The First Experience of an American in a Russian Banya

[Ed. note: Today we’re lucky enough to reprint a post by our new Russian friend Alexey Markovich. You can find this story and many other stories and photos on his blog, Bzebza the Intrepid Photographer. Enjoy!]

In my career as an interpreter there were no incidents when a foreigner was offered a visit Russian banya and he would say no. It just wasn’t proper protocol.

The most memorable incident took place in the beginning of my interpreter’s career. An American professor came to the agri school for two weeks to lecture to Russian students. He took his nineteen-year-old son, Andrew, with him. Andrew spent all his life in Detroit and was never away from home prior to coming to Russia.

A student called Sergey decided to invite Andrew to his village to celebrate his birthday. Andrew’s dad gave his permission, and so on Saturday we were going by bus to a village located sixty miles from the city. I went along to translate.

When we got to the bus station we found out that all tickets had been sold (students buy them in advance) so we had to stand during the two-hour journey. The back door was broken and was in a half-open position, which added to our discomfort. When we got to our destination we started looking for the Sergey’s house. When at last we found it, it happened that Sergey was not home yet and would arrive in a couple of hours. His parents had no idea of their son’s plan to invite an American. Nevertheless, they did not get upset and suggested we go to the banya to wash.

The English language does not have such a word as banya. It can be described as “bath,” “bathhouse,” or “sauna,” but all these words will never convey its true Russian meaning. So here I am explaining to Andrew that we are offered to go to a Russian banya or literally speaking: “I will hit you, Andrew, with a bunch of birch or oak twigs, and then you’ll do same to me.”

After my explanation Andrew’s eyes became like two big dinner plates, and in them I was able to read that he had regretted one million times that he decided to come to a Russian village. I assume he supposed that I am a masochist, but nevertheless he agreed to go.

The “Russian sauna” presented itself as a small wooden building with a little window in the wall (to be exact, a hole 20 cm by 20 cm). The inside part consisted of a furnace, a wooden shelf to lay down, and also many other accessories: a basin with wet clothes, ropes under the ceiling where the clothes were getting dry (I still have no idea how it could get dry there), packs with washing powder, a piece of laundry soap, and wet birch twigs. My guess is that it looked to Andrew like the setting for a torture chamber.

Taking off my own clothes, I told Andrew, “Strip down.” Being left in socks and trunks he asked, “Should I take my socks off?” “Yes, and your trunks too.” When Andrew was standing absolutely naked I urged him to climb up the shelf. After that I took a scoop and poured water on hot stones. I repeated it a few times, and when the room was full of hot vapor I told him, “Lay down on your belly.” Being a bit unnerved, Andrew followed my command and turned.

After a couple of hours when we beat each other enough Andrew asked, “Where is the shower?” My reply was the following: “Andrew, did you see the basin with wet clothes? Take them off. Wash the basin. You know where hot and cold water is. Mix it, and here is your shower.”

There was no shampoo so Andrew had to use laundry’s soap from the old Soviet days. He complained then that it was burning his scalp. It really was pretty harsh stuff.

After the banya, when the birthday celebration was at its climax, Andrew confessed that being beaten with the birch twigs was the best experience in his life, even better than sex (which I really doubt he had ever experienced).

The most interesting part of Andrew’s Russian village experience was when he asked where the toilet was. Of course the toilet was outside–a typical village toilet. When Andrew was absent for twenty minutes, I decided to go out and ask how he was doing. It happened that he has been calling me–there was no paper. I asked Sergey’s mom to bring a roll, but unfortunately all toilet paper had long since been used up, and she brought a newspaper. Here is the dialogue (and I quote):

What is this?

A newspaper.

Why do I need a newspaper when I can not read Russian? I asked you to bring me a roll of toilet paper.

Andrew, this newspaper is your toilet paper!

Later during the celebration, after a few shots Andrew exclaimed: “Oh, now I know why you keep notebooks on chemistry and physics in your toilet! I thought that you Russians were so thirsty for knowledge that you studied even while sitting on the pot.”

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