Travel Diary — Istanbul

On our first morning, as we were still in our pyjamas slowly coming to terms with the need to face the day, there was a knock at the door. Daniel and I exchanged a look of curiosity and what I hope was a sense of adventure about what could lie behind the door. We weren’t expecting visitors, so it must have been opportunity knocking. Behind the door stood a portly man in his late fifties, with a face that was tanned and leathery and lined from many years under the Constantinopolitan sun.

He began his address in Turkish, immediately marking himself out as one of the great optimists of Istanbul, as it is a vain hope that any English tourist has deemed any proficiency with a foreign language a prerequisite for travel. He switched instead to charades.

Three words? Film? Play? Rhymes with “Feet-bar named pariah”?’ I guessed.

‘No, no. Zow-nah! Zow-nah!’ he insisted, making a V with his first two fingers, pointing them into his eyes and to me and to the floor in that I’ve-got-my-eyes-on-you-and-I’m-going-to-take-you-down kind of way.

I now understood.

‘Oh! sauna! sauna!’ I turned to Daniel, translating with an air of expertise entirely unjustified by the level of interpretative prowess required. ‘He wants us to go down and take a look at the sauna and Turkish bath.’

We followed him down the narrow stone stairs to basement. I would like to say I was pleased Daniel was with me because I enjoyed his company and that new experiences are better shared than savoured alone. In fact, I was pleased he was there because I was being led by a strange man in a foreign country into a room that was designed to be close to soundproof and very easy to clean. I’m a naturally trusting man, but I did feel the need to keep my wits about me. (I say this with a degree of shame now. Despite the language barrier and what happened between us, I like to think that something beginning to resemble friendship had developed between the three of us and this man.)

The rest of the conversation, conducted in a few words of broken English and mime, revealed that our new friend was a Russian (as he explained by saying ‘Chechnya’ over and over, miming the use of a machine gun, and pointing at a bullet wound in his left calf), and him offering us a Russian massage (as he explained proudly, ‘Not French massage, not Turkish massage — Russian massage!’ as though the modifying adjective of ‘Russian’ ever made anything more appealing than it was before). I was able to use the few Russian words and phrases I knew to establish our rapport — ‘Kak vashi dela?’ ‘khorosho, spasiba!’ — and he beamed at me, giving me an affectionate pat between the ribs and my right arm such as a proud but distant uncle may give a nephew upon hearing that the lad was just starting to shave. We arranged our use of the sauna for four o’ clock, and went to see the sites with equal parts eagerness and anxiety as we looked forward to our Russian massage.

Our sauna session started an hour and a half behind schedule, as something downstairs needed fixing, but eventually we were able to plod down the stairs and into the damp antechamber of the sauna and Turkish bath. ‘Off, off! No problem!’ our guide and masseur assured us, gesturing at our shirts and shorts. We complied with the shirts, but, being three Englishmen burdened by the sense of repression and shame about our bodies that comes naturally to those who were never particularly accomplished in team sports at school, we drew the line at our boxers. We may have been on the continent, but there were some practices that remained a little too continental for us.

As it turned out, we were now underdressed. Our host joined us in the sauna for the first few minutes remaining in long trousers, a shirt, and gilet, even as the mercury pushed 70 degrees celsius. We continued our Russian conversation (which consisted entirely of ‘Chechnya, how are you? Good, thanks! Chechnya! Good! Thanks! Good!’ The dialogue wasn’t exactly reminiscent of Aaron Sorkin, but it built a connection) and as the three of us talked in English about the strangeness of the situation, wondering what sort of things this man had seen or done in Chechnya, he dutifully laughed along on cue with the rest of us. He was one of the lads. After a few minutes, excused himself, explaining that we were all to stay in the sauna for another twenty minutes.

After our prescribed time, he returned. Clearly, he had felt that he ought to be dressing to match us, as he returned in only his underwear, his rotund but surprisingly firm belly protruding boldly over the waistband. The time had come. We exchanged glances to decide who was to be first. I felt a sense of responsibility for getting us into this, so I volunteered myself.

I was led next door into a marble room with a pillar in middle, three stone basins around the side, and a long marble slab about two and a half feet off the ground to my right. I was instructed to lie on the slab, and invited, once again, to strip off entirely. I politely declined. ’No problem!’ He said, and I silently prayed that since I had remained at least partially clothed, he would do the same. He lay me down on my front after having warmed the marble with a six or seven generous splashes of hot water, and started to oil his hands. Nothing could quite have prepared me for what followed, as, with my face resting on the backs of my hands, he proceeded to mount me with all the grace of a blindfolded ox trying to climb out of a bath. I bit my fingers, convulsing with silent laughter, and wondering whether the tension brought about by the massage would be undone by the tension released by the massage, and whether the whole affair was to be a net gain or loss for my stress levels. His few English words of comfort did little for me. ’No problem, no problem!’ he repeated.

The massage itself was, thankfully, less invasive than feared. In fact, the most that really seemed to happen was him rubbing my torso up and down. There were a few moments where I feared for what was to happen: he kept working his way down my spine and arrived uninvited to my coccyx. I had thought the waistband an appropriate demarcation between the public and private sphere. Apparently he disagreed. My anxiety heightened when I was flipped over, and I feared that the same straddling routine would happen again and all go exactly as on my back. To my deep relief, it did not, and for that reason I am not forced to publish this recounting under a pseudonym for Vice exposing dodgy massage practices in Karaköy.

What followed this was not so much a washing as a scouring, as I was pulled in all directions and repositioned and scrubbed until I concluded that his assessment of my problem was not so much my being dirty, but having skin in the first place. I have scrubbed pans with less ferocity. Then, he doused me again and again with bowl after bowl of hot water, splashed liberally all over me and him and the chamber we were in. (Daniel later admitted that he quite enjoyed the whole washing routine, as he felt like a pig being washed. You can take the boy out of Wiltshire, but apparently you can’t take the desire to be treated like a prize sow out of the boy.) He stood me up, pulled me into a hearty embrace to crack my spine (though I like to think there was a mix of business and pleasure, professional duty and genuine affection, in the hug) and sent me on my way. I returned to the sauna a new man, but kept quiet about my experiences. I thought Ben and Daniel were better off having it all a surprise.

After staying in the sauna for another twenty minutes while Ben and Daniel had their massages, and after getting the needle up to 76 (though I was aiming for 80), I felt a shower was needed when we got back upstairs. It ran and ran and ran but never ran warm. We didn’t need to wonder where the hot water had gone.

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