Set me free, sleep come free me …

For some reason I have not made the 8-hour transition to Russian time so sleep has been elusive, and the debt piles up. I work long hours here, and after the obligatory meal, I toss and turn. So I jumped at the idea of an exhausting banya before bed. It turns out to be a very Russian, and very male, affair. Dima assured me we are going to a ‘VIP’ banya, and by the time the class sifts out at the end of the day, it is Sergei, Sascha, Dmitriy – 3 very large men and my diminutive self.

Standing at the warped door in the muddy back yard does not look promising, but then little does in Russia. The architecture on the front streets is amazing – the pipes and tiles on the inner courtyards reveal the real state of things: the ongoing neglect, the increasing disparity between the rich and poor that led to the economy grinding to a halt in the US. Inside, the décor downstairs is 50’s gym.

We are given what amounts to a couple of thin hospital sheets and shown to the small changing rooms upstairs. The lounging rooms are walled with 70’s ribbed paneling, the furniture an unfortunate and tired Spanish modern, the art is Maxfield Parrish meets Grimm Brothers meets Motel 8. There is a small 30’s-style (probably last felted then too) pool table. The Russian version of pool seems to allow you to hit any ball toward any other; the cue ball is irrelevant after the first breaking shot. These three guys’ huge frames tower over the table, and they hit the balls too hard to sink them, frequently jumping the table.

The banya, however, is the real thing, an old oven with darkened wood seats like a sauna. They insist that it is not a sauna, but it is at least as hot at a sauna (80 degrees C), and you throw water on hot rocks, and there is a cold plunge pool just outside. Back and forth we go – banya, plunge pool, pool table – until I am dizzy and dreamy. For those of us familiar with joys of a real wood Finnish sauna (as opposed to those annoying electrical or infrared ones), the unique feature of banya, it seems, is to be beaten about the body with branches. The favored birch not being available, my friends use ‘doob’ – a form of round-leaved oak, as far as I could see. The tied-together twigs, about the size of a tennis racket, are covered in soft-leaves and soaked first, so it is not a seriously scratchy operation. The method involves shaking the water out of the leaves over your body, and then thumping you resoundingly (lest anything other than brotherly love be implied) in various patterns.

I was told that I was done in Siberian style, and then some other style of an old Russian region whose name I could not transliterate, but if there was a difference to the pattern or vigor of the slaps and whacks, I could not discern it. Red, stimulated, and eyes wandering in my head all at the same time, I was glad I did not have to drive. Dima, of course, wanted to go eat and have vodka after this, but I put my foot down, drawing on my seniority and status as a presenter, and insisted on being dropped at the hotel, where I finally fell deeply and immediately asleep, having only the presence of mind to ask for a wake up call (itself a fraught activity over the phone – finally I just went to the desk, mimed phone, and wrote down 8 o’clock. The call came at 8:15 – on time Russian style.)

TOMAC MANEPC(my name in Cyrillic)


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