After referring to past blogs, I struggled to come up with a title for this blog. My blog from Marrakesh was called "Bazaar Things", which would have been appropriate for this blog as well. But I can't just recycle old blogs. Fresh, exciting, new and vibrant is key for writers. At this point I haven't come up with a title, so I am hoping it will come to me before the end of this weblog is complete.
At any rate, let's get back to the topic at hand: Turkey. Yes, Turkey. Istanbul. Byzantium. Constantinople. (My girlfriends and I prefer to call it the latter. It sounds much more exotic and historic that way. I pondered whether this might be offensive to some people, as the Ottoman Turks overthrew the Empire in 1453. But then I suppose, it's no more offensive than simply referring to New York as New Amsterdam. I highly doubt the Dutch are offended if someone happens to call it New Amsterdam. But who does that, really? Maybe I shall start. I digress....) I traveled to Constantinople with two other very well-traveled flight attendants, Amber and Sinthya. We boarded a Boeing 767 and were well on our way. Since I have not taken advantage of my generous international travel benefits to the extent that I could, I was very much looking forward to doing so on this trip. So here we are left to right, Sinthya, Amber, Laurie, taking full advantage of our travel bennies:
The flight was very modest- we were seated in economy cabin, but we each had an entire row to ourselves. And the Flight Attendants couldn't have been kinder and more accommodating. We were hoping for Business First, but we didn't get the upgrade (this time). The hotel on the other hand, was a luxury in every single way, shape, and form. We opted to stay at the Ritz Carlton. I will be forever spoiled by that hotel, and my standards for comfort and luxury have risen in a ridiculous way- which is unfortunate, since I spend about 1/3 of every month living in hotels. (Don't get me wrong- my airline provides nice, clean, comfortable, safe Hiltons, Hyatts, Westons, Marriots, etc. on layovers. But they do not provide the amenities of the Istanbul Ritz Carlton.) It sat upon a hill, overlooking the Bosphorus. Our room was on the Club Level and each day we were treated with a buffet of Turkish Delights, apple tea, cherry juice, wines, liquors, and everything else under the sun. We had our own personal concierge, Gokahn. We kept forgetting his name, so we just renamed him "Tim". On Tim's day off, there was another professional, friendly concierge available for us, so we named him Tim2, then realized it was more fun to call him TumBuk2 instead.
Some mornings it was simply impossible to get out of bed. The beds were adorned with million thread-count Egyptian cotton sheets and the mattresses may as well have been crafted for someone as noble as Constantine himself. Those beds were like magnets, seducing us with their comfort. Paralyzing us. Holding us hostage. But there is something you must understand- the Flight Attendant lifestyle requires a lot of sleep. One goes through many time zones. Many foreign lands. Many uncomfortable beds. So when one finds a good one, one must take advantage. We did just that.
Once we did get out of bed, there were many sights, sounds foods, culture to be admired. I will break them down:
CISTERNS: Now THIS was right up my alley (Or perhaps down below my alley.) These haunting caverns were built down below the streets. Justinian built this marvelous water storage system during the Byzantine Empire. It feels like you're wandering through Dante's inferno, what with the smell of damp caves and the gentle echo of the water that enters from above. There are these ghostly fish that sashay through the waters. Although there were many tourists there, I felt somewhat captivated by the eerie and dark surroundings and at complete peace. It reminded me a little bit of Indiana Jones. I wish I could have stayed there forever.
CALL TO PRAYER: You can hear the call to prayer several times a day. It's intoxicating, but it means nothing to me because I am not Muslim. All I know is that it sounds haunting, remorseful. It echoes through the all the streets of Constantinople and is really quite beautiful and magical. The sound is beguiling. It is difficult not to stop what you're doing and just listen. I don't know if this is blasphemy or not, but here are Amber and I doing our best to blend with the local culture and religion:
GRAND BAZAAR AND SPICE MARKET: I'll just post a picture, which will suffice more than words. Basically: a bunch of vendors crammed into an open arena, selling their overpriced wares, rugs, Turkish delights, saphron, jewelry, everything begging to be negotiated. "Pretty Angel. I give you good price." Good price, my ass. I think you buy these hands of Fatima for .10 US dollars and upsell them tenfold.
While my friend Amber was negotiating the price of rugs, the Call to Prayer happened. She asked the salesman, "Don't you have to go pray?"
"Nah", he replied, "Good people pray. Bad people sell carpets."
WHIRLING DERVISHES: This is a very unique phenomenon. It features a spiritual ascent, which essentially means men spinning around in a circle in this trance-like mode. Frankly, it kind of freaked me out. They were wearing these heavy robes and some of them had their eyes rolled back in their heads. They never stopped spinning for like a solid hour. I probably would have puked. The highlight was our friend Sinthya opening a gum wrapper, which caused people to turn around and glare at her. I don't think she caused them to break their trances, though.
THE AIR: Instead of pollution, I smell incense. It's almost tactile, the smell; its spicy aroma soaks into the architecture, the cement, and every structure. The city inhales and exhales incense. And every once in awhile you get a whiff of chestnuts roasting. Or of the doner, which is this tasty shish-kebob with lamb and tomato and cucumber. Or of salty sea air. Or of sweaty Turks......
SMOKING: Everyone smokes in Constantinople. Turkish cigarettes are strong. The package looks like this. This packaging captures either: death or a spa treatment or a woman who lost her hijab and was in serious distress.
