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In Istanbul, what was once routine for the winter is now a luxury


Turkish families are struggling with soaring prices, and many find themselves forced to give up some of their usual winter pleasures. NPR's Peter Kenyon reports that one sign of this can be found at Istanbul's hammams, or Turkish baths, where employees say many of their customers are staying away so far this year.

PETER KENYON, BYLINE: Hammams, or Ottoman-style bathhouses, can be found all over Istanbul and indeed all over Turkey. Some are large and extremely ornate, blending Roman and Byzantine bathhouse styles. In earlier times, they fulfilled the need for basic cleanliness. Today, they remain popular among people looking for moments of calm in a crowded, bustling city and who also enjoy a scrub and a massage in the bargain.


KENYON: A small fountain and soothing music await visitors to the Galatasaray hammam in Istanbul. A sign by the door announces that bathers have been coming here since 1481. Hammam employee Yigit Cenuk says, like many businesses, they were hit by the coronavirus pandemic. And just when things started to bounce back, a bomb went off on Istanbul's main commercial boulevard, cutting off an important stream of foreign tourists. He says they probably won't return until vacation time this spring.

YIGIT CENUK: Right now, that season - they're waiting for, like, the vacations. And right now it's calm.

KENYON: Normally, this time of year is when hammams rely on their Turkish customers, but Cenuk says this winter, that's a problem for families trying to make ends meet as prices for food, rent and other basics remain very high.

CENUK: Local customers are lower after pandemic and because of the prices are becoming higher because of the inflation.

KENYON: Turkey's painfully high inflation rate is something the government is keen to move past, mainly by predicting better times just around the corner. Finance Minister Nureddin Nebati recently gave an upbeat forecast for 2023. He predicted a long-awaited decline in the recent eye-popping price rises.


NURREDIN NEBATI: (Through interpreter) The annual inflation fell sharply to 64% in December from the 84% reported in November of 2022. The decline is expected to become more pronounced in 2023.

KENYON: The notion that 64% inflation represents a sharp drop gives you some idea of how bad things got in Turkey last year. Many economists blame President Recep Tayyip Erdogan's insistence on keeping interest rates low, despite the downward pressure that puts on the Turkish lira, which plummeted to a 20-year record low in October. The depressed lira forced Turkish families to cut out nonessential spending, even some less expensive pleasures such as boza, a popular nonalcoholic drink. It's the color of eggnog, but it's made from fermented millet.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: (Non-English language spoken).

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: (Non-English language spoken).

KENYON: The most popular place to find it in Istanbul is called Vefa, where in the past, you could see lines going out the door and down the block. But 51-year-old Ibrahim, working the cash register, says that's not the same these days.

IBRAHIM: (Through interpreter) It's not crowded at the moment. Actually, for us, this is empty. When it was busy, there were hundreds of people standing on the street. We couldn't keep up with the demand sometimes.

KENYON: As for whether prices will come back to Earth anytime soon, some analysts point to elections, likely in May, suggesting that it may be in President Erdogan's interest to see living standards among voters improve between now and then. Peter Kenyon, NPR News, Istanbul. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Peter Kenyon is NPR's international correspondent based in Istanbul, Turkey.