I love a bath: a good, steamy, bath-salts soaker. So when I was in Istanbul and saw an ad for a Turkish bath at our hotel, I was sold. I envisioned a luxurious bathtub with exotic oils and thick Turkish towels.
Late one afternoon, I took the elevator to the lowest level of the hotel and arrived at the spa, planning to be fresh and relaxed for dinner that evening. The smiling young woman at the reception desk checked off my name and pointed to the woman standing next to her. The middle-aged woman with thick dark hair, dressed in green hospital scrubs, would be my bath attendant. She looked sturdy, capable, and a bit no-nonsense. I glanced at her name badge: Anne.
Anne motioned for me to follow her to a small locker room. She pantomimed taking clothes off, pointed at me, and then pointed at an empty locker. I gestured up and down and asked, “All?”
She nodded. “All.” I glanced around the spartan little room for a towel or robe. There was none. I motioned around myself, as if putting on and tucking in a towel. She nodded again and returned with two thin dishtowels. Backing out the door, she motioned with her hand as if to say, “Get on with it,” and closed the door. Getting undressed didn’t take long, but trying to figure out how to cover myself with the two little towels was a conundrum. Finally I decided that the bottom half was more important than the top and tied the towels together to make the journey around my middle. As I opened the door and peeked out, I whispered, “I don’t know these people,” and “I’ll never see them again.”
Anne was waiting in the hallway with a large fluffy white towel over her arm. She took no notice of my bare top half, so I guess that’s why she carried the towel down the hall and didn’t offer it to me. “It’s an adventure,” I said to myself as I followed.
She led me to a room with a doorway but no door. No hope of privacy here. A small filmy window near the ceiling provided dim light. The walls and floor were gray stone and there was a large marble slab in the center. I looked for the luxurious bathtub with exotic oils. This was not the spa I’d expected.
Anne turned on a faucet at a nearby sink and motioned for me to take off my towels and lie down on the slab. With Anne facing the sink, I gingerly removed the towels and reclined on the cold hard stone: the perfect venue for an autopsy. Anne raised my head and put a small upended red plastic bowl underneath. A pillow. Kind of. She returned to the sink. With my head slightly elevated, I saw that I was pointed feet-first toward the doorless doorway, completely naked for anyone in the hall to see. I repeated to myself, “I don’t know these people,” and “I’ll never see them again.”
Anne suddenly turned with a large plastic bucket and sloshed me thoroughly with hot water. When I say “hot water,” I mean “pretty close to scalding.” I gasped. Anne smiled. She then began to refill the bucket as she gathered up a cheesecloth filled with soapy water and held it above me. She milked the bag and covered me with thick white suds the consistency of whipped cream. The only noise was the sound of the water filling the bucket until Anne took a wash mitt to me. The mitt felt like a scouring pad and sounded like sandpaper on rough wood. Did I mention what a capable gal Anne was? She scrubbed every inch of my front until I was sure there was no skin left.
She sloshed me again, top to bottom, with the bucket of hot water and motioned for me to turn over. The process was repeated on my back. I heard people passing in the hall, but now I felt strangely unflustered. And though the scrubbing could be called mildly painful, I didn’t mind it.
I’d never been so scrubbed in my life – every inch, every finger and toe. Once my back was done, Anne motioned for me to sit up. Here came the bucket again, right over my head! I didn’t have time to hold my breath. I sputtered. Undeterred, Anne sudsed my head, my face, my ears, and – whoosh! Again with the bucket.
She motioned for me to stand up and held out the big white fluffy towel for me. She gently put it around my shoulders, pulled up the corners to tousle my hair, and rubbed my arms. Then she took the two sides of the towel and tucked me in like a papoose. She cradled my face in her capable hands and smiled.
What happened next surprised me: I cried.
Big hot tears ran down my cheeks. Never had I been so mothered. I felt like a newborn baby. What I’d thought would be a pampering experience was that and so much more. I was made new. At dinner that night, people in our tour group wanted to know what it was like. Had I enjoyed it?
What could I say? It was unforgettable.
Later in the trip, our tour guide taught us some basic Turkish words. “Anne,” he said, “means ‘mother.’ ”