Friday, November 13, 2009

Spor salonunda (At the gym)

After nearly two years, many things remain mysterious to me about life in Turkey, but the one that's been perplexing me recently is how the heck it's possible to get undressed, shower, dry off, then change clothes, all while remaining completely covered.

With all the attention that's been given over the years to the "exotic" Turkish hamam, Westerners might be forgiven for assuming that Turks, once in the safety of a single-gender environment, spend their time lolling around in the nude, languidly washing each other's hair, free of body issues and social stigma.

Au contraire. Women at my recently joined gym seem to magically be able to change from street clothes to workout clothes and back without showing an inch of skin. Nor do they ever allow their towel to separate from their body while drying off after a shower -- a shower that they walked into wearing their bra and underwear, at the very least. (My spies in the men's locker room tell me it's essentially the same story there.) Of course, that's not the only way in which gym behavior varies greatly from what I'm used to in the U.S.

"Working out" is apparently a relatively new concept in Turkey and it's clear that even gym-goers are still figuring out what it means. A pair of girls will come to swim in the lap pool and each paddle along with one arm, keeping their heads entirely out of the water, chatting as they slowly make their way down the lane. Ninety percent of people on the treadmills will spend their entire session walking at a moderate pace, while the occasional young jock will hop on, run full-tilt for five minutes, and then hop back off again.

When I first joined up, I asked the woman working in the fitness center if she could help me figure out the automatic programs on the treadmill -- the English-language text said they were available, but there was no instruction for how to set them up. She came over, looked perplexed, we each pushed some buttons here and some buttons there, and eventually kinda sorta figured it out. When she asked if it was working OK, I said yes, and she responded,

"You know, you're the first person to ever ask about this!"


Barbara said...

I'm not even sure that I want to be putting my name out here with this comment, but anywaaay....when I was a member of the Marmara Gym in Taksim, I had the complete opposite experience that you did. I could NOT believe how many women would parade around stark naked, putting on makeup without any clothes on! In the US, women would practically get changed inside their lockers to avoid anyone seeing them. American women were much more modest at the gym. I just couldn't do it the way the Turks did. I mean, I had to tell myself eyes down, EYES DOWN, but they're right there! All of them! Stark naked and putting on mascara and I'm like, come one! Put some pants on already! Nobody wants to see you like this! Now I forgo the gym altogether and just do pilates where I show up in my sweats and leave in my sweats. No changing and showering required. Much easier.

The Turkish Life said...

Fascinating! Thanks for putting yourself out there to share that ;)

I guess it's just another example of the difficulty in comprehending life abroad -- I often find myself wondering, is this just a quirk of this person/place/situation or is it actually indicative of something about Turkey?

I never found women to be that shy at the gym in the U.S., but of course I am from let-it-all-hang-out San Francisco!

Schaufensterbabe said...

I have a three month membership at a gym (with the cheesy name "American Fitness") on the top floor of Karstadt department store on Hermannplatz in Neukoelln. Since Neukoelln and nearby Kreuzberg are both the big Turkish neighborhoods, a lot of members are from Turkey. I would say the undressing is about standard for Germany (i.e. no shyness whatsoever) but what I have noticed is that there is a big difference in sound level in the sauna area. In Germany saunas are seen as a "wellness" activity and, generally, it's considered bad manners to talk above a whisper if at all when you are inside. Not so with the Turks though. It seems more like a sauna is place to catch up on gossip, talk at the top of your voice, slam doors, etc. Is it the same in Istanbul?

Nomad said...

Hamams - at least, for men- are skin-shy as well. The towel stays in place no matter what. Even during the body shampoo and massage (which is quite a feat). It is considered "bad form" to let it all hang out. The gym I used to go to was a bit more free about walking around in your birthday suit but not much.

Nihal said...

Smiling Hello:)
Following your comment about green drinks, so I found this good chance to visit your corner that's informative and quite interesting. Il bagno turco, or well known as Hammam is the place I haven't yet experienced but I like gym a lot.

Jamie and James said...

I'd say my experience (in Ankara and Kayseri) have been a bit closer to Barbara's. I've been to many a hamam where women (wearing nothing but their panties) are not ashamed to scrub and pour hot water over one another. According to my husband he's been appalled to see the same thing at the men's hamam. Yes, there's a bit of that loin cloth always on the guys, but still.... and as far as the putting on make up while naked, Barbara is spot on. I've had many many moments when my face probably turned bright red and I willed myself to look up in the air, or down at my feet, or anywhere but at the women right in front of me.

The Turkish Life said...

Sounds like every place is different...! I would say hamams (in my limited experience) are generally quiet, but I've never been to a Western-style sauna here in Turkey. Does anyone have any insight into @Schaufensterbabe's question?

Bulent Murtezaoglu said...

I dunno how women behave in Istanbul hamams though (perhaps among men) there's this saying: 'burayi kadinlar hamamina cevirdiniz' (you've turned this place into a women's hamam). It's used when there's too much loud giggly gossipy chatting. So at least at some point hamams here must have been similar to what Schaufensterbabe describes. I don't believe we're taught to shut up in hamams. 'Wellness' here entails company and chatting and not silent/sweaty reflection -- that'd be too boring. In fact I can't think of, off the top of my head, any place where we'd just shut up (w/o enforcement) and not chat. People who taught in Turkey will probably confirm this. Hmm, perhaps in the mosque (during service) and at wakes (the first day or so, IME it turns into a women's hamam after that)? Dunno.

ilker said...

Imagine my surprise when I went to a swimming pool in Hungary. OH MY GOD THEY ARE ALL WALKING AROUND BUCK NAKED! THEY HAVE NO SENSE OF DECENCY! On the other hand, we, as three Turkish guys, were seen as weirdos trying to cover their private areas no matter what. One of my friends had enough of this and started to do as Romans do, which had gained even more attention because of his circumcised penis. Clash of civilizations, I say.