THE FOOD: Turkish Delights. Baklava. Cucumber. Olives. Tomato. Olive oil. Lamb. Greek yogurt. More baklava. In case you didn't know, Turkish delights are these mushy gelled candies that taste like Pistachio or Hazelnut, or Rose. Sometimes they have a pistachio in the middle of them.
I don't know what else to say. I can't even say more if I want to, because I'm too hungry. So hungry that I am about to go into my own kitchen and pour olive oil all over myself.......
THE HAMAM-THIS IS THE NAKED PART: So the hamam is this ancient Turkish Bath. We went to the Ayasophia bath house, which was built in 1556. There are men's quarters and women's quarters. We accidentally went into the Men's quarters at first, because it was not very well marked. Turks are somewhat modest when it comes to clothing, so the Reception guy rushed us out of there right away. No fun. But women are persona non grata. And likewise for men on the women's side.
So the Basilica Hamam looked like a beautiful temple. White marble columns and golden faucets. Domed ceilings. Arch buttress.
So what you do is take off all of your clothes. There are naked women everywhere. The room is very warm and steamy like a sauna. (Wait- I always get confused. Is the sauna dry heat or is that the one that is like a steam room? Either way, this room is steamy. There is fog rolling off the walls and off the floors.) This old Turkish lady comes to get you. The Turkish lady looks not dissimilar from the Greek women at this Greek Orthodox church from my childhood, where there used to be a Greek Festival and the old ladies of the church made the baklava. But these women were Turkish, not Greek. And I'm fairly certain it wouldn't make them happy to compare one to the other. So the Turkish women- they come to get you. And they had the equivalent of a small towel wrapped around their bodies. So your personal lady escorts your naked body. She sits you down at one of the sinks and pours bowls full of warm water all over you. Then she takes you by the hand, and ushers your naked body to this marble slab in the middle of the room (pictured above). She instructs you to lie down and she puts a towel beneath your head. She then scrubs you down with this salt and olive oil concoction. It feels really nice. She makes sure to get every crevice covered. I wasn't certain whether to feel violated or relaxed. Fortunately I had some wine before my treatment, so I opted for the "relaxed" mode. There were some crevices that I was uncertain about- can salt and olive oil *really* be good in every opening of your body????
I'll admit, I was a little nervous at first. Unless it's someone that I'm dating and that I'm really comfortable with and all the lights are off, I'm not too comfortable being naked in front of others. I wonder if everything is firm enough. If everything is in place. If everything is shaved perfectly. If I am sitting in a way as not to expose my rolls of flab. (This is getting personal.)
So there are naked women all around getting the same treatments done. It is hard not to stare. After you are scrubbed, the towel-adorned Turkish woman escorts you to Phase Two: the Mask. Your personal Turk rinses the salt scrub off at the sink, again pouring water over your body, and then takes this green gunk, which smells like olive oil and she rubs it all over your body and instructs you to sit still. It is really quite relaxing. The walls and your seat are heated and there is still a bunch of steam surrounding you. The mask begins to harden. It is very much like the Cat Woman- all the other women in skin-tight masks sitting against the heated walls, waiting for Phase 3.
Phase 3 is the rinsing and the suds. You stand up and your personal Turk rinses your body. There is Green gunk everywhere, seeping into the gutters. You are fully exposed. Naked. Surrounded by other women at their own personal sinks. Then the suds portion starts. You are adorned with bubbly bliss. Soap bubbles oozing down your entire body. It is like a champagne bubble bath. Bubbles on your body. Bubbles in the air. Bubbles on the Turkish ladies. The air is so thick with bubbles, you can't even see the naked woman next to you anymore. This part is the most exciting for me. It is like your childhood bubble bath on steroids. And you know what else? The Turkish women sing as they do this. It sounds not dissimilar from the Call to Prayer, as described above.
And you know what? I bet Turkish Muslim women love this. They are often covered in their conservative hijabs and so UNexposed, that this must be completely liberating and wonderful to them. Because it was wonderful to me. And I am not even really that much of a conservative dresser. I mean, I am not a NON-conservative, or risque' dresser either. But I just dress normal. And it was pretty fun to be completely naked.
So Phase 4 is the rinsing of the bubbles and wrapping you up in a towel. They then give you Cherry Juice and escort you to this lounge chair. You then wait for your massage. They forgot about me for about 45 minutes, so I just lied down in the steamy room and relaxed, wrapped in my towel. Eventually I asked if they had forgotten me. They had indeed. A different Turkish woman took me to a private room and took off my towel and massaged me for like 10 minutes. I must say- I've had better massages. She left the room and I was uncertain whether she was coming back or not. Fortunately, I heard the voices of Amber and Sinthya outside the door. "Get dressed. You're done." Amber instructed me. "The massage is short."
So I got dressed. And we walked into the moonlit Istanbul night and boarded the subway back to our hotel. It was a bewitching experience, and by far one of the highlights of this trip.
You know what else? I forgot to write about the Blue Mosque. Oh well- it was closed when we got there. Not that important. Here's a picture instead.
And we didn't even go to Aya Sofya. But I'm sure you guys don't care- you just skipped to the naked part of this blog. I hope it was enjoyable. And I hope you will continue to follow my journey.