It was a cold gray afternoon in Istanbul’s Çukurcuma neighborhood
famous for both its numerous antique shops and the setting for Nobel laureate Orhan Pamuk’s novel and namesake Museum of Innocence. I came to Çukurcuma to visit the Museum, only to realize that it was closed because it was Monday.
So I decided to walk down the steep narrow streets of the neighborhood and see what I could find. I passed shop after shop of antique stores, some of them shuttered behind rusty doors, others hemorrhaging hand-crafted chairs, dusty crystalware, and other items that could be found in your grandmother’s living room.
Woodsmoke puffed out of a nearby chimney, wafting seamlessly into the sky above. I walked by a small tearoom with low chairs and tables, their patrons drinking from short glasses filled with saccharine amber tea.
At the end of the street was a hammam–a Turkish bath. It was chilly and I wanted to warm up, so I stepped in without any hesitation. The lobby was a simple wood-paneled room; a young man with a short beard sat at the desk. I paid roughly $15 for a private “cabin” to change into.
Before I had made it more than three steps towards the locker room a bare-chested guy walked up to me and put a beefy hand on my shoulder. “Massage?” he asked.
“No thanks,” I said. I walked into my cabin, stripped off my clothes until I was wearing nothing but a pair of boxer shorts, and stepped out. The same guy was waiting outside. He shook his head and said something in Turkish. Evidently he was displeased about something.
I smiled my best dumb tourist smile. “Sorry man, I don’t understand!”
He frowned, pointed at my crotch, and said something else. Now I was a bit worried. Another guy came up to me and said something. I repeated myself again, and he hesitated for a second. Then in broken English he pointed to my crotch and made a wrapping motion, saying “towel.”
Oh, right. It was a Turkish bath. My bad.
I went back inside the cabin and wrapped a towel around my waist. The attendant nodded approvingly, then asked me again: “Massage?”
This time I uttered a terse “no,” then turned down a hallway and walked towards what I hoped would be a pool. There was no pool, instead there was an open shower area with something like 8 stalls, and one sauna. I opened the door to the sauna and sat down inside.
Several other men were lounging around inside. One bearded guy with an impressive gut had his legs spread aggressively wide and, unless it was my imagination, was trying to engage me in a staring contest. I decided the best measure was avoidance, and lay down on the top step, where it was hottest, and stared up at the ceiling.
For something like twenty minutes I lay there. Occasionally the door would open and someone would leave, while someone else would enter. Finally I got up and went back down the hallway. I had noticed a few men entering a different room and was curious to see if there was a pool there.
I opened the door and squinted into a dimly-lit room that smelled like sweat and coconut body lotion. Five men lay on separate massage tables, with other men performing what looked to be very intimate massage on them. One man was kneeling on the back of another man, kneading his shoulders. A small cluster of men sat in armchairs in one corner, presumably waiting for their turn at a massage.
I felt a hand once again land on my shoulder. “Massage?” This guy didn’t look like an attendant though. He was wearing the same kind of towel that I was around my waist. “Uh, no,” I said.
I walked back down the hallway and stepped into a shower stall, intending to rinse off and then leave before someone else offered me a massage. The stalls had doors that came up to mid-chest height, so they provided more than enough privacy.
That didn’t stop one guy from walking straight up to my stall and peering down at my junk. He said something in Turkish and smiled at me. “Uh, thanks,” I stammered, turning away from him. A few seconds later he appeared again.
He looked straight at my cock (or maybe it was my ass?) and this time he winked at me. There was no doubt what he meant this time.
“Sorry buddy, that’s just not how I roll.” I hoped he didn’t take rejection too hard. He shrugged, then walked back to his stall.
I turned off the water, toweled off and dressed as quickly as possible–my hair was still pretty wet but I didn’t feel like sticking around any longer–and got the hell out of there.