Russian banya

Once I finally got over the worst of the jet lag this week, I finally had a chance to experience some Russian culture.

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.

Soviet-era dacha
Soviet-era dacha

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.”

Smacking branches
Smacking branches

Babushka’s feast

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.

South Beach diet or (gut) bust

Mirror mirror on the wall

Not long ago I was getting ready in the morning and I caught a glimpse of myself in the full-length mirror in my bathroom. “Who the Hell is that?” I wondered, seeing my pale gut sticking out far beyond where I’d ever seen it extend it before.

My daughter, who was brushing her teeth, said, “I don’t like your stomach.” Neither did I. It was time to do something. It was past time to do something.

String bean teen

When I graduated high school, I was 6’6″ (ish) and 165 pounds. When I played basketball (badly) I was easily pushed out of the box. I was simply too light for my height. Over the years, I slowly added weight, but even by the early 21st century, I was still only 185 pounds or so.

In the last couple years, though, the weight has come and come fast. I’ve packed on nearly 30 pounds. On the one hand, I like being bigger. On the other hand, I’d prefer it wasn’t in my gut and my second chin.

It’s not that I was all that overweight, really, but let me put it this way: When I played Wii Fit Plus, my nice lean avatar got a little paunch after I went through the fitness test. Just like me. D’oh!

Taking charge

It’s one thing to have a preference, it’s another thing to do something about. So, when my neighbor said she lost 16 pounds on the South Beach diet, I thought, “well, Hell, maybe I should give it a shot and jump start an improved lifestyle.”

So, that’s just what I’ve been doing for the last few days. Basically, the South Beach diet is a three-phase low-carb, low-sugar, low-fat diet. The first phase, which lasts two weeks, essentially bans dairy, pasta, rice, bread, fruit, juice and lots of other stuff I like. The second phase brings back a smattering of those things, and phase three, which is meant to be indefinite, brings back a few more in moderation.

Here’s how it’s gone:

Day 1:
Boy, all day I really wanted to drink a glass of milk. And a cookie. Or a sandwich. But, what was I going to do, bail on day 1? Of course not. So, I stuck to my guns. For breakfast, I had a couple hard-boiled eggs.

For lunch, I enjoyed a piece of salmon and a salad. It was filling. For a while. In the early afternoon, when I would have gone cookie, I grabbed a bag of pistachios instead. Yay me!

Dinner consisted of pork chops and salad.

Honestly, I was hungry pretty much all day. despite the fact the diet says you shouldn’t be. That’s because it allows you to have snacks, like a small number of nuts, or a bit of low-fat cheese. I had forgotten that bit and despite really wanting a cookie all day, I stayed away. (Ok, I did have a bite of illicit brie.)

Day 2:
In the morning, I ordered up an omelette with mushrooms, cheese and tomato, which kept me full for most of the morning.

For lunch, I filled a salad with chick peas, red beans, tuna and other veggies. That lasted a while, too.

Dinner was fairly lame. I had a can of tuna fish and some scrambled eggs with spinach and mushrooms.

In all honesty, I was already feeling pleased with my healthier eating (cholesterol notwithstanding).

Day 3:
Wednesday began with a repeat of Tuesday’s omelette order. Lunch, again, was a salad stacked with beans and tuna.

For dinner, Cyn and I had a nice big plate of grilled salmon.

Sammy left behind a small bit of chocolate milk, so I quaffed that and immediately regretted it. Not only did I feel guilty, but I even felt a touch ill. It was rich.

Nonetheless, when I weighed myself, I was a couple pounds lighter. Maybe the diet’s working?

Day 4:
Nothing to say. I ate better, but I was still hungry.

Day 5:
Here’s the thing: I was doing great until dinner. Cyn (who is doing the diet with me) and I decided we need to eat something different. We were thinking Indian, since we could still meet our diet needs while eating something other than grilled fish, chick peas and eggs.

Sadly, the Indian restaurant we intended to visit was closed, so we went a Lebanese Taverna instead. What did we find when we sat down? A bowl of bread. Crap.

We tried to avoid it, but couldn’t. After one bit, we switched to whole wheat, about which we felt better. And we tried to order food that stayed within the rules. But, I’m sure we strayed more than we should have.

Oh well. Tomorrow’s another day.