The institution of public banya (traditional bath houses) in post-Soviet Russia has grown a long beard of mythology, but has fallen into obscurity in practical terms. During the Soviet Union times, when each apartment housed several families, and sharing one tub between 20 people was very tricky business, the public banyas were located in every neighborhood, and everyone went there on a regular basis (once a week? once a month?). In fact, I can see an old banya from the window of my parents' flat as I'm writing this. I'm not sure if the building is used now -- for years, it just stood there, boarded up and growing grayer and shabbier by the year. If it's used now, it might be a flower shop or a casino. The banya in front of my cousin's house is also closed up, used as a place of refuge for the homeless and the drunk. Does repurposing of old banyas require an unusual amount of work? (real estate is not cheap in SPb anymore) -- or is this because everyone is still secretly hoping that the banyas will come back to life?
Many reasonably wealthy people who have their own dachas or country houses also build private banyas on their properties. They usually build more Finnish-style saunas rather than Russian banyas -- I think they must be easier to make and maintain in modern houses -- but some go the extra length to create the authentic banya. The thing is, it's not simply an engineering problem, banya is also a tradition and, as I'm learning, can be an art. My family doesn't really practice (although my parents have a sauna in the basement of their dacha). Most of my friends use showers for everyday convenience. Until last year, I wasn't even aware that any public banyas still survived in Petersburg. I got invited to go last year by my friend Polina, who is an expatriat from Moscow, and a banya enthusiast. She took me to the public banya last year, and once again last night -- but she herself and her partner Konstantin (my classmate from grade school) go twice every week, on Thursdays and Sundays.
Polina complains: "In Moscow, people know what banya is all about," she says. "Here, people sit on the benches and hit themselves with birch branches, but what's the use if there's no steam?" I take off my clothes and my glasses -- and I become a child lost in the big world. She takes off her clothes, leads me to the washing room, picks up a bucket for the two of us, fills it up with hot water, throws the birch branches in to loosen up, hands me a hat. "Let's go into the parilka -- the steam room -- to warm up." First time we go in, we stay for a few minutes just to look around: the room is crowded this Sunday evening, most of the places on the benches closest to the stove are taken, but the steam is low to non-existent. It's just hot, but there's no humidity in the air. I don't feel any of this -- I just feel the heat, but Polina does. "Okay," she says, "let's make some steam."
We go back to the washing room, shower in cold water -- she remembers to take the hat off my head, I'm a newborn babe, completely helpless. "Sit down, rest, drink some water," she says. "You haven't been here in a year, you'll get tired. I'll do everything and then call you." I drink mineral water -- she had provided me with a two-liter bottle -- and watch as she disappears back into the steam room. The women file out of it immediately: she needs to open the doors and windows to air the room out, to dry it out first. Then she throws cold water on the hot stones, washes the room out of the birch leaves and sweat, starts throwing wood into the stove, sets out armoatic spices on the stone and on the backs of the wooden benches. First round, the smell is chamomile. When she waves me to come back in (I remember to put on my hat again), the steam in the room fogs up the lenses of my eyes (I'm not wearing glasses!) -- it's hot, hot! once I remember to close my mouth (my throat is burning), I start to smell the spice -- chamomile. "Take some with your hands, crush it between your fingers, smell it, massage it into your face, skin," Polina advises. The room is crowded again, all the women are back, all of them are fascinated by Polina's activities. "Go ahead, all of you, try this, there's enough for everyone!" Polina has her fan club among the regular banya visitors, women who come back every Thursday and Friday, who help out to wash and air out parilka before the new steam. They tell me, "Polina, she's such an amazing girl, there's no one like her, we are so lucky to have her here." They worry about her and wish her well: "Does she have a good husband?" they ask me. "She deserves the best. Anyone would be lucky to be with her." I speak up, yes, yes, she is an amazing friend, and her husband is a good one, of the best kind.
Polina has time to make four or five steams this night. First, with chamomile, second, with wormwood -- Artemisia absinthium -- a grass, from which absinthe is made. Polina regrets doing this one so early: too many people in the parilka, not enough steam, we didn't get to have the full experience, should've done this one last. She follows wormwood up with lemon and mint -- mint feels cool on my cheeks and lips, on my hands and breasts -- then with orange blossoms and mint. Between the rounds in the parilka, we rub things into our skin. Honey, later oil with salt from the Dead Sea (Polina and Konstantin went to Israel twice this year, are still using the stuff they bought there), followed up with coffee grains. We run out of time to use the mud from the Dead Sea, but no worries, save it for next time. Once you rub honey all over your body, you go to stand in the parilka for a few minutes -- we don't sit down or use birch branches this time, just stand there, wait until your body washes the honey off your body with sweat. Leave the parilka -- cold shower -- wait a few minutes until Polina organizes the new steam. New steam, sweat, birch branches, then new skin cleansing procedure. Oil clings to the body, no way to get it off -- no need to get it off. Coffee grains absorb some of it but not all, coffee exfoliates, enriches.
Everyone asks Polina: "What does this do? What is this good for?"
But Polina doesn't like to explain: in Moscow banyas it's forbidden to talk in the first place. Here, everyone gabs. Why is it forbidden to talk? Who knows, banya is a ritual, it is the way it is.
As the evening progresses, the washing room empties and only Polina's fans are still there. It's almost 10:30 pm, time to close up, but even the lady who watches over the womens' baths -- her name is also Olya -- she is also Polina's fan, she accommodates, waits, until Polina gets her reward. Here's the ultimate banya experience: parilka is steaming with the last round of added heat and water. One of the women still there turns out to have lots of experience, she asks Polina to lie down on the bench (on the towel spread across the hot! hot! wood), takes the two brooms of birch branches into both hands, starts slapping them across Polina's back, asks me to bring a tub of ice-cold water. When I come back with it, she's almost done. With the last, swift movement, she pours the water over Polina's backside. "Oh my god!!" Later, in the car, Konstantin is driving me home, Polina says, this was an orgasmiс experience, no other words to describe it. "I haven't had a steam this good in years," she says. After this supreme gesture of gratitude and good will, we file out of the steam room and go take the final showers, wash our hair, throw out the used up birch branches, go get dressed.
Polina goes to the banya twice a week. But this week she might go to Moscow, and I might go to Moscow the week after.
It's snowing today. The first snow of the season. It was warm and sunny all day yesterday, and all of us, Polina and Konstantin included, walked in the woods around my parents dacha and I found two maslyenka, an oily mushroom, Boletus luteus. But today the sky is gray, and snowflakes have been getting progressively heavier all morning.