September 27, 2012 by dsalkowski
Ah, the birch twigs and the sweat, the tile and steam. There’s no better way to spend a chilly, wet autumn day than in the Russian bath. While I obviously won’t be posting any photos of this experience, I’ll do my best to describe my first trip to the banya.
The first step is to select the correct banya. I went with a few buds from the American group, along with our director, who is a pretty young guy himself, who went to show us the ropes. (“Yes, guys, you’re supposed to take off everything.”) He heard about a sweet deal at the banya where the oligarchi -the new Russians who control all the capital- frequent, so we went there first, and it was a swank joint. Unfortunately, in typical Russian style, for the 4-6 two hour deal, you have to get there at 4:00, and we got there about 15 minutes past the hour. We were also a group of seven Americans; I was similarly denied entrance to a sleazy bar with a Russian acquaintance because I was wearing tennis shoes a few days ago. Some Russians tried to help us shmooze our way in, but no luck.
It’s important to not just walk into any old banya, according to our director, because a lot of them are more or less whorehouses. So after we left the gilded bathhouse, we went to the one banya left in the city with natural, wood-fired heating. We got a pol-lux room, which translates roughly to “half-VIP” to change in and for snack breaks. If you want to last in the banya you’ve got to have some good snack breaks. Anyways, the bath is basically a rotation between the extremely hot, humid sauna and the freezing cold little pool. Then there’s the flashy amenities: namely the cool little felt elf-hat (mine had a dragon on it!) and the birch twigs. The twigs are the kind of kinky part I guess, and you just sort of whip yourself with it while you’re in the sauna and supposedly relaxes you and refreshes you a bit. Anyways, this is one particular national peculiarities which I plan to simulate in the sauna at Lewis & Clark when I return – minus the birch twigs probably. I’ve never felt so relaxed as I do right now.
I am also feeling pretty relaxed because my host mother cooked another great dinner. Russia isn’t particularly renowned for its food, because it is pretty much devoid of gimmicks – would Chinese food be so popular if it weren’t for the great American institution of the China Buffet, or would Mexican restaurants get the same kind of business without the unlimited chips? – but I have been eating quite well here. While I broke my three and a half year stint of vegetarianism when I came here, there are a lot of tasty options, most notably the wide array of dairy items available here. Kefir, ice cream, lots of yogurt, and my favorite: sirok. This has a more internationally known equivalent, I think, but it is basically a block of a substance somewhere between cream cheese and vanilla icing with about the amount of fat as in a Happy Meal, and it is delicious. Luckily, food prices in the grocery store are about half of what you would pay in the States.
I have had some good bonding experiences with my host brother, as well. We can communicate pretty effectively, as he has grown accustomed to my lexicon, and he has introduced me to a few of his friends, as well, one of whom made blini, or Russian pancakes/crepes the other night. We also met a few other interesting characters that night, as well. It was a lovely afternoon, probably the last, so my buddy Tadhg came over and we did some busking. In general, the competition isn’t to stiff for street performing here; the biggest draws tend to be the Native American guys playing panpipes. Sometimes the local gulpnik (drunk) will add some flavor to their performance.
Anyways, we played some of our original tunes for a bit, along with some other American songs and a bit of a Russian song that we kind of know, me on guitar, Tadhg on melodica, both of us singing. My host brother and his friend Katya stopped by for a bit. Then, some strange, middle-aged man paid us a visit. He gave us a few rubles, so we were amenable, and then he started asking us to sing in languages other than English. We finally settled upon “A la Bamba,” because it only has three chords. He stuck around for a while, insisting that “Russia is a free country!” and we can “sing in any language we want here!” We assured him we would spread the message in the States. You’ll have to check Tadhg’s blog for more details on this conversation, as I was approached by a grad student who is interested in American music, and does some songwriting himself. People shy away from eye contact with you here, but after an introduction, they’ll tell you their innermost thoughts within about ten minutes.
I have also done some more exploring, both alone and with some new Russian friends. I went to the Museum of Contemporary Art with a guy I met from school, which was actually quite good – relatively accessible, even. This was followed by the aforementioned bar incident. They took a look at my tennis shoes – which are pretty damn nice, I might add – and told us there wasn’t any room, despite the completely vacant patio. My Russian friend did his best to explain that I am from a different country and I simply don’t know any better, but they probably didn’t appreciate my attitude either, as I laughed pretty hard at their priorities.
I also met up with a friend of my sister’s whom she met while studying abroad in Korea, and she introduced me to one of her friends who plays oboe at St. Petersburg State Conservatory. They showed me a hip little cafe built into a hill, hobbit-style in the middle of a park, as well as the Fortress of Peter and Paul, which was the original fortress built by Peter the Great in 1703. From there I can hear the canons being fired every night at 11 o’clock, as tradition dictates.
In the absence of American-style “campus life,” I am starting to make myself at home in the city. The idea is that I’ll be able to find my way around in the dark; pretty soon I’ll have to, as the nights get longer and the daylight dwindles to a couple hours a day.