Sunday, February 24, 2013

Turks and their Hammams - a couple stories of how they use them

Recently, I enjoyed my first Istanbul hammam at Çirağan Palace Kempinski, the famous Ottoman Imperial Palace hotel on the Bosphorus, which I described in the following two blog posts: part one and part two.
The aesthetic beauty of a hammam space
 is part of the attraction.
Zeynep, the Sanitas spa manager at Çirağan Palace Kempinski, credited the Romans with the development of public baths; she said the Ottomans simply absorbed and carried on this tradition. If so, the Ottomans perfected it, because the experience is worthy of becoming globally famous. Since the advent of water in every home though, hammam culture is threatened as Turks no longer need to use it as their bath. Instead, they treat it as a quarterly or semi-annual treat.

It's interesting to me how differently some Westerners view a hammam than most native Turks. A Westerner tends to appreciate the skin exfoliation AND the extended massage that happens afterwards. The last thing I want to do in a hammam is talk to anybody. To me the whole point is to zone out in solitary bliss.
Tools of the hammam: soap, peştamal,
kese (the scrubbing mitt),
and a  tas (water basin for rinsing).
According to Zeynep, local customers don't see it that way though. Turkish customers view the skin scrubbing as the point of the hammam and all of the extra massage features as superfluous. Çirağan Palace Kempinski Hotel's spa offers a 40 minute skin scrubbing as an entry service, because for many Turks maintaining healthy, glowing skin is what they want and expect from their hammam. It is the tourists who sign up for the 55 minute and 80 minute experiences that include massage.
The Turkish bathing tradition includes running water,
not the Western tradition of sitting in still water
contained in a bathtub.
In Ottoman times, women would gather in the hammam as one of the few places out of the home where they could spend time together. They could be there all day, eating, enjoying their friends, socializing and gossiping. Mothers of sons, would often suggest a potential bride for their sons based on their observations in the hammam. That sounds a bit creepy, but mostly these mothers were checking to make sure a potential bride was a healthy woman.
A traditional hammam bowl
for pouring water over a bather
Zeynep remembered going to the hammam with her grandmother and socializing with family and friends. They would bring in food and enjoy an extended period of relaxing after the heat and water and conversation. She also described a wonderful tradition where the bride is taken to the hammam with her female family and friends to prepare for her wedding. Her hammam is completed with a henna party where beautiful designs are drawn on her hand in henna ink for her wedding day.

One of my teenage Turkish friends described the perfection of his weeklong hammam experience with friends at basketball camp. He said "everyday at basketball camp we would play two basketball games. At night our team would go to the hammam and relax. One friend brought his guitar and he would play it as we all sat around, and relaxed and discussed how we did that day in the games. We'd bring in food and eat there. Imagine one whole week of getting to do what you love all day [play basketball], going to the hammam at night to hang out with your friends, and no parents to ask you to do this or do that. It was very, very nice."

Listening to him, I really appreciated the wholesomeness of the hammam experience. His North American teenage counterpart might be likely to go drinking at basketball camp once evening came. While I'll stick to hammam service my way, zoning out in solitary joy, I admired the wholesome way Turks used hammams to make the most of the moment, enjoy each other's company, using time together to do something physically healthy.
The heated marble slab in the center
is where a hammam visitor
is scrubbed and washed
It will take both the Turk and the Westerner to preserve hammam culture.  If you come to Turkey, and choose to experience a hammam yourself, you are truly giving back to your hosts by helping them preserve a beautiful intangible cultural heritage.

In case you missed them:

My first Hammam in Istanbul at the Çirağan Palace Kempinski Hotel, Part One

Part Two of My First Istanbul Hammam Adventure at Çirağan Palace Kempinski Hotel

Photos courtesy of Çirağan Palace Kempinski Hotel and Sanitas Spa

Friday, February 22, 2013

Part Two of My First Istanbul Hammam Adventure at Çirağan Palace Kempinski Hotel

There are some discoveries in Turkey that are so delightful, they bring the immediate thought, “why aren’t these global? Why doesn’t every country have these? The Ottoman Hammam, or traditional public bath, is one such Turkish cultural institution. Anywhere the Ottoman Empire conquered and ruled, hammams and hammam culture remain.

