The Doc Project·First Person

How an enigmatic salesman sent me on a musical quest for the perfect towel

After the horrors of terrycloth are revealed to Tom Howell by an enigmatic poet-salesman, a new paradigm emerges.

After learning the rich history of the Turkish towel, humorist Tom Howell is so moved he bursts into song

As Tom Howell navigates his personal stake in the terry vs. Turkish towel debate, a new paradigm emerges — in song. (Illustration by Althea Manasan/CBC)

This story was first published in April 2019. It has been updated.

One day, I stepped from a space I knew very well — Toronto's Queen Street — into a world that seemed foreign and bizarre: a Turkish towel store.

How did I know it was a Turkish towel store, you ask?

Thanks to the hand-painted red sign that said "Turkish towels have arrived at last!!!"

Aside from that, the door was open. Let's not worry too much about my motivations.

Inside the store, I met a Cretan master chef whom, in my ignorance, I took to be a Turkish merchant of the old school. He brewed me a coffee and began to regale me, for an hour, largely on the topic of towels.

Holy Cow!, the site of Tom's towel discovery. (Tom Howell/CBC)

Poet, chef, world traveller, towel merchant

His name is Aristedes Pasparakis. Later in our acquaintance, I tried to interview him about his store and sales techniques.

However, 'interviewing' Pasparakis is not easy. It would be more accurate to say that I 'took notes' while his storytelling drifted from accounts of Minoan civilization to the glass-blowing friend of Garibaldi whose son hooked Pasparakis up with the leading proponents of contemporary Mayan folk music, and before I could interrupt for a clarification, we were onto the philosophies of Fritz Perls, and you know, beyond.

Aristedes Pasparakis sells towels, amongst other things. But really, he's a storyteller. (Tom Howell/CBC)
Occasionally, and no thanks to my own attempts to elicit one, an ordinary fact popped out. I learned that Pasparakis is the author of cookbooks; he's also a former restaurateur.

He told me the current business was meant to be a restaurant inspired by his trips to India, but somehow devolved into a towel store during the set-up period. [Sadly, during the pandemic, Pasparakis shuttered his quirky and beloved store. But my dedication to and love of its towelling products, however, live on.]

The unsung, unwrung history of towels

After my initial encounter with Pasparakis, during which I purchased a single towel for $50, I began to learn more about towels, present and past.

Did you know that the seemingly indispensable towel is a modern invention? Before you tell your friends, please know the caveats. A story exists about Jesus of Nazareth wiping himself with a cloth, and also, 12th-century French poets spoke mysteriously of "toailles" although, being poets, what they meant by it is inscrutable.

The peshtemals of Mr. Pasparakis. (Tom Howell /CBC)
So, as usual, our best facts do not come neat and well-ironed. However, it is safe to say that if you try to learn online about 'towels in archaeology,' you, too, will become frustrated because in the standard sense, the true towel only arrived during the 17th century, in Turkey, as a flat cotton peshtemal.

Much later, it was bastardized into loopy 'terrycloth,' invented in the Ottoman Empire but industrially produced in France and England during the mid-1800s.

In the months after my first encounter with the man I came to call my "towel merchant" (although when I unwisely let Pasparakis hear this nickname, he said a very rude word), hundreds more of my dollars left my pocket, as I built up a collection of exquisite peshtemal specimens, following Pasparakis' careful guidance as to style.

Terrycloth vs. peshtemal: Which side are you on?

This continued until a woman moved into my house last summer and decided to marry me. I won't go into the details here — especially seeing as I already did here and here — but this life change forced me to question the advice of my towel merchant and my developing towel practice more generally. An antagonism occurred.

I showered and then rolled myself in dry flour on the kitchen floor, to see where it stuck the most.

When my fiancée suggested that the towels I was buying did not seem, exactly, to dry my skin after a shower, I tested her allegation scientifically (with a skeptical and not-entirely-encouraging peer review from my friends at the CBC show Quirks & Quarks).

Left: A terrycloth towel. Right: One of Tom's Turkish towels. Which is superior? (Tom Howell/CBC)

I'd hoped to borrow the patented "Sephora Moisture Meter" used by consultants at the French beauty products chainstore, but after failing to convince their marketing department to get involved, I ended up improvising a test in which I showered and then rolled myself in dry flour on the kitchen floor, to see where it stuck the most.

Looking for a new ringtone? Tom Howell's musical ditty Am I Wet? might just fit the bill. Click here to download.

Unfortunately, the test revealed that my peshtemal left the skin noticeably wetter than did a terrycloth towel, which hurt, because Pasparakis had convinced me by this point that there is almost nothing more unsatisfying and despicable in this world than terrycloth.

Flour tests confirm that Tom's peshtemal leaves him wetter than a terrycloth towel does after 10 seconds of standard towelling techniques. (Tom Howell/CBC)
In desperation, I tried to convince my fiancée that her used terrycloth towels smelled, on average, much worse than mine, due to the superiority of my peshtemal's flat-woven fabric. This test did not produce the hoped-for result.

Towel of Song

I find it hard to explain my thoughts on towels adequately in prose. My loyalty to the towels I've bought from Pasparakis is deeper than skin, and certainly deeper than surface moisture.

Perhaps one could say that these towels unite, for me, the spirits of capitalism and consumerism with still airier substances — feelings that drift around art, history, geography, storytelling, the ineffable, the sublime.

But it is probably not a good idea to say this. I'm told it's rarely a good idea to put 'the sublime' into any sentence, especially one written in the first person.

So, for reasons that ought to be self-explanatory, it became essential to describe my feelings about towels in a series of catchy musical numbers wedged into the form of a semi-dramatic musical.

(Althea Manasan/CBC)

The first song I wrote, entitled, "When I See My Towel I Sing," gestures at the raw joy a good towel can spark, especially when soaked in the history and culture that Pasparakis described for me in the course of selling it.

Later songs, including "Terry Cloth Blues," "Am I Wet?" and "Hail to the Salesperson," pretty much wrote themselves during the towelling process.

In the Doc Project docu-musical "Towel of Song," Tom Howell is faced with an existential question about his Turkish towel. Backup vocals by Acey Rowe, Pete Morey, Veronica Simmonds, Lindsay Michael and Justin Uzielli. 1:06

The more time a person spends towelling, the more their mind tends to wander to new and beautiful places, as I hope these chansons de serviette amply demonstrate.

And as for what hangs in my bathroom? Both kinds. A fitting gesture to the possibility of peace even in these difficult times.

Over the Years, from the docu-musical Towel of Song

The Doc Project

2 years ago
1:14
Go behind the scenes with The Doc Project host Acey Rowe and Tom Howell while they record the song Over the Years from the new docu-musical Towel of Song. 1:14

About the Producer

Tom Howell is a panellist on Because News, CBC Radio's comedy news quiz. He also jointly presents an ongoing series of documentaries about Canadian PhD students, called Ideas from the Trenches. His semi-fictional book about the English language is The Rude Story of English.

This documentary was edited by Acey Rowe.

Special thanks to backup singers Lindsay Michael, Elizabeth Bowie, Veronica Simmonds, Julian Uzielli and Pete Morey, and to tech Evan Kelly.

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