Go to a banya, like a Russian sauna? I’d said yes before the words really sunk in. Smiling and nodding to show I’d found the thought of being naked in front of random women perfectly normal, I immediately started to think how I could get out of the invitation.
After six weeks of being pretty much ignored by my co-workers, I befriended one colleague, who took it upon herself to fill the last week of my internship. It would probably have made more sense if we’d d taken our friendship slowly, but that’s clearly not how the Russians do things. In one day, we went from coffee after work to naked sauna.
I met my colleague by her local metro station. I like to think I did a very good job of seeming nonchalant about my impending doom as we chatted on our walk to the banya. The building was impressive: huge, dark, and tiled from floor to ceiling. Each stairwell landing had a large mosaic pieces depicting various scenes of Moscow. I resisted the urge to take photos; I wanted to be as inconspicuous as possible.
We paid 600 rubles (£12) for two hours at the Izmailovskaya Banya, but prices depend on how prestigious the sauna is. The best one, according to my companion, costs over 1200 rubles for two hours. The banya tradition is a big part of Russian culture, to the extent that children are allowed to enter the hot rooms. Is it not a little bit dangerous to let kids sit in rooms heated to boiling point? Apparently not. Just one of many quirks of the health and safety code here in Russia.
We undressed in a large wooden cabin. There wasn’t much privacy so we stripped for the world to see, leaving clothes and belongings strewn across the benches. Feeling incredibly vulnerable and odd-looking in my towel and woolly hat, I followed my friend into the banya.
The first room was like a giant bathroom. A few showers lined the walls, and several benches were topped with big, water-filled buckets and bunches of leaves tied together for massaging. Everything was tiled in various tones of blue, and the room was cool, in stark contrast to the steamy wood-panelled hot room. And, boy, was it hot! Sitting on my towel and baring all, I soon forgot to be embarrassed about people seeing me naked; I was more focused on not fainting due to the heat.
After ten minutes of boiling in my skin, I was ushered out of the sauna, handed a dustpan and a brush, and told to ‘be quick’. I swept up the leaves that were scattered throughout the sauna as fast as the heat would allow me to while my friend mopped the floor behind me. We then poured the buckets of cool water over ourselves before being rushed back into the sauna.
I couldn’t handle the embarrassment of losing consciousness in a sauna.
Lying on the floor uncomfortably close to other people’s boobs, I contemplated how surprisingly nice the water was when burning hot air started wafting over me. I raised my head to watch a staff member violently wave a towel to spread the hot air throughout the room. She interspersed towel spinning with hurling scoops of aromatherapy oil at the walls. In the midst of appreciative groans from those around me, I concentrated on breathing; I couldn’t handle the embarrassment of losing consciousness in a sauna.
After drinking a bottle of water and going through the sauna-pool process a few more times, I’d forgotten that strangers could see everything and actually started to enjoy myself. Later, when we were out on the street again, I realised how relaxed I felt. The routine of boiling, cooling, and trying not to faint may not have been completely stress-free, but I left feeling refreshed and rejuvenated. I will definitely be going to a banya again. Hell, maybe you’ll even see me on a nudist beach next summer!
Image Courtesy: chadmiller