Man talk begins, dominated by three repetitious questions: Kip, do of you need a wife? Have you met my daughter? Do you want me to introduce her to you?
Even though everyone in there asks me the same combo question, I don’t get annoyed. I just roll with it, sweating in a fusion of big-bellied laughs and the presence of nude fat men.
After sweating out our sins, we exit one by one and jump into this little pool right outside the room’s doors. I jump in thinking the water is room temperature. As soon as I’m in the water my breath is vacuumed from my lungs and a pins-and-needle shock pricks my skin to chaos. My body starts pumping pure adrenaline from the hot-to-cold transfer, as I look up at the golden Poseidon figure smiling at me with a “thumbs up” like I’ve passed the test.
Shock is followed by sitting stark naked on a couch, around a fire of fresh wood, while everyone shares their philosophies on life:
“You have heart problems? Eat pig fat!”
“A man only needs a wife to cook food for him and a gun to kill the food.”
“Vodka is great when you are sick. Great to clean a wound. Great when you’re too cold. Great when you don’t have toothpaste!”
Vasylavich starts brewing tea, which he says is therapeutic for our hearts. Sipping boiