Sunday, February 15, 2015

Aynı Tas Aynı Hamam

"Aynı tas, aynı hamam" is a Turkish idiom that means "same bucket, same bath." Its English counter-parts are "Same old, same old" and "Same shit, different day. This idiom was taught to me by my officemate Salim.

Salim has also told me stories about visiting hamams on special occasions, like for bachelor's parties and coworker parties. He told me two particularly strange and funny stories--one that involved him scrubbing our former director's back while the director scrubbed a new hire's back. Apparently, the former director made a joke, saying he was "investing in the future of the program."

Another story involved the delivery of çig köfte into the hamam. Çig Köfte is a Turkish food that is made from bulgur, tomato paste, and spices. The köfteci (köfte-person) squeezes the tomato-y bulgur into ergonomic nuggets that are complete with ridges from where the bulgur began to come out between köfteci's fingers. He then drops it on your plate. You eat this stuff raw by wrapping it in iceberg lettuce leafs or a lavaş (tortilla). If you want, you can squeeze some lemon on it and put some pomegranate sauce on it as well. I thought it was disgusting at first because I couldn't stop thinking about how the bulgur had tried to worm its way out between some dude's fingers before it got to my plate. But once I got over that, I realized that it's actually pretty tasty.

However, it gets disgusting once again when you imagine this stuff being consumed at temperatures above ninety degrees by a group of really sweaty, nearly-naked men, sitting on a hot marble slab while people are getting lathered and scrubbed nearby. You can just imagine how the çig köfte got warm, how it's shape didn't hold up, and how it began to crumble and drop onto the marble floor, hopefully to be carried off by the open Roman-esque channel drainage system. Ew.

Needless to say, when I was invited on a Friday afternoon, to join some coworkers for a trip to the Hamam after work, I said I wanted to go if for nothing else than to see where this boss-scrubbing and çig köfte eating had taken place.

Because I had just bought a car that was slightly bigger than everyone else's, one of the four other guys volunteered me to drive. In a normal situation, say on my home turf, this wouldn't be a problem. But everything's different here in Turkey, of course.

The five of us packed into the car, three of whom are good friends who act like a never-ending comedy show. One Turk, one American, and one Brit. Then there was me, and there was Paul, two of the newest coworkers.

So imagine driving stick-shift when you haven't done so for ten years, except for a week-long trip in Germany. And of course you're doing this in your new car that is less than five-hours old. Used, but new to you. And imagine you're driving during rush-hour in the waning dusk in downtown Kayseri with, like I said, a car-full of jokesters. Finally, imagine that no one in the car knows exactly where to go.

Jena looked at me before we left and told me to be careful with her car. I said "Of course." I violated that promise big-time.

In Turkey, there aren't really any rules to driving, except that you generally stop at red traffic lights. Getting to the hamam meant swirling through Turkish round-abouts (a topic that warrants its own blog post entirely), cutting between giant city busses (despite the fact that another coworker had told me to stay away from them at all costs), and shooting down streets that are just barely the width of your car while pedestrians and bikers and trying their best to psyche you out so that they can share some of the road as well. (In Turkey people on foot or on bike have no right of way, so it's actually dangerous when you try to give it to them because everyone gets confused.)

Somehow we found the damn hamam. While we were driving in circles searching for it, the Americans suggested that we just park and find it by walking. This idea was vetoed by Savaş, the Turk, because Turks have this intense belief that the cold will make you sick if you even think about going out in it, especially after you've been in a warm place like a bathhouse. They're also deathly afraid of drafts from things like slightly opened windows. This causes many conflicts in an office environment where some of the Americans prefer to let some fresh air into the office once in a while.

With remarkable luck, we found a parking spot that was about fifty feet from the hamam, and this distance was good enough to please Savaş.