I had come to the famous luxury hotel Cirağan Palace Kempinski to experience my first Istanbul hammam courtesy of the hotel. I entered the Cirağan Palace spa on the lower level and enjoyed the beautiful Indonesian statuary everywhere. At first it seemed so incongruous with Turkish hammam, but I learned later that due to the international nature of  Cirağan Palace hotel, many kinds of massage were offered, including Balinese massage. Indeed, just as there were Turkish hammam specialists in the spa, the hotel also had Balinese masseuse staff available for an Indonesian-style massage if that is what guests want.

The spa lobby itself was small yet very inviting. I could see beyond the room through a window to the very well-appointed fitness room which had every piece of equipment someone would need for a great workout. On the coffee table, a tray with pitcher of refreshing water garnished with orange slices awaited spa visitors. Gülay, the receptionist, knowing the unfamiliarity of North Americans with hammams, came from behind the desk and walked me through step-by-step what would happen during my visit.

A Turkish peştamal

Knowing that some visitors could be uncomfortable with nudity, Gülay pointed out there was disposable underwear provided in each locker to wear along with the abundant piece of cloth called a peştamal that hammam visitors strategically use to cover themselves as they move through the process. Peştamals are thin pieces of Turkish cloth specifically designed for the Turkish hammam experience. They are large enough to cover someone's entire body; they don't get heavy when wet and they also dry quickly.

I entered the luxurious locker room and changed into the big white fluffy bath robe provided and took my pestamel. I love these grand hotel locker rooms because, like every part of the hotel, every possible need a human could have had been anticipated. Did you need to sqeeze the water out of your swimming suit? There was a machine for that. Weigh yourself? There was a medical-quality scale. Do you hair? Every possible hair product was there waiting: combs, hair spray, blow dryers, etc. Every possible tooth care product was waiting too: toothpaste, brushes, floss.

Hamam visitors have a choice of prepping their skin in either the steam room or the sauna before going into the hammam. I chose the steam room. Sri, one of the Balinese masseuses dressed in a beautiful Indonesian dress, instructed me to take off my rings and slip them into my bathrobe pocket before I entered. The ultimate luxury provided was trust. I knew I could do that and they'd be there when I got back.

Those five minutes in the steam room help soften the skin for a scrubbing, yet they are pleasurable anyway because of the slowness of the experience. There is deep silence, semi-darkness, and the luxuriousness or warm marble with intense heat and intense steam. Do we have enough moments like that in life - where our only job is to slow down, take deep breathes, and do absolutely nothing but concentrate on restoring ourselves. I felt gratitude for the moment.

Sri came to get me all too soon and introduced me to Gül, my Turkish hammam specialist. Gül was wearing white shorts and a white swimsuit top. During the next hour she would be working very hard in a very warm room so this attire made complete sense. I was immediately comfortable with her. I entered the all marble hammam and took in the beauty of the marble fountains in the side walls, the large marble slap in the center of the room for hammam guests, and the heat.

Gül asked me if I wanted a soft, medium, or hard scrubbing. I chose hard, although it didn't feel hard. It felt just right.  Using a special bath mitt, Gül proceeded to slough off my winter skin. I felt like a baby kitten! It was fantastic and I knew my face and body would have a new rosy glow when she was done. My relaxation deepened.

Next came a foam massage, unlike any massage I've experienced anywhere in the world. A giant sleeve of effervescent foam is squeezed out along the length of the body and accompanied by a rush of  warm water to make a magnificent sensory experience. With the warmth from the foam and the water still present, the therapist slowly massages aromatic jasmine oil into the skin, starting at the feet.

