in all my shining glory.

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I made one of these faces. Except totally naked. EEP!

It literally took ALL my self control not to snatch my towel back and run the other way. But no, I promised myself several goals for 2013, including saying yes to everything and having a year of firsts. If anything this would make for a great blog post, right guys?

Tip-toeing to my towel, I quickly laid on my stomach, hoping this would be over quickly. “No, on your back,” said Ayla, gesturing for me to turn over. Could this day get any better? With my hands clenched into fists and my body as tight as a bow, I rolled over, humiliation complete.

Breathing out, I watched as she poured warm soapy water all over me, and slide her hands into big exfoliating mittens. Good, at least she was wearing gloves, I thought as I tried to relax. Grabbing my hip, she started to scrub my skin like no tomorrow. 5 minutes in, Ayla stopped, smacked me on the stomach with her loofah, “too tense, relax!” she commanded. A minute later she stopped and pointed out my tattoos muttering to herself in Turkish. Brilliant.

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Flickr Creative Commons Source

Having me roll over and lay in quite possibly 100 angles to exfoliate every inch of me (oh my god why did I eat all that bread with dinner?! Total whale moment!) was almost too much to bear but I’m not going to lie, the scrubbing did feel nice. By the time she finished, I looked down and I was covered with a layer of gray dead skin. EW! Sitting me on the edge of the platform, she dumped bucket after bucket of hot water over my head to wash it off. Fresh faced, shiny and pink, she ordered me to lay back down again. Oh god, what next?

Round two

On my back, nervously eyeing her like I was preparing for surgery, she began to soap up her bare hands. Oh no, I realized this was the massage bit. As she soaped up my stomach, I could feel my ab muscles clenching and getting tight and my face turning beet red. Did I mention just how incredibly ticklish I am? Like hear the word “tickle” and I start to giggle and say stop it. What if it tickled so much and I did the unthinkable and peed my pants?! Except I wasn’t wearing any pants. GOD, wouldn’t that be humiliating?! Squeezing my legs tight and trying not to laugh, I said, “no feet, no feet” in as clear English as I could muster.

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I was in the middle of an OCD nightmare; it was one thing with the loofah, but another thing with bare hands. I mean, I hardly knew the woman let alone pronounce her name right, and here she was touching every inch of me in front of other people. As she was massaging circles around on my stomach and sides I knew what was coming, and there was nothing I could do about it. Please don’t touch my boobs, please don’t touch my boobs, I prayed to whatever bath god was out there. I think you all can guess what happened next.  As she moved higher and higher up to my shoulders and upper arms, her soapy hands passed over my chest, again, again, and again. Then it hit me.

I just went to second base with a 40 year old Turkish woman.

And then I laughed out loud. Like the kind of laugh that takes a few seconds to get under control because you know you shouldn’t be laughing in the first place, which makes it all the funnier. If nobody was looking at me before, they were now. Not even fazed, Ayla continued down to my legs, rubbing the knots out of my calves, which felt awesome. But by the time she got to my feet, lifting my leg up in the air (oh my god!) I almost kicked her in the face by accident. Apparently, my feet are so sensitive and ticklish I can’t stand have anyone touch them. I’m such a spaz.

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Flickr Creative Commons Source

After literally wresting all my self-consciousness from me, she stood me up and dumped more water over me before taking me to sit on the floor while she washed my hair out. Getting your hair washed while sitting indian-style on a 500 year old marble floor after a massage is pretty damn nice. Except I was still completely bereft of clothes. Though at the time, it didn’t bother me as much. Hey, I was getting used to it!

Wiping the water from my eyes, Ayla snatched my hand and led me out of the baths and wrapped me in several towels before grabbing my face and planting two kisses on my cheeks. Leading me to the lobby, she gave me a glass of tea, while I sat around trying to process what I just went through. As I was pondering I couldn’t help think about what it was like in the men’s hamam? Shudder.

Sipping my apple tea, I thought to myself, hey, not too bad! I couldn’t believe I survived that! Who would have thought?! Painful to experience but hilarious in retrospect, going to a Turkish bath was actually one of the most memorable experiences I had while in Turkey. I full-on confronted my fears about being naked, not only in front of a crowd but also having my personal space limits vigorously assaulted. That was definitely an evening I’ll not soon forget, and a pretty good introduction to Turkey. Just remember to save luggage space and don’t bother packing a bathing suit.

Have you ever been to a Turkish hamam? Would you dare?

istanbul turkish bath

Squeaky clean!

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144 Comments on “Getting Naked in Istanbul

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  1. This is hilarious.

    I have no idea how massages are supposed to be relaxing.

    I’ve had two in my life, and both times they have been 30-60 minutes of incredible awkwardness and tenseness. They left me way more stressed than I was when I started, because hello it is A STRANGER POKING AROUND YOUR BODY INTIMATELY AND UNEXPECTEDLY.

    In theory I’m on board with the idea of massages, and I don’t mind being naked around people (ex theatre major), but I just can’t handle the touching!

  2. HAHAHAHAHAHA I have TOTALLY been avoiding the amazing bath houses of Baden-Baden for this very reason. Germans freaking love nudity. It’s strange. Yet I hear the baths are amazing, but hten I hear about the reading room where everyone reads after naked and I’m like well who’s reading the newspaper and who’s reading 50 Shades of Grey? Great recap, Liz – way to push out of the comfort zone! I did get a massage in Turkey, but was allowed to wear a swimsuit in the exfoliation part, not the second part. The bubble thing they do is pretty awesome.

  3. What a great story Liz! This definitely sounds like a memorable experience!
    Despite growing up in a country where it is completely normal to lie at every beach or in a park without a bikini top, nudity makes me super uncomfortable too. I’m the kind of person who is even afraid of the women’s group shower at the swimming pool.
    However, I tried to face my fears when I went to an incredibly fancy sauna place once. Every person (both male and female!) the vast sauna area was naked and approximately 40 years older than me. Totally intimidated, I held on to my towel and desperately looked for a hiding place. I found an empty steam room and was so happy to finally relax when a really old naked guy entered. The way he was staring at me just gave me the shivers. And then he said: “You’re not supposed to be wearing a towel in here. It’s not like anyone is going to stare at you”. I nearly laughed out loud. Yeah right, it’s not like I have the only 22-year-old-boobs in this place full of overweight retirees. I literally run out of the steam room and never ever thought about going to a sauna again.
    Kudos for being so brave in Istanbul! 🙂

  4. Bahahahahahaha this TOTALLY happened to me in Istanbul, too! I had been warned to bring a suit, but a very, very shy travel mate of mine refused to strip. I offered her my bikin, which was way to big in all of the wrong places, and gladly bared all (I meant to write about it a year ago). I laughed the entire way through my massage as a fat lady srcubbed me down and sang the whole time, slapping my butt on ocassion. Turkey, man.

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