Monday, February 21, 2011

Steve finally takes a bath

Until now, I’d never taken a proper Russian bath, or “banya.” Surprisingly enough, it turns out that Alla never had either. Sergey and Irina set out to correct that deficiency yesterday. When we approached their house, we saw the smoke already coming from the chimney.
I had no idea this would be such a chore, but it takes three hours to heat this banya with its heavy stone stove. The fire box reminded me of the fire box in a steam locomotive. Sergey fed wood through a low cast-iron door at the back of the stove, and gradually the stone fireplace heated up and warmed the principal room. If I understood properly, the top deck could get up near 100 degrees during a steam flash, which is the temperature of the steam itself.

This being a family occasion, we donned our swimwear and hats. Hats? Yes, hats. It turns out that people wear conical felt hats to provide a cushion of air and prevent baked brains. Alla liked the whole experience so much that she went out today and bought herself her very own banya hat. I learned that there are even hats with goggles built in, but we didn’t require goggles. Anyway, properly dressed, we entered the hot chamber.

The hot chamber is tiered in three levels, with two regular benches and a wider deck at the top. Since heat rises and it was really hot in there, Alla and I stayed on the lower benches, which frustrated Sergey. He wanted us to experience the full magnificence of the place, and we were too wimpy to go up to the top deck. I felt completely baked after a while on the lower deck, and finally made a run for the shower and thence to the pool.
After cooling off a bit, we repaired to a side room where we drank some excellent herbal tea.

Properly refreshed, we returned for another go at the sauna and took another dip in the pool. During all this time, Alla had been looking with interest at the bundle of birch branches Sergey was soaking in a bucket of water. Sergey told Alla that she couldn’t have the birch branches until her third time in the sauna, and Alla thought this represented some rite of initiation and despaired of ever getting the birch branches since this was only her first sauna experience ever. Fortunately, what Sergey meant was the third time in the sauna that day, and he finally flogged her on our third go-round. The birch leaves scented the room as they scrubbed Alla's skin.

Sergey insisted that I go to the top deck for my turn at getting flogged and scrubbed. I made the mistake of putting my face down on the deck and burned myself, even through the towel. The redness disappeared by morning, but the pleasant memories of the banya live on vividly. I really enjoyed my bath.

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