My dad was here, and then he left. The next batch of posts is in the order I felt like writing them, which is not necessarily the same order in which they happened. In fact, this first one is about the last thing I did. I went to the Russian banya!
The banya is a time honored tradition in Russian culture, a ritual cleansing of toxins and beating by birch branches. Our journey to the banya began with the ceremonial gathering of supplies, namely water, beer, fruits, and nuts. Armed with the essentials, we searched somewhat aimlessly for thirty minutes until we stumbled upon the heavy oak doors of the fabled Sanduny banya, which was established in 1808 and has been servicing the inhabitants of Moscow ever since.
Inside, the air was a cool relief from the muggy Moscow heat (shocking, I know, but Russia does get steamy in the summer). The floors were a mosaic of blue and white ceramic tiles; the walls were a soft wash of cream; the window where we paid was a little booth of polished hardwood. We bought four tickets and ventured further into this lair of luxury, eager to glimpse the opulence that awaited us.
We were not disappointed. Inside the women’s banya stood comfy booths upholstered in rich leather. We were shown to our own row, and as we shed our outdoor clothing, freshly laundered plush towels of forest green were laid out for us. We slid our feet into soft and spongy slippers, wrapped out hair in even softer pink towels, and shuffled into the banya.
The banya itself has several elements apart from the antechamber of relaxation. Sanduny banya opened with a spacious room reminiscent of a Roman bath. There were marble topped benches in a row at the center of the room, which was lined on both sides of its length with open shower booths. To the right of the entrance were two large wooden tubs brimming with cool water, and against the right wall there was a bucket near the ceiling with a cord you could pull to douse yourself with an icy splash. Far to the left there were stairs leading up to a standing pool, the water of which was flavored with essence of eucalyptus. The whole room was steamy but not hot, and women walked around covered in mud masks or yogurt exfoliants.
We rinsed off the city grime, and then entered the hot room of the banya. This room resembles what Americans know as a sauna. To the left of the door was a coal fire, and nearby stood wooden benches covered with buckets of water, jars of eucalyptus, and swatches of supple birch branches. A wooden staircase to the right led to a raised wooden platform with a slatted floor that ran the length of the wall opposite the door. This staircase we mounted and upon these slats we sat, as sitting in the heat of any of the higher benches would have been simply unbearable. The floor around us was soon covered with other women and their towels, and for a moment we all sat there waiting for the room to be ready.
Presently the door closed, and a woman of about thirty clad in a toga-like sheet and wearing a little wool beanie began throwing water onto the rocks. Again and again she ladled cool water onto the heated rocks, and every now and then she flicked a ladleful up over our heads. She added more eucalyptus to the water, and with a muttered warning of “Your eyes, ladies,” she through large spoonfuls over our now gently perspiring bodies. If you raised your arm just over your head, it was possible to feel the air building up heat and humidity. Suddenly, our master of ceremonies whipped off her sheet and began spinning it through the air. Faster and faster her arm whirled. Her quick movements stirred the ether like a spoon stirs soup, and the heat fell down from the ceiling to rest on our now dripping bodies. As the heat enveloped us, so did the steam, and soon nothing was visible through the stupor and breathing seemed like a labor of Herculean effort. My body shuddered with a second of panic that I couldn’t suck any oxygen out of the room, and then everything relaxed into a soft haze of sweat and mushy muscles. Those who couldn’t stand it for another second escaped to the cold showers and pools waiting outside, but I couldn’t imagine rising to make that journey. I watched as droplets of sweat fell from my legs, hit the floorboards, and evaporated. I lost track of time, and after what seemed like eternity, or one second, I gathered by towel about my boiling skin and began to edge out of the room.
As soon as I stood, the heat toward the ceiling struck me like a medicine ball to the chest. I used my towel as a shield, but the heat was vicious and unrelenting. It chased me down the stairs and out the door. In the shower room, I gulped deep breaths of air and spooned cool water all over my body with my hands. My plush slippers flapped around the tiled floor, dreamily following the equally languid movements of my friends. We drifted out of the banya back to our leather booth, where we sipped our beer and nibbled on nuts and raisins and waited for our bodies to readjust to the air outside the steaming room.
After another unnoticed amount of time had slipped by, we again braved the boiling room, this time armed with ven’iki, the birch branches and leaves. We took turns beating each other with the twigs, a practice which is supposed to draw toxins closer to the surface of the skin and then release them in capsules of sweat. The beatings really just turn your skin an angry, patchy red, and swirl the air about the room faster. Hearts palpitating from the effort and the heat, we fled the hot room and stood under the bucket of freezing water, periodically pulling the cord to release it down on us with a splash. Back to our booth, back to the hot room, into the eucalyptus pool. We were like nymphs; we were like mermaids. We were four happy girls enjoying an afternoon at a two-hundred-year-old spa. We were dripping with streams of sweat, opening our pores, drenching ourselves with the softness that can only be attained after hours in the banya. We were so soft! Even after our three hours were up, we wafted out onto the street glowing with softness. We carried it all the way to Teremok, our favorite fast-food pancake stand, where we delicately chowed down on fat blini filled with mushrooms and cheese. Forget the grease, the city grit, the overnight train ride home – I’m still soft and glowing.