I almost started to doze off as my relaxation could not get any deeper. I was so content and in such a wonderful meditative, joyful state, I hardly noticed when the spa music started to taper off and the room became completely silent. I waited for the next record to start.

A complete surprise! Completely unexpected by me, Gül, my therapist, started to sing a long, slow Turkish ballad. This is what it must have really felt like to be the Sultan, to not only enjoy the physical sensations of the hammam, but to also have a beautiful female voice singing out and silencing all thought with beauty! She sang a beautiful Turkish song called Berivan.

Later, Gül lead me out of the hammam to a sitting area to rest and recover. She gestured with her hand that the sultan's divan before me was where I should rest. I marveled to myself at the perfection of the experience. While I sat there drinking my tea, I understood instantly that the story of Hürrem, Sultan Suleyman's slave who was so inspiring she became his wife, was the Turkish equivalent of the fairy tale Cinderella. I had just received treatment worthy of the best Cinderella tale every written.

I was filled with contentment and expressed to Gül just how beautiful I found her singing and my hammam experience. "Actually, my song is my gift to you. I don't do it in every hammam, the energy has to be right. For example, if a male guest says, 'I don't want to use my peştamal, I want to take it off, the energy becomes wrong and I don't sing. But your energy was fantastic." I'm so glad!

Later, I was explaining to a friend that everyone thinks of soldiers as the great patriots, but truly, Gül, my Turkish hammam specialist, is for me, a true Turkish patriot. In one hour, she communicates and transmits one of the most beautiful aspects of Turkish culture to visitors and sends folks raving about the glories of Turkey all over the world when they get back home.

In case you missed part one of this adventure:

My first Hammam in Istanbul at the Cirağan Palace Kempinski Hotel, Part One

and if you're interested in reading Turks and their Hammams: a couple of stories of how they use them

Hammam photos courtesy of Cirağan Palace Kempinski
Peştamal photo courtesy of

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Sunday, February 17, 2013

My first Hammam in Istanbul at the Çirağan Palace Kempinski Hotel, Part One

in the snow
In my new Beşiktaş neighborhood in Istanbul, not five minutes from my house, is the only Ottoman Imperial Palace Hotel in Turkey. It sits right on the Bosphorus shoreline. In Turkish, it is called Çirağan Sarayı Kempinski. In English: Çirağan Palace Kempinski. It boasts exquisite views once reserved exclusively for the Sultans.
The original Imperial Ottoman Palace
as seen from the Bosphorus.

The Grand Ballroom,
 frequently the site for weddings,
is on the top right
enabling guests to get a magical view of the grounds
and the Bosphorus Bridge
while dancing the night away.

This very special palace
also holds eleven magical suites.

I am crazy for historic luxury hotels and love to hear the stories of a property well run, especially those properties beloved by guests, community, and staff alike. Properties like this are larger than their mission - indeed, I would go so far to say these places are as close as businesses can come to having a soul.

I've visited many iconic hotels like this in my travels. To name a few favorites: the Banff Springs Hotel, Chateau Lake Louise, and Empress Hotel in Western Canada, the Homestead and Greenbriar, in Virgina, the Pink Hawaiian, on the island of Oahu in Hawaii, and the Broadmoor in Colorado Springs, Colorado.

You can really tell if someone knows Istanbul, by whether or not they know this hotel. Only the most erudite Americans do, as Kempinski, the hotel operating company that runs it, runs hotels in locations exotic to the American traveler.

Indeed, this was my first introduction to Kempinski. I knew for them to be trusted with the operating the premier hotel property in Istanbul, a city Napoléon deemed worthy of  serving as "capital of the world," they had been judged incredibly worthy stewards.
John F. Kennedy Jr. and Carolyn Bessette
on their wedding day
Some Americans already knew of the property though. The lobby walls are filled with photos of celebrities who have chosen to stay there.

John F. Kennedy Jr. brought Carolyn Bessette here on their honeymoon on the recommendation of no less a style icon than his mother, Jacqueline Bouvier Kennedy Onassis.

