photo by Tania Teschke
It’s cold, its wet and its slippery out there on those Moscow streets. I have stress running up and down my back and stiffness in my legs from picking my way around the ice of Moscow. I think I have found a solution – become a Banya Babe!
My neighborhood Banya seems friendly to a certain degree. The coatcheck lady and the ticket lady do smile and tolerate the language handicap I present to them. Oh, where did I leave that receipt that says I paid to get in? Without the receipt, no Banya. Once we get by the initial barriers, we of the Western Spa experiences learn to adjust. No aromatherapy, no fluffy towels and robes, no pink painted private changing booths, and no idea where anything is since no readable signs. And should I buy one of those funny bunches of leaves that are soaking in a tub in the changing room?
General pandemonium prevails in the shower room as we head for the sauna. Lots of laughing and calling out to friends around the white tiled hall. Forget loofas, these women are using coffee grounds for scrubbing off their dead skin. Instead of stopping up my plumbing at home, let the Banya with their huge drainpipes, wash away my weekly coffee grounds. Behind a transparent plastic screen, naked Russian attendants are hosing down supine bodies after they have been scrubbed with – I find out later – cornmeal!
We enter the sauna room and oh god! they’ve locked the door! We are in a dark room with long benches climbing up the walls with 25 other women and we are locked in! The Russian woman who locked the door strips down for business. The bathrobe comes off and the bulky asbestos covered gloves come on as she opens – the furnace! A peek around the corner gives me a quick view of the red hot heart of the banya experience. Our attendant gets down to work, throwing a large bucket of water onto whatever is in there, cup by cup, steaming up the room. Our neighbors sit quietly, keeping their heads down under their felt banya hats. My friends and I whisper to each other. Banya tradition, no doubt. Soon we are struggling to keep our butts on the bench as things are heating up quite fast. Finally, the aromatherapy has arrived. Our attendant has moved away from the furnace and is literally throwing essence of eucalyptus onto the ceiling as we all duck the fallout. Smells good, actually, and I take a few sample deep breaths.
Sometime later, we slip out – quietly – as I will wait for another visit to screw up my courage for the ultimate Banya experience. As we head for the showers, the Birch Branch Beaters enter. Now I know what those funny leaf bouquets are for. We close the door on the sounds of wet leaves slapping on bare banya skin.