Smooth knees and silken rugs

know, I know. I promise a blog and it has remained empty! As Calvin (of "Calvin and Hobbs") once said, "The days are just packed!" Then there is the wireless factor. Spotty is the best description for that.

So, rather than backtracking our itinerary day by day, I'll just chronicle some of our adventures. I'd like to start the trip report with an account of we thought was a very typical "Turkish" day - a hammam and then rug-shopping.

A hammam is a bath house. We chose the Ayasofia Hurrem Sultan Hamami, a restored Ottoman-era hamam in the shadow of the Hagia Sophia and the Blue Mosque. While most modern working hammam are more like the YWCA, the Ayasofia was the stuff of Orientalist fantasies. We opened the door to the front room, the atmosphere hushed and perfumed, with women clad in bath towels lounging on cushions waiting their next treatment. White marble is everywhere. We put our clothes in a locker and donned a thin cotton and silk sarong called a pestamel. Attendants ushered us into the hot room, an enormous round chamber all white and echo-y, with a large raised section in the middle and small enclosures around the perimeter. Each enclosure had three sinks. We were instructed to sit next to a sink while our attendant doused us with warm water. We were then left alone to steam gently in the heat. Not exactly a steam room or even a sauna - thought the walls and floor were heated - we perspired as freely as one does in a Scandinavian-type treatment.

We were then led into the warm room, where we were again seated next to sinks. This time, the attendant took a scrub mitt (keci) and scrubbed us down. I was a bit horrified to see little grey rolls of dead skin coming off of me in the rinse water. It doesn't mean dirt - it's just the old top layer of skin cells coming off. It's important to note that no soap was used on us up through this point. The steam, hot water, and keci were sufficient to exfoliate us and reveal the "new skin" for cleansing.

Then back to the hot room, where we were instructed to stretch out on the platform in the center of the room. Our attendants then whipped up a soapy foam in pillowcases and then poured the foam over us. If I hadn't been watching, I wouldn't have known - the foam was so light. After a good soaping, we were rinsed off, got a nice shampoo, a final rinse, and then wrapped in a dry towel and robe and ushered out to the lounge, where we were served a cool drink while we waited for the final treatment, a massage.

My skin felt incredible - as soft and smooth as a baby's behind. My knees and elbows were downright silky. But I think that what I liked best about the hammam experience was the feeling of sanctuary. A hammam is different than a spa (although ours was certainly spa-like), and the main point of going to one is to get really, really clean. But this was also a place to withdraw from the busy world for a few hours and let your cares - like your old dead skin - be washed away.

Then it was back out into the day. We decided to take a stroll and get something to eat. We were in Sultanahmet, an old part of the city that, in addition to must-see sights like the Hagia Sophia and Basilica Cistern, has many, many shops. Turkish shop owners are most enthusiastic about their wares and wait outside their doors, ready to pounce on tourists. In our case, one merchant sprang out in front of Kim and me, delightedly exclaiming "You've returned! I've been waiting for you!" Hmmm. One of many marketing strategies attempted on us during our time there. We had, of course, never been to his shop. I'm afraid I threw Kim under the bus, as it were, as I pointed to her and said "She's the shopper." This was a true statement - Kim was in the market for a Turkish rug. But the merchant - whose name is Bekir, as we soon discovered - turned his full attention on Kim. After a brief conversation, Kim artfully turned the topic to lunch (we were all really hungry and it was late in the afternoon). In the blink of an eye, we were whisked down the street to a small restaurant, where Bekir told us he often has lunch (and is, no doubt, owned by a cousin).

I won't get into the food here - suffice to say that it was fresh and delicious. Bekir had a beer with us and kept up a lively conversation. He was very charming, engaging, and looks a lot like George Clooney, which didn't hurt. But he was not going to let us slip out of his grasp - a group of six American woman, two of whom were in the market for rugs? It was worth his time to woo us all together.

The rest of the afternoon was spent in the rug shop. This was not unpleasant. We all learned quite a bit about Turkish rugs. It was fun to watch the actual buyers work out which ones they wanted from the seeming unending piles of carpets surrounding us. We non-buyers sat back and sipped Turkish coffee, and later, apple tea. After three hours or so, and some spirited negotiations, we were sent back to the hotel in the company car, in time to get ready for the evening's festivities. But that is another story. Stay tuned!