A few months ago I realized I had reached one those “turning points” in a person’s life. This one was when I discovered I lived more of my life away from my home town, than in it.
On Thursday, my guide, Dima, took me to his dacha, which is sort of like an American cabin. As I understand it, in Soviet times people were given a small plot of land on which they could build a 6-meter by 6-meter one-story cabin — or dacha — to get away from the city. It also afforded a chance for Russians to cultivate a small vegetable patch for themselves.
Today, many Russians are expanding their dachas with additional floors. In Dima’s case, he’s also added a banya, or Russian sauna, as a separate building. As Dima explained to me, a real banya is heated by a small wood stove (electric saunas need not apply).
As we prepared the banya, I started thinking about what I was going to wear. I hadn’t brought shorts or a bathing suit with me. As if reading my mind, Dima said, “In Russian banya, we usually just wear towel, but I can give you shorts if you want.”
I didn’t want to seem prudish, so I said a towel would be fine. Then I noticed a string of twigs hanging in the banya.
“What are those?” I asked.
“Those are for massaging in the banya,” he said. He then explained that the bunches of twigs are soaked in hot water to release their aromas and then smacked against the naked backside. “The hot water releases the raisins,” he said. Raisins? What raisins? What kind of freaky things is this.
Days later I realized he didn’t say “raisins,” but “resins.”
While the banya heated up, we returned to the dacha for dinner. Dima’s mother in law was preparing a fresh vegetable salad. She mixed fresh tomatoes, cucumbers and some kind of squash with some oil and salt. It was marvelous to watch this old woman — a classic Russian babushka — put together this colorful and tasty meal in a tiny kitchen powered by a small wood stove. She spoke to me in rapid Russian and even though I clearly didn’t understand a word she was saying, continued to talk to me as if I was family.
As she spoke, I could see most of her teeth were capped in gold. Her face was worn but contented and her white hair contrasted with her colorful dress. I asked if I could take her picture, but she demurred, covering her mouth.
I moved into the next room and sat down with Dima and two of his friends. His mother in law started bringing us the food she had prepared: the tomato salad, borscht, salty pickles, fresh berry juice, fresh tomato juice and fresh bread. It was perfect. We toasted with some cognac and I sat and listened to my host laugh and tell stories with his friends in Russian.
With a naked light bulb hanging from the ceiling (the dacha wasn’t yet finished), it wasn’t hard to imagine this being Soviet Russia where people congregated at home in small groups to share meals and happiness.
Generals v. Genitals
As dinner ended, Dima announced the the banya was ready. As I disrobed, Dima sought again to reassure me. “In Russia we have a saying: ‘There are no genitals in Russian banya.'” I smiled and thought about this. Then I wondered, did he say “genitals” or “generals”?
As I pondered this question (eventually concluding that he actually said “generals”), he continued to reassure me. “A friend in America who loves Russian banya says there this is only for the gays. But here it is normal.”
An image of being sodomized by a bunch of hot wet branches flashed through my mind, but no matter. It was banya or bust.
I stepped into the hot and humid room and was instantly transported to Washington, D.C., in August. And then it got hotter. And hotter. Dima added water and said, “This opens the pores, letting the fat and bad juices out.”
I was all for letting fat seep out of my body, so I sat. Beads of sweat appeared on my skin. Then Dima handed me a woolen hat.
“Are you fucking kidding me?” I thought to myself. A woolen hat? I gave a little laugh and asked, “why a hat?”
“Feel your hair,” he advised. I did and it was scorching hot. I donned the hat and suddenly my head felt surprisingly cooler. Dima put on his own cap, which was shaped as if it were a Soviet pirate’s hat.
Then it was time for the massage. Laying myself down on the towel, Dima shook the wet branches over my skin and then started slapping and massaging. It took me a few minutes to relax, but once I did, it was surprisingly therapeutic. The odors of the branches were sweet and oaky. Then it was time to get hosed down.
Dima sent me into the cold autumn air and had me drop my towel. He then sprayed me with cold water from the hose. It was both shocking and refreshing. Then it was back into banya.
I couldn’t take much more of the heat. My head started to swim and my heart was pounding. I felt drunk… and overheated.
Exiting the room, I sat in the cool air and tried to get the dizziness to pass. I could imagine being rushed to the hospital and having the Russian doctors laugh at me for not being man enough to handle a Russian banya. I could even imagine the put downs, “Clearly there wasn’t a general in this banya! HAHAHA.”
As the dizziness subsided, I returned to the dacha and noticed Dima’s mother in law preparing dessert: small pancakes with fresh jam. While Dima and his friends continued their banyas, I devoured three or four pancakes and then nodded off to a restful sleep on the couch.