My First Time at Russian Banya

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Everything about the Russian’s culture felt fresh and exciting in the early days of our romance, and I wanted to experience all of it.

Banya, for example.  Banya means “Russian sauna” or more generically, “Russian bathhouse.”  There are dozens scattered throughout our area:  from Coney Island to lower Manhattan to the suburbs of New Jersey, banyas provide a gathering place for Russians and non-Russians alike to socialize and relax in sauna rooms and plunge pools.

One Sunday the Russian says, we should go to banya today. For the health! You will love it! “Banya unites people for spending the healthy time together,” he tells me. “We do steam rooms, we hit each other with the birches, it is whole procedure where you clean up your skin, your brain – everything.”

Friends, let me tell you for your own good. Russian banya is hot. Oh so very hot. Unlike saunas you may know from visits to sissy American spas, Russian banyas are heated to temperatures north of 230°F. (There are laws in the U.S. requiring saunas to be heated below 190° F but to these laws Russians say pffffft.) Imagine the most horrific hot summer day you’ve ever experienced, now add about 130 degrees to it. Good. Now imagine sitting in a small wooden room in that temperature squished between Russian men wearing pointy felt hats and assaulting each other with birch branches.

The pointy hats are to protect Russian heads from the brain-melting heat. The birch branches are for stimulating circulation and exfoliating the skin. I think probably it’s something the Russians do to distract themselves from the fact their brains are melting.

There’s something else you need to know about banya, something I had to learn the hard way. Banyas are for socializing and eating food. Eating food triggers a Pavlovian need for vodka (at least in the Russian men I know.) My first outing to banya ends up in a bacchanal so extreme I can’t get out of bed the next day. It was my last great hangover.

That was 12 years ago.

Let me paint the picture: I am sitting in the banya café, upright but barely. With me are seven Russian men in bathing trunks and soggy towels erupting with toasts or songs every couple of seconds. There is the Russian, of course, his best friend Alex, Igor the ex-Soviet army captain, a limo driver, another limo driver, the other limo driver and Timor the tattooed ex-con.

I’m pretty sure at one point both national anthems were sung, and at the end of the night Timor might have tried to kiss me. He was bald and bullet shaped and came up to my chin.  I assume I tried to thwart his advances, but who knows, my motor control was pretty much shot at that point. You can judge, but I had to represent. I did what any red-blooded American girl would have done in a similar situation: I kept up. Legend has it I downed over half a bottle of vodka on my own that night.

I don’t remember waking up the next morning, but according to the Russian my first words were, “That was for the health?”

UPDATE: check out this fascinating and not-at-all funny explanation of Russian prison tattoos (NSFW). If only I could remember what Timor’s looked like. Thanks to the mysterious ex-Soviet behind the Kansas City with the Russian Accent blog  for the link.

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12 Responses to “My First Time at Russian Banya”
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