Tuesday, November 19, 2013


So I finally took part on one of the major social/public health activities in this part of the world: I want to the banya.

A banya is a Russian-style sauna. Sometimes they're just standard boxes with coals; often they're big complexes with different rooms at different temperatures, cold pools, cool pools (I have yet to find a hot pool), massage options, gyms, cafes, what have you. Jeremy and I went to the big public banya here, which has all that good stuff.
I had a bathing suit, just in case, but Jeremy hadn't brought one. We had a debate as we walked to the banya as to what would be the best way to communicate "do we need bathing suits" when we got to the ticket counter. We decided against just pointing at his crotch and waggling our eyebrows, and instead when we got there, I managed to ask the keeper of the little closet shop near the front door in terrible Russian "Do you have in-the-banya clothes?" She then told me many, many things in Russian that I didn't understand a single bit, but I gathered that she didn't sell them and they weren't necessary. The shop sold bunches of birch twigs and leaves, goggles, and lots of wool hats, which I thought at the time was quite strange.
I was pretty sure, as men and women have separate sections in the complex, that this was a bathing suit free affair, but I checked it out again at the ticket lady by holding up my ratty suit and saying "I have. He doesn't have." Again, a torrent of Russian in a reassuring tone. I felt confident. I think Jeremy, not having the suit, felt a bit less confident at this point, but we shuttled him off anyway and agreed to meet back in an hour.
In the banya, you're issued slippers and an orange sheet, which none of the old ladies walking around could be bothered to wear, and a key for a locker to put your stuff in. In case the walk from the ticket counter has made you thirsty, there's a cafe with beer on tap inside the locker room. I changed and tied my sheet under my armpits like a towel, but I felt like a weirdo all covered up while most of the other ladies sauntered around naked except for their wooly hats. To fit in, I gradually lowered the sheet to hang around my waist and held it not-at-all-casually there for a while.
You could exit the locker room through one of two wooden doors that gave no indication what lay beyond them. Opening a door to the unknown while mostly naked is a kind of stress I have not experienced before. I sort of hovered by one door in my sheet, until a woman and her daughter, who had been changing next to me, noticed my distress and herded me through. The next room was like a big, tiled, open locker room, with half walls with spigots arranged through it in arcs. Next to most of them were plastic baskets with brushes and soaps and bunches of leaves. It's like a giant, public grooming facility. There were women scrubbing each other's backs and others consulting on, I don't know, ingrown toenails, or drying each other's hair. It was nice. It was like stepping back into some communal, social bathing scene that I imagine must have been the way things were done before there was indoor plumbing and all this silly privacy. Ha.

Past the public grooming area were the sauna rooms. They were lovely--the wood smelled great, the leaves the ladies were beating themselves with smelled great. I guess you have to buy them at the front entrance, so alas, I went unwhipped. But I got to watch fleshy old ladies, red-faced under their pointy hats, rhythmically slap themselves on the back with branches while they gabbed with other sweaty ladies reclining on the highest steps of the sauna, up in the heat that I don't think I could take. Lots of mothers had brought their daughters, and they'd take turns with the old ladies swatting the little girls and then swatting themselves. Droplets of sweat flew through the air with each application of the branches, settling on everyone nearby and joining our own trickles of sweat on their way to the wood floor. 

The large grooming room also had a number of wooden doors to pick from, these ones labeled in Russian, so I could tell what I might find behind most of them. One led to the Turkish hamam, which I thought might have a hot tub, so I went through it, found myself in a long hallway with lots of other doors and a fully clothed female vendor selling fruit juice. I found the hammam eventually, but there was no water to be had, just a large, domed, tiled room with soft light and ladies in sheets lying on marble slabs. Some small rooms off to the side seemed to have...private marble slabs? I guess a lot of time in the banya is spent resting in between sauna sessions and cool baths. Not being in the mood for a nap, I went back to find some water to immerse myself in.

Eventually, I came upon a big, cool pool at the other end of the complex. That was it for water, at least as far as I could find. I swam around naked in the cool pool a bit, which was nice, then went back to the sauna, took a shower, went to the pool, took a shower again, and it was time to go. I envied the ladies sitting around, exfoliating their heels together. Next time, I'll bring a basket of my own goodies and linger for a while.

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