Saturday, February 9, 2013

Now we're clean

I really love Russian baths. I’m such an expert, now that I’ve had my second one. But there are lots of rules and I broke at least one of them by returning to the banya for more than three sessions. I think I got most of the rest of the rules about right: Stay hydrated, wear funny hat, flog self with birch boughs, remove birch leaves before swimming, repeat…

Sergey and Irina have a wonderful traditional wood-fired banya. It’s a whole lot of work. It starts in spring, when somebody harvests birch juice. I don’t know if Sergey harvests his own, but in any event he stocks up when it’s available. Later in the spring, he gathers up birch boughs and ties them into bundles. Also in the warm weather, he chops up a prodigious amount of wood. Finally, about three hours before bath time, he builds a fire and keeps it going until the room gets good and hot. The family lays out a table with snacks, birch juice and tea. Finally, guests arrive.

We missed our transport and people were already warming themselves when we arrived. I put on my hammer-and-sickle hat and plunged in. Irina suggested that I put my flip-flops outside: She didn’t want them melted onto the floor. Alla told me that my silly hat would keep my brains from baking. Over birch juice, Stёpan told me that the hats were to trick our brains into allowing us to stay in the heat longer. I like his explanation better, but I tried not to be crazy about how long I stayed in the heat. The room-temperature pool felt so excellent anyway.

I really wanted to get a picture of the banya after we were all finished. Birch leaves littered all horizontal surfaces evenly, and it presented a wonderful picture of the way I felt. Unfortunately, my camera lens fogged over the instant I brought it into the banya so I’ll just have to give you a couple pictures of steamy people. We had a lot of fun.

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