One woman is stooped and hobbling, leaning on a cane, white cotton underwear dampening with steam and breasts swinging low and free; another is voluptuous on one side and has a pink mastectomy scar on the other, and a toddler on her hip. Naked teenaged girls recline in groups on the big round göbektaşı like virgins on an altar. I am one of the very few wearing a bathing suit, and my glasses—a poor choice—fog up so I can barely see the flesh around me, the echoing blue tiles, the deep blue baths. My boyfriend’s mother washes my hair. I find out later that it isn’t because it’s tradition, but because she didn’t know how to convey, in English or through gestures, that that’s what I was supposed to be doing.

When I first heard the plans for the day, I bit my lip and said to him, “I’m not going to have to be in a bathing suit around your mom, right?” I was worried about my thighs. I was, hopefully, imagining private rooms, and optimally having him there to translate. If I had known I would be ushered to the left while he was ushered to the right I would have studied, researched, figured out what I was doing before I came, before the bare breasts and language divide. We’re not in Istanbul anymore, and as far as I can tell, I’m the only non-Turk in the bathhouse.

The attendant pantomimes that I’m to roll my suit down to my hips. If I hesitate, I know I won’t, so I do it and do it quickly. I lie face up on the table and am scrubbed, flipped, oiled, massaged. My boyfriend’s mother looks on critically—whether she’s critical of me, sizing me up like livestock, or of the attendant, to make sure she’s getting her money’s worth, I don’t know, or maybe she’s just making sure I’m okay. I think, briefly, about how hard I made her son work to see what she is seeing on the third day she’s met me. I’m slow, timid, out of my element; I’m worried I’m not making, haven’t been making, a good impression. The pressure makes it worse. I’m no longer worrying about my thighs, really.

My attendant is wearing black boy-short bottoms and nothing else. She manhandles me impressively, throwing her body and weight into tenderizing me like meat, and I wonder what it’s like to spend all day topless in a steamy ceramic chamber with other women. It sounds kind of wonderful. I can see how this becomes normal. I can see how it would be liberating.

The table next to mine opens up and my boyfriend’s mother removes her red gingham towel and lies down. She is scrubbed, flipped, oiled, massaged. She is relaxed, and I relax; I no longer feel like livestock. I like how even the attendants, who spend every day in black boy-short bottoms and nothing else, have stomach rolls, stretch marks on their hips, errant pubic hairs, everything we try so hard to scrub, smooth, shave away. My boyfriend’s mother smiles at me, her face pink, and she reaches between the tables and pinches my cheek. A genuine smile breaks through my travel exhaustion and performance anxiety in return. This starts to feel like a shopping trip, like brunch with mimosas and omelets, like the girl-time gossip we can’t share. My skin is raw and slick. I see the attendant rinsing my epidermal cells off the rough mitt, watch them fall like sand into the drain. I’m disconcerted at how much has come off, surprised at how good it feels.

After we’re back at their house, I tell my boyfriend about the old woman in only white cotton underwear with the cane and drooping breasts, and he translates, and his parents laugh and his mom says something, her eyes sparkling like a mischievous schoolchild’s. “She asked if you were shocked at the nudity,” he says.

I blush. “A little,” I say.

Later, she hands me a glass of fresh-squeezed orange juice before she goes to bed and pats me on the head. “Baby face,” she says, one of the few English phrases she knows, and she pinches my cheek again. She starts up the stairs and leaves me, comfortable in my pajamas, on the couch with her son. His arm goes around my shoulders and the smile she gives me over her shoulder is warm and inviting, like the heavy air in a hamam.

About the author

Caroline took her first solo trip to another country at 23, after unexpectedly losing her job and deciding to spend part of her severance…

Read the full bio

Issue 21 · October 2014

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