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The first time I visited Bursa, I was threatened with ... shaving! My antagonist was a burly woman several years older than I and semi-nude. We faced off on the stepped seating in the hamam’s ante-room where I, along with several other women and girls, were cooling down before dressing following our communal and steamy Turkish bath.

After a long and fruitless search for affordable accommodation, I had finally been directed to a private home where I was offered a room off a courtyard shaded by a loquat tree. My landlady spoke no English, and there was no shower or bath, “but I was so desperate by then to put my backpack down that I decided to stay” (1984 diary).

I went out for a dinner of shish kebabs and when I returned my hostess told me in sign language that her friend would take me for a shower.” I gratefully gathered my things together, including my camera bag, passport and travellers’ cheques, which never left my person. My hostess insisted I leave these valuables with her, trying to lay my obvious fears to rest by wrapping them in a beautiful and clearly valuable scarf and placing them in a chest of drawers in her diminutive lounge. “And off I went in some trepidation to find myself in a Turkish bath, my first ever.

What an experience! Taking a bath is a social occasion indeed. The place was full of women from 8 to 80 – all scrubbing and washing and shampooing and talking. We spent almost two hours there! After you have washed – using little hand basins and water from around the wall, you swim in the circular pool and eventually climb into an even hotter bath where water gushes down onto your shoulders and back. Fantastic.

And then you sit in the dressing room for ages to cool down – and to talk. I was the only foreigner in the whole place, but luckily we found a secretary who could speak English and who was commissioned by the ‘friend’ to ask me some questions. Was I married? What did I do for a living? What did my father do for a living?

Then we got onto the really ‘juicy’ stuff by which time several interested parties were listening in. How tall was I? How much did I weigh? They liked my face, breasts and hips (it is the slender ones here who cover up in the bathhouse). Did I want to marry one of their sons? They were fascinated by my dungarees. Did I shave my underarms and fanny? When I said no, there were long faces all round so I showed them my shaved legs and got a round of applause.

It was at this point that the burly woman entered the fray. Clearly less forgiving of my ‘unhygienic’ habits, she stood in front of me and mimed pushing me down, splaying my thighs and shaving my privates! A little nerve-wracking if the truth be told...

When we got home a crowd had gathered for çay and I was discussed in great – and obviously amusing – detail!

On this visit to Bursa, Charl and I tried unsuccessfully to find a hamam we could afford, no-one being willing to direct us to any other than those utilised by tourists. Today we managed to locate the municipal hamam in Salihli, which unfortunately caters to men only. Not without difficulty, I persuaded Charl to take his first Turkish bath, which I could enjoy vicariously. He bathed in the hamam’s vaulted room and was talked into being scrubbed and shampooed by the English-speaking proprietor. He came out eventually saying the masseur had “scrubbed his tan off”, glowing with health, and very, very clean.

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