I'm not a girl who frequents the spa. I've only been three times in my life, to use up gift cards given to me by people who mustn't have known me very well. Or were really trying to give me a hint. It's not that I'm unhygienic, I'm just a do-it-yourself-clip-and-go-no-frills-kinda girl. The way my mother was before me. You know, practical. That was, until my friend Kim, invited me to hammam with her.
Hammam is a Turkish bath house where you get steamed, showered and scrubbed by a complete stranger in front of other total strangers while you're completely nude. Even though I've only known Kim a few weeks, I think we're ready to take this friendship to the next level. Because in the expat world, everything moves faster, which is clearly why we're ready to bridge nakedness and public humiliation together.
We head down the stairs into the basement, past the pool, to the entrance of the hammam. Where we’re greeted by hammam lady who clearly gestures it's time for us to get naked. Already? We just got here. She waits while we undress, takes our clothes and leads us to the steam room. Where were supposed to relax and not panic that it's so hot and steamy it's hard to breathe while looking casual talking to your friend trying not to let your eyes wander.
The attendant returns when we're adequately pruned and starts slathering us with a salve of something that looks a lot like cat diarrhea. She applies it liberally all over our bodies. And YES, I mean ALL over. In a very militant no-part-left-behind-kind-of-way. Apparently there is no cultural taboo about touching where a bikini covers, cause she's all up and in that junk. (Not that I have junk, just to clarify that.) Once marinated and simmering in the poo, I mean goo, it's time to head to the marble slab in the other room. Lying naked on a slab in a basement is a bit eerie and morgue-ish. Except it smells better. And it's heated.
She takes the sprayer and rinses me off, head to toe. It's weird to have someone else do something you're perfectly capable of doing by yourself. Yet, oddly comforting at the same time. Then she gets out the scrubber. Which is a mitt of stiff nylon nubs like a heavy duty kitchen scouring pad. She starts at my back and she's anything but gentle. After she's been at it for a while, she shows me the long rolls of dead skin that she pulls out of the clogged scrubber and scrunches up her nose. "Spaghetti." She laughs. I would have called them dreadlocks, myself. Anyway, I'm completely embarrassed at how utterly disgusting I am. Why didn't anyone tell me how gross I am before now? I must have lost a whole 2 pounds of skin. And another 2 pounds of water weight in the steam room.
When I glance at the next slab over, I see Kim's freshly scrubbed back is as red as the mitt. Then it was time to turn over. To do the front side. Yes, the front. Some parts of a woman’s body should never come into contact with anything abrasive, by American standards anyhow. My nipples may never recover.
At this point, I was too raw to care what she did next. Which was a series of awkward leg stretches, followed by instructions for me to lie on my stomach and stretch my arms over my head. Then, she grabbed them and slid my body back and forth. If the goal was to make me laugh hysterically, mission accomplished. She finished by putting a mask of honey on my face and left me laying sunny side up with cucumber slices covering my eyes. I really could have used some on my nipples and crotch. I was sure hammam lady forgot all about me when she finally reappeared bearing a robe and reunited me with my clothes and Kim. Sure, I'd lost my humility, but I'd gained a friend and really tough nipples for life.
HAMMAM PREPAREDNESS CHECKLIST
1. You don't have that recurrent nightmare you're naked in public anymore.
2. The sight of cat diarrhea does not make you vomit.
3. You like it a little rough.
4. In fact, Hurts So Good is one of your favorite songs.
5. You wanted to lose 5 pounds anyway.
6. A steamy basement room without windows doesn't make you claustrophobic.
7. You never met a slip and slide you didn't like.
8. Your friendship knows no bounds. Or boundaries.
9. You don't have Private: No trespassing tattooed on your bikini line.
10. You passed a nipple sensitivity test you performed with your kitchen scouring pad.