There’s nothing like a good old-fashioned beating to liven up your complexion.
At least that’s what they told me (“they” being the Russian staff at the volunteer house). I knew from the start I couldn’t leave Russia without a trip to a bath house, and as soon as I mentioned it to Viktor and Natalya, the decision was made for me. I was going.
On the way to the banya, my mind was full of images of Viggo Mortensen rolling around on the floor naked in a knife fight, à la Eastern Promises. Wrinkly men, prison tattoos, Turkish tiles, etc. My two American companions and I stood on a cramped bus #87, bouncing along pot-holed roads in the back neighborhoods of Yaroslavl, laughing about naked Viggo and how-the-hell-are-we-going-to-find-this-place. Thanks to the help of half the people on the bus (each shouting out their various ideas of which bus stop would be better), we were ushered off at the doorstep of a nameless spa.
We entered the front gate to a small open air courtyard, climbed a staircase to a balcony on the second floor, and passed through a doorway to a dark room. The place reminded me of some of our seedy local bars in New Jersey: dimly lit, a large pool table in the center of the room, everything a vague shade of forest green.
A woman emerged from a back room. “Reservation for three people? Follow me.” We were led down another staircase to an area that, thankfully, looked a lot more like an actual spa. We passed through another doorway to our private room.
“Here you are. Sauna is on the right, you’ll find your birch branches in there. Pool is on the left. Showers over there. Here’s the sound system.” She turned on some sort of karaoke machine to a techno/pop music station. David Guetta burst out of the speakers. “Enjoy your rest!” she said with a smile, and then left us.
The place was nice. Really nice. We bought a bottle of champagne to share. We ran around squealing with glee. We popped open the bottle, poured out three glasses, and said a toast “to Russia.” And then we finally exhaled, letting go of some of the pent-up stress we didn’t even realize we had carried with us.
We changed into our bathing suits and began the Banya Process*.
Step 1: Sauna
The sauna was just a small room with an old fashioned stove covered with hot rocks. There were three large wooden steps on which we could sit or lay. And on the floor was a large bundle of leafy branches, resting in a yellow bucket full of water. The heat was borderline uncomfortable. I felt it the strongest on my face, as if someone was blowing a hair dryer at my eyes. We sat and chatted as long as we could stand the temperature (maybe ten minutes).
Step 2: Shower
Because we were sweaty.
Step 3: Cold Pool
This is where I nearly chickened out. I don’t do well with cold. I should have just jumped in, like my friends did, but I didn’t. I did the toe-dip. Bad idea. It was freezing (at least by my wimpy standards). I lowered myself into the water on the step ladder inch by inch, yelping and whining all the way down. Finally I dunked myself, shrieked, and scurried out, running to the comfort of the sauna.
Rinse and Repeat (adding birch branch beatings and champagne breaks as needed)
During our second round in the sauna, we decided to try out the branches. I was the lucky guinea pig. I laid face-down on one of the wooden steps and braced myself as a nervous Renee wielded a dripping bundle of branches over me. “Tell me if this hurts. Use your words, Meghan.”
Then she proceeded to beat me. And you know what? I liked it.
We took turns lashing each other with the branches, moving back and forth between the rooms, pausing to enjoy another glass of champagne now and then. At this point I’d gotten used to the icy pool and the branch beatings and techno Britney Spears remixes in the background. None of us wanted to leave.
After two hours of relaxation, it was time to go. We swore we’d come back with the whole group of volunteers, after rubbing in their faces what a good time they’d missed out on. I made the decision that, if I ever have a bachelorette party, it would be at a banya. Might rethink that one later.
* Unofficial Banya Process, that is. I really don’t know if there is a formal order to it, this is just what seemed to work for us.