Last week there was another American here with whom I went to most of the cultural programs (aka museums and theatre) that the language program arranged. She told me that she was planning to try banya for her second time and did I want to come too?
For those who don't know about banya, it is a quintessential Russian experience. The uncle of my house mother told me he never goes to "apteka" (the pharmacy) because he goes to banya, i.e. it's good for your health. For men, banya traditionally also involves vodka and singing songs but apparently for women that's "nilzya" (not permitted). Here's the other thing - banya involves both group nudity and being beaten with birch branches (venik. wikipedia.com explains a bit under Banya. I am currently unable to link) Neither of which are particularly interesting to me.
But, I am currently immersing myself in Russian language and culture, and can such immersion be completed without a trip to banya?
Saturday after class, the other American and I decided yes, we're doing this. Our plan was to stop by my place to drop off what I didn't need, pick up what I did need, and then we'd head to the banya next door to her place.
When we got to my place, my house mother was there. We told her our plan and asked what we absolutely needed. She loaned us the towels and shower shoes and we started packing up. Then her uncle came home and started giving his advice. This place is better than that place, the one you want to go to uses machine created steam but this other place uses real water-poured-on-stones. You have to go there. He even insisted on calling to make sure they were open, rather than his neice, because he's the professional and we're only amateurs.
They determine the place is open, and open for women (sometimes it's different days) and off we go. A good quote from our departure when they were all worried about us in the dark on our own "You may be a mama at home but here he's the papa."
We find our way without too much trouble, luckily our bus came very soon after we got to the bus stop. At the banya, we buy our tickets and I buy my venik (apparently, when the other American went to banya the first time, she and her friends befriended some babushkas and the older ladies beat the girls with their own).
There's one other woman there when we walk in. The setup is one large room with benches and hooks for your stuff, it's roughly normal temp; the next room is what I'll call the "wet room", it is warm enough to be naked and has rows of stone benches, a whole bunch of basins like what you'd wash your hand washables in, a few open showers, and a bunch of drains in the floor; and the third room is the banya - think something sauna-ish, almost painfully hot, dark, wooden benches etc.
Trying not to look too stalkerish, I mean the woman was naked, we watched what that one other woman was doing out of the corner of our eyes. First we soak the venik. The advice we had gotten, literally, ranged from cold water, to warm, to hot. We went with cool - filled one of the basins with water then stuck the venig in it. When the other woman went into another room, I casually put my hand on the side of her basin. Definitely warm-to-hot. We add hot water to our basin. Time to head into the banya.
It is almost hard to breathe, so hot in there. The woman said she had just poured the water onto the hot stones so we didn't need to. She also admonished us for not having hats and said we'd be too hot without them (?!?) We had a watch so we could see how long we were there. After 7 minutes sweat poured from both of us and we decided it was time to head out for a breather. Back in the wet room we splashed water on ourselves to cool off a bit and drank some water. Then, back to the banya. This time we stayed 10 minutes. After our 2nd trip out, we decided it was time for the venik. By this time there were several other women there, so we walked into the banya, held up the venig, and asked "shto delaet?" (what to do with this?) One of the ladies took the thing, explained how to stand and then proceeded to beat me with the hot, wet birch branches. It's more massagey that it sounds. Then she had me beat the other American. This is probably the most surreal part of the entire experience.
Then comes the downside. We head back out to the wet room and I am seeing darkness and stars - preclude to a blackout. I sit and try to come back to life, it isn't happening, I stumble into the cooler locker room and eventually all is well again. During the episode I started to panic, what on earth will happen if I do actually pass out? We were alerted the banya was pretty open so we only brought our ID, banya-stuff, and a bit of money. No phones, credit cards, or anything useful in an emergency.
I chalk up the lightheadedness episode to my low blood pressure, as one of the alleged benefits of banya is how it makes the blood vessels expand and constrict (because they need exercise too?)
After I recover, it's time to shower and get ready to leave. One of the women showering next to us had "oil for banya" she let us try, smelled really nice. Some women make a day of it, with a full panoply of beauty products, oils and lotions and exfoliators and more. We saw fruit and bottles of water in the locker room. Assuming the doc clears me to do this again, I just might go some time in Piter. After all, I already have my venik!