Monday, February 17, 2014

Close Encounters of the Awkward Kind

Even though I’ve touched upon my obsession with the Russian banya, it warrants revisiting, much like the banya itself. Kristen and I have become regulars at the Rzhevskie Bani, which has led to all sorts of opportunities for embarrassment. It turns out that awkwardness abroad can always be amplified if you throw a little nudity into the mix.

Our first venture to the banya found us woefully devoid of the proper accoutrements. The attendant was patient as we asked for flip-flops, towels, and hats, but downright confused when I inquired about vegetarian dumplings.  It seems I had confused vareniki (Ukrainian dumplings) with veniki (a bundle of twigs). If I had been her, I probably would have slapped me across the face with the requested veniki, but I guess it’s hard to get mad at foreigners who look like phalluses.  You see, we had also purchased shapki, flesh-colored hats that immediately call up images of Woody Allen’s turn as a sperm in Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Sex* (*But Were Afraid to Ask).

Even Woody is giving us the side eye
Though this banya is not frequented by foreigners, they were quite welcoming of us, possibly because we were such hard workers. When trying to prematurely enter the sauna, the Banya Boss thrust a bucket at me and asked me to fill it up with water, “and quickly.” Then she slammed the door shut and left us trying to figure out if she’d said hot or cold. I didn’t want to find out what would happen if we screwed up our only task.

She let us shlep the water in, then yelled at us to lay down as she adjusted the temperature to somewhere north of third degree burn levels. Once the 9th circle of Dante’s Inferno had been reached, the banya filled with women and we packed in like naked, sweaty sardines. I guess Kristen and I had already attracted attention with our English because one lady looked around and said, “Where are the foreigners?” I raised my hand guiltily, but they just wanted to ask us where we were from and wish us a good steam.

We thought we had everything figured out by our next visit, but then we were tasked with heating up the sauna, which is done by waving a towel overhead like a helicopter rotor. We gave it the old college try, but our attempts were met with disapproval.

Banya Boss: You’re doing it all wrong!  Follow the rhythm of your heart!
Me: But I don’t know how my heart goes!

My banya prowess was further discredited when everyone started squeezing in. Close quarters led to my forehead making the unfortunate acquaintance of a woman’s hindquarters, and I’m thankful the encounter wasn’t more intimate. Kristen managed to contain her laughter, but that’s probably only because her chest was being squeezed by a vice of hot air. Once we’d passed the realm of “dangerously light-headed,” but just before hitting “comatose,” we escaped for the icy waters of the pool.  Our sauna stamina didn’t go unnoticed, and a couple of Russian women praised us for being “very strong!” I may not have endured the siege of Leningrad, but I’d say taking a Russian arse to the face builds a similar kind of fortitude.

1 comment:

  1. Hahah! Wow, your experiences always make me giggle.