Oprah stayed here when she took her entire staff and their families, 1,600 people, on a 10-day Mediterranean cruise to thank them for making her show such a success. She threw a fabled party here for her entire crew at the hotel complete with whirling dervishes and an Ottoman Mehteran band. The original palace boasts an jaw-droppingly-gorgeous grand staircase which made it the perfect place for her to make a sweeping entrance with everyone going wild.
 The Hotel Lobby
where guests are greeted
by smiling, professional staff
and the smell of beautiful flowers
exquisitely arranged
The outdoor infinity pool
overlooking the Bosphorus
In keeping with the
international clientele
of the hotel,
pool safety guidelines are posted in
Turkish, English, and German.

The Imperial Palace is straight on
in the above photo
along the Bosphorus
with the
newer hotel facility
 to the right
The pool, the palms, the placid water -
all of it sends one silent signal: relax.
The view to the left
if standing on the shoreline.
And yes, it is possible to arrive by boat.
Entering the hotel and walking the hotel grounds immediately began to increase my serenity. I could feel my whole body slowing down in response to the timeless views of shipping traffic plying the Bosphorus. To the right of the hotel, ferries delivered their fares to appointments on the European side. To the left, is the Örtakoy Mosque, currently being renovated and hidden behind curtains. Behind the Mosque is the iconic Bosphorus Bridge.
The East Garden
While walking the grounds I couldn't help but think of another American celebrity. I thought Martha Stewart would love the orderly allee of palm trees in the East Garden that silently signal prosperity. Each one was manicured with nary a cuticle of palm bark astray and lush with fertile seed pods bursting with demands for a chance at life. 

Showing off the long-term outlook of the management, another allee of plantain trees was planted in the West Garden. One of the pleasures of driving up to the hotel is driving through a several block long allee of plantain trees that line the corniche road called Çirağan Caddesi. Currently, this garden allee of plaintains in between the hotel and the Bosphorus was merely at the adolescent stage. In 100 years, they would be spectacular. I wished them well as they would need luck to survive the relentless quest for unimpeded views of the Bosphorus.

After enjoying the grounds and taking in their beauty, it was time to go find the spa and enjoy my hammam, Çirağan Palace-style, courtesy of the hotel. Cinar, PR Department head for the Çirağan Palace Kempinski hotel had said with a laugh, "just talking about hammams makes me relax." I couldn't wait to experience this incredible Ottoman gift to the world.

My first Hammam in Istanbul at the Çirağan Palace Kempinski Hotel, Part Two

Let's be friends on Facebook. Look for Empty Nest Expat.

All photos courtesy of Çirağan Palace Kempinski

Friday, February 15, 2013

#1billionrising in Istanbul

"Everyday Five Women Are Killed
through Domestic Violence"
Yesterday was so delightful. The enormity of Eve Ensler's imagination blew me away. It was just glorious to participate in the largest global happening on the planet to date. Turkish media was 100% there for the event. Many newspapers featured it on their front page the day it was to happen and the day after. My local neighborhood municipality actually sponsored a rising themselves and offered people free dance classes. I wasn't able to go because it was during the day but the joy of those who did attend is self-evident! The anthem was perfect as it created and communicated the joyousness of the feminist tsunami circling the world.
New friend and fellow protester
Betül. She was a delight!

I thought there was a rising at 6 p.m. in Taksim Square, but when I got there, the square was empty. I looked around and guessed who would be the most likely to be attending a rising that night. I guessed exactly right on my first try. The young German lady said, "yes, my roommate has organized the one in Kadikoy on the Asian side at 7 p.m." I guess it's been all those years of guessing who speaks English to ask questions that helped me pick the right female to ask! We gathered a Canadian friend of hers and took the ferry over to Asia.

There were all kinds of people there, at least 500 if not more. One young woman had hand-lettered signs on both sides with magic marker and gladly shared them with people she didn't know. I marveled at the time investment, but hey, I had done the same in my own way, with non-stop promotion of #1billionrising in the weeks prior to everybody I could think of.