From the sidewalk, we went down a narrow staircase and into a large domed room. There was the faint smell of cigarettes held by the humidity, and chairs with a seventies-color scheme lined the square shape of the room. Three guys were sitting there, wearing only towels, watching a soccer match. Two were eating çig köfte. While Savaş made arrangements for our bath, I inquired about whether this was the place where the çig köfte from Salim's story had been consumed. "No," Gareth, the Brit, told me. "It was in a hotter room."

When Savaş had finished, he led us up to a balcony. Along the wall were tiny changing chambers with ceilings that were about six-feet high. We put on these pieces of canvas-like fabric (similar to a sari), and headed down a marble tunnel to a room with slabs for scrubbing. From here we wove into another room with a huge heated marble slab. And from here we went into a sauna.

Once there we sat and sweated for a while, and then we went back into the hot marble slab room. Hot and cold water splashed into little basins. Perched on the faucets were metal bowls that you used for pouring the water over yourself.

We hung out there for a while, talking about things like shaving and how to get yourself clean when using a Turkish toilet (without toilet paper). Eventually, a fully clothed guy came in and asked whether or not we wanted anything. He offered water. We said yes. He offered other beverages. We said no. He offered çig köfte, and finally I understood that this was the place at last. Although it wasn't as hot as the sauna, I was still sweating like crazy. On the opposite edge of the hot marble slab two guys in their forties or fifties were scrubbing dead skin off one another with a glove-shaped wash cloth. Adding çig köfte to this situation would have been disgusting.

To make things just a bit stranger, when the server guy came back with our water, he also brought a plate of lemon slices and insisted on feeding them to us with his fingertips. "He's hoping for a big tip," Savaş said.

Since we had arranged professional scrubs, we each got scrubbed by workers, one after another. Paul went first, and someone in our group had the ingenious idea for us all to sit in the room, about three feet from him, to watch the scrubbing take place. I appreciated getting an idea of what would be done to me. I did not, however, appreciate seeing these bluish rolls of dead skin coming off his arms.

When it was my turn, I laid on the flat marble slab, with my head on a hot water bottle. The professional scrubber scrubbed me down. He would sort of slap me on the back when it was time to turn over. In order to scrub me nearly everywhere, he had taken off my sari and turned it into a roll. This covered my butt when needed and my front side.

We each opted for massage that followed the initial scrub, and it was more like a full-body shampooing at first. The soapy cloth he used felt like a jellyfish with steel-wool tentacles that swam across my back. Following this, he gave me a massage, and somehow knew to focus on my crazy tight quads and the golf course-like mounds of knots in my back. I groaned with pain when he jabbed his elbows into these spots. Some stupid bit of macho-ness had kicked in, and I didn't want to tell him to ease off.

Following our scrubs, it was time to wind down. We wandered back into the first room that we had seen, the one with the seventies chairs. There, we leaned forward while different worker guys rubbed cologne on our backs and our chests. I opted out of having them rub cologne all over my arms and face because eczema is my arch-nemesis. Then they used towels to wrap up our shoulders and heads in such a way that we all looked like kids in a nativity play. It was time for some pictures, which I have yet to receive.

Following the hamam, we went out for dinner where we ordered Adana kebabs and iskender, followed by künefe for dessert. The latter is deep fried hot cheese covered in pastry crumbs with cream and a sprinkle of pistachio-nut-dust on top. Delicious.

As we walked back to the car, Paul and I were a little ahead of the others. By then the haze and the magic was wearing off. We were full of food, and the heat of the hamam, that which we still held in our bodies, was dissipating into the night. I was thinking about the order in which I'd drop everyone off. Shops were closing down and everything was getting darker except for the bridal boutique that shown brightly at the corner where my car was parked. Paul looked at me then and said exactly what I wanted to hear: "I could really go for a beer."

We dropped the other three guys off, and when we got back to my place, we coincidently found Jena hanging out with Paul's girlfriend Cece. We cracked open a couple beers, and the girls forced us to tell them everything. "Details," they said, "more details. What the hell were you guys doing. You were gone for such a long time."

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