Trip Start Feb 24, 2005
39Trip End Jul 06, 2005
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This is a Russian banya, a sauna not for the faint hearted. Albina and I enter the dark concrete building, and the inner door is opened by Tanya; fat, naked, and grinning. I am ushered into the changing room and told to undress. Albina ties a scarf around my head and leads me into the steam room. She pats a place on the bench for me to sit, and introduces me to the six other naked women in the room. They laugh and chatter, I smile, and soon we are all dripping rivulets of sweat and looking like steamed crawfish.
Out we go into the cold pool! The women cannonball into the small pool, screaming, laughing, cackling. They jump up and dowm, flesh jiggling, singing songs and laughing fit to burst. Of course I too laugh, and grin from steamed ear to steamed ear
Back to the boiler room! Tanya slaps my back, gives me the thumbs up sign, and pours more water on the hot rocks. The heat soon doubles, triples. Russian extreme is no joke. I have beeen in hot saunas before, but never like this.
Albina lays my towel across the hot wooden planks and instructs me to lie flat on my belly. She and Luba take the besoms - broom like fans made from leaves - and with them begin to slap my naked skin from toes to head. The besoms not only create a hot wind as they come down on my flesh, but they themselves are wet and incredibly hot. The women laugh as I shriek. I laugh from the hilarity and pain of it, a raucous, belly laugh, the laugh of a girl being beaten and cooked by a legion of naked Russian women. I am turned over, instructed to cover my breasts, and the boiling beating is continued. Just when I think I may die, though still laughing, I am pulled to my feet and dumped into the cold pool. All the women laugh as I emerge from the water gasping, laughing, crying, and covered in red and white blotches. "Good! Good! Strong woman!" they cheer.
I am toweled dry by two of the women, and still naked, brought into a room in which there is a table covered in foods; black Russian breads, cucumbers with dill and parsley, grated and pickled carrot, ham, chicken. I am given a very big tortilla-like item, to use like an edible plate
I am at a table of naked women, drinking toasts, with fingers greasy from chicken and pickled carrots. One woman starts singing in a beautiful, rough voice, and the other women listen with pleasure for a moment and then join in. They raise thier voices and thier glasses. Jokes are told. Men are cursed or praised, babies talked about in cooing tones. We eat and eat, all the while vodka is poured. I take to pouring water in my glass when I think no one is looking, but I am observed - heads are shaken, more vodka is poured, and I am made to make up for lost drinking time.
What a delight to the senses this is; new foods, new language, songs, laughter, hot, cold! It is no wonder Albina looks foward to her Friday banyas so much. "Once you are in banya, no more worry. Only friends. Only fun. Only relax. Door close, no problem."
There have been several traditions I would like to adopt and take home with me; Romanian Easter, Polands Women's day tulips, Germanys music, Finlands after dinner sauna, and now the Russian banya.
After eating and drinking, all the Friday banya women squeeze into the steam room for one last round. They take turns beating each other with the besoms, and finally spend the last half hour of the banya scrubbing themselves impossibly clean. Tanya grabs a scrub sponge, leans me over the pool ledge, and scrubs and scrubs. She grabs handfuls of coffee grounds and rubs them into my skin; back, face, legs, arms, belly. She daintily paints my coffee covered face with scented honey, lathers my hair with flower shampoo, sends me to the steam room one last time, then when I am good and cooked she rinses me clean. I am toweled dry, helped to dress, patted, praised, kissed on both cheeks. The other women squeeze my hands, pat my head, sing to me. I feel like a little princess, maybe the cleanest, most pink, well fed, and vodka saturated princess ever to find herself in Russia.
Outside husbands wait. They smile, kiss thier happy wives, pour vodka into plastic cups, and we drink a round in the parking lot. After a lot of joking, laughing, and banter, Albina, Luba, and I are driven to Luba's home. There we must drink another toast, and Luba drags me to her dressing room, where she rummages through her closet, finally finding a ruffled feminine little outfit that she insists I put on and keep. She does my hair, makes up my face, kisses me on both cheeks, teaches me a spirited song, and out we go to the still waiting car.
When Albina and I finally arrive home we are still laughing. We sit at the kitchen table, eat dried fish, and talk our pidgin English until late into the night. Albinas mother, a genuine babushka, wakes just long enough shake her head at us for having been away all day.