Turkey Day in Turkey

We were in Turkey this Thanksgiving, but turkey was not on the menu.

However, we did eat the by-product of a bird on Thanksgiving Day… “birdshit“.  To be specific, birdshit paste for an appetizer and birdshit ice cream for dessert.  Suddenly, the British specialties of spotted dick, duck liver parfait, and bubble and squeak sound delectable!  It turns out that birdshit is the common slang in Istanbul for young pistachios.  Both the paste and ice cream were absolutely delicious and made for a memorable Thanksgiving feast.  Who needs cranberry sauce, pass the birdshit please!

Birdshit paste: small blob on top of plate

           

 

 

Istanbul is a marvelous melting pot; its many contrasts make it fascinating.  The city has an old town filled with ancient culture and a new town filled with hip couture,  an Asian side and a European side lining the Bosphorus, Muslin mosques and Christian churches, casual kebab lunches and fancy gourmet dinners, ancient bazaars with windy streets and brand new malls with glossy corridors, regional artifacts sold in the Grand Bazaar and contemporary artwork sold in upscale galleries, and a varied lineage ranging from Arabic sultans to Roman soldiers to Turkish pashas.

Our sightseeing adventures took us from palaces filled with fist-size gems, to mosques covered in elaborate tiles, to churches plastered in frescoes and mosaics, to the underground cisterns built by the Romans and lined with stately columns, to the Grand Bazaar strewn with over 4,000 stores of glittering gold and luxurious leather, to the Spice Market overflowing with exotic spices and local artifacts…everywhere we went was a feast for the senses.  As our guide explained, “More is more in Istanbul. We like it that way!”

Of course, no trip to Istanbul is complete without experiencing an authentic Haman, or Turkish bath.  We were advised to visit an ancient haman in the old city built in 1584 by the same architect who designed the famous Blue Mosque.

Jeff and I signed up for the total package:  recline on the warm marble block, bathe in the old tradition, massage with the oils.  We were told that everything would be explained once we entered our respective areas.

I entered the women’s lounge and began an unforgettable (and somewhat regrettable) experience.  Nothing was explained.  I was dazed and confused throughout.  Shoulder taps and mute gestures were my obscure guides.

First, I entered an open courtyard encircled by two stories of cubbies and hallways.  A woman handed me a non-absorbent rag masquerading as a towel, a thin cardboard box covering a rough cloth, and a mysterious little pouch that looked like it might contain a ring.  Actually the pouch held a tiny bikini bottom.  Another woman mutely pointed towards the upstairs stalls, so I wandered up and saw that I should change out of my clothes and into the itty bitty bottom.  The meager rag-towel barely covered me up as I went back downstairs.  I stood around clueless until a women with a broom pointed toward a nondescript door.

I walked into a subterranean hovel that reminded me of the baths in Pompeii.  The room was dank and dark and dripping.  Curved arches contained small alcoves.  Small individual fountains lined the walls.  In the center was a large circular marble block heated from within.  Littered with nearly-naked bodies on top of thin rag-towels, the marble block resembled Coney Island beach on a July afternoon.  I tried to carve out my niche and laid down as toes and elbows poked me from all sides.  This was not relaxing.

After a few minutes, a short, squat Turkish woman who was as wide as she was tall approached.  She wore only a torn black bra and green underpants.   As she tapped my shoulder, her protruding belly swiped against my face.  She pointed to the edge of the marble slab.  I shimmied over, unsuccessfully avoiding bodies on all sides.  I closed my eyes and without warning, this Turkish troll dumped a huge bucket of tepid water on me.  In my surprise, I snorted some through my nose.  I felt like I had been waterboarded.

Next, she ferociously dragged the rough cloth across my entire body.  It was scratchy and fierce and invasive.  Let’s just say she was very thorough left no flesh unscathed.  Modesty has no place in the haman.

With another shoulder tap, she led me to the fountains on the wall.  She unceremoniously dropped my dripping towel into a mangled heap on the floor.  She motioned to sit on it.  Yuck.   Then she proceeded to dump water over my head in a final rinse.

Cold and confused, I was ushered to a small pool with jets.  It was maybe 4′ x 6′ and contained eight people.  I slowly lowered myself into the lukewarm pool and sat upright, arm-to-arm against the other bodies on either side of me.  This was less like a jacuzzi and more like the dunk pit at the country fair.

I found a dry towel and entered the massage room.  Twenty tables were lined up and manned by a new set of underwear-clad buxom and rotund Turkish ladies armed with oil.  The excess belly flesh on my masseuse slapped against me throughout the massage.  After thirty minutes of rather uninspired massages and unintentional scratches caused by her rough nails and gritty callouses, I was set loose to the showers.

Alone in a stall with hot water rinsing away the experience, I finally felt relaxed and clean.  I returned to the initial courtyard, got dressed, and found Jeff in the lobby.  We didn’t even speak about it.  We just glanced at each other, raised our eyebrows, and broke into hysterics!

Our bathing escapades aside, Istanbul ranks as a favorite in our travel diary.  It is definitely worth a trip…

Just remember that Turkish birdshit is for eating and the Turkish bath is for the birds!

 

 

 

 

 

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