I realized when I got there, that this was an event that was tailor-made for Turkey. Most Turks dance with abandon and they have wonderful, wonderful folk dances that are easy to learn and enable people of all ages to participate. We started doing the halay in a big circle and gorgeous young women would make that ululating sound as loud as they could with incredible joy. It was FABULOUS.
 Someone translated this to me that night as:
"Hallelujah, the women are united!"
The administrator in me started thinking "well, if I had done this promotion, I would have done this different and that different, starting with designing a dance as easy to learn as the Turkish halay so it could go viral and all ages would dance it up." The official #1billionrising choreography was intimidating to nondancers as a time investment. It looked like it would take multiple rehearsals to learn. That makes it hard for folks to identify with so that they join in up until the last minute. I would also would have waited for a year to do this when Valentine's Day fell on a Saturday so the maximum number of people could join. Had it happened on a weekend, I would have just gone to risings all day, one after the other.

I also wish the President of the United States had given #1billionrising a shoutout in the State of the Union speech the night before. I mean, it's not every single day that 1 billion people decide to organize themselves into mass action. A single "I hear ya!" would have sufficed.

The State Department, which prides itself on social media saavy, seemed like complete nonparticipants on Twitter. I would have thought Hillary Clinton's State Department would have had risings organized at all embassies and consulates. Women's rights were supposed to be hallmark of Hillary's time as Secretary of State. The United Nations, the UK Prime Minister, and the Australian PM were all over #1billionrising on V-Day. America missed a wonderful opportunity to brag about all the work it has done on behalf of women over the last four years. This could have been the capstone event!

It was amazing how hard it was to know about all of the aspects of this. I didn't realize you could order a T-shirt. I didn't know that my municipality was organizing their own rising. I didn't know that there was a #1billionrisingIstanbul Facebook page (the ladies of Izmir, Turkey had over 4,000 likes on theirs). I didn't understand how there would be #1billionrising when @eveensler only had around 22,000 Twitter followers and @vday only had 23,000 followers. There is a Twitter account called @obr that seems to be owned by a very non-active Norwegian, not One Billion Rising. Had information on all the groups organizing been more centralized, it could have been even exponentially larger.

But then I just remembered to myself the wonderful quote by Teddy Roosevelt. "It is not the critic who counts, but the man in the arena." My suggestions are mere quibbles.

Eve Ensler created something of immense power and beauty. My hat is off to her. I can't wait to sift through all of the incredibly diverse videos and take them in. I loved hearing this NPR Talk-of -he-Nation interview with her from the Congo where she expressed her optimism for the future. Most importantly, she talked about when she started with the Vagina Monologues, it was with a theatre of 100 seats. She had no idea the power of her voice. None of us do - all we have to do is take the first step. In my opinion, Eve Ensler deserves the American Medal of Freedom for her service to America and all humanity.

This is one of the most powerful #1billionrisings videos I've seen so far: #1billionrising in jail.

You may be interested in my earlier posts about #1billionrising:


Thursday, February 14, 2013

I rise to break the chain as a part of Eve Ensler's #1billionrising!

Today is the big day!

Eve Ensler, the creator of the Vagina Monologues (which has raised $80 million for domestic violence charities globally) has organized what I believe to be the largest coordinated event in the history of the world. One billion women, and the men who love them, will be rising to change the worldwide paradigm about the acceptability of violence against women.

Here’s an example of how violence against women is often not taken seriously. When I was a branch manager of a public library branch in Colorado Springs, we were located in an upscale, gorgeous neighborhood full of expensive homes nestled under the mountains. It's the Rockrimmon neighborhood.  It was not the kind of place where you would expect violent daylight attacks against women. 

 That’s exactly what happened though. The lady in the dry cleaning business next door to our library branch was brutally raped, and had her skull bashed in. It was 3 in the afternoon, with grocery store shoppers and library users using the parking lot without a realization of what had happened. I had the responsibility for the 15-20 person female staff that day and believe me, I felt it!

A couple days later a man was arrested. What would have proved or disproved his guilt was a DNA rape kit. Colorado had passed laws by then requiring them, but the processing of them was not funded to keep up with the need and there was a six-month backlog of rape kits to be processed.

I never found out if that man was actually guilty or if he had been arrested to “calm the population down.” If he wasn’t the guilty party, how unfair it must have felt to him as he waited. How sad for the neighborhood too, if the real perpetrator was still on the loose.

It’s my guess that if you check, most American states also has a huge backlog of rape kits to be processed.  My friends in Colorado tell me nothing has changed - the backlog remains. This lackadaisical attitude about stopping violence against women must change. It's not just in that one place, it is global.
Here are a few things you can do to participate in this worldwide revolution:
1) Attend a rising. There will be flash mobs happening all over the world. There is a choreography video on the #1billionrising site. If you don't have time to learn the dance, your presence is enough. You can sway. Here's where to find an event. Global events will be livestreamed all day.
2) Share with your friends in person and on social media what #1billionrising is all about. Make sure your friends know that there are 100 million missing women from the planet. Of those that remain, 1 in 3 is touched by violence or violation, which adds up to 1 billion people around the world. Find a video on the #1billionrising website that is personally meaningful to you to share. Imagine for a moment, how the world would be different, if those women weren't violated and left dealing with shame and humiliation.
3) Make your FB cover photo reflect #1billionrising for the month of February. There are plenty of banner cover shots on the site. Help #1billionrising become a global trending topic on Twitter.
4) If you live in America, make sure you understand why the House of Representatives is voting against the Violence Against Women Act. It is not a budget buster, indeed, it is at a funding level 17% less than the last time it was renewed. Here is one video and another video that help explain why Republicans are against renewing it. Are those reasons not appalling? How is your Representative voting?
5) Feel the joy of your actions. You are personally making a difference for future generations to follow. Here's a video from San Francisco of a rising to help you feel your joy. Your actions don't end here. The work of the 21st century will be to achieve equality for women and girls. We will have more work in the future. Thanks for caring!

Sunday, February 3, 2013

#1billionrising rising in Turkey

Today brings the sad news that the Turkish police have found the body of American tourist Sarai Sierra, 33, from New York City. May she rest in peace. Thank you to all of the Turkish and American public servants who worked so hard to find her. I read the police formed a special team to view hours and hours of security camera footage to try and trace her steps. I can't imagine anything more boring that watching all that. I'm grateful they did.

Sarai Sierra's death brings reflection at the vast epidemic of violence against women globally. Global activist Eve Ensler is asking all of us, women - and especially the men who love them, to strike, rise, and dance, rising up to demand an end to the routine daily violence against women.

#1billionrising is the audaciously-named event Eve Ensler has created to demand an end to violence against women worldwide. Can you imagine trying to organize 1 billion people? Have you ever heard of anyone trying to do that before? What an amazing idea. She chose that number because that is the estimated number of women who have been violated by violence worldwide.

As of this writing, there are over 40 events planned for Turkey. The first one starts today at 2 p.m. Participants will be doing this extremely fun Turkish folk dance called the Halay (actually, pretty much all Turkish dance is fun). Here is the list of events for Turkey. Here is where you can find an event in the country you're living in. And here is the anthem, although the many ways people will be dancing is of course, varied and global. #1billionrising!

Saturday, February 2, 2013

Female Safety in Istanbul

Sarai Sierra, 33
Missing since January 21st
If you are in Istanbul,
please take a good look at her face
let us all be on the lookout for her.

Recently a young American mother on a photography tour went missing in Istanbul and this unfortunate story made the national news all across America. I pray for the safe return of this young woman.

My friend Joy Ludwig-McNutt wrote an excellent blog post about safety in Istanbul on her blog "My Turkish Joys" because she found the comments of Americans about this case so annoying. It's an excellent post. Click here to read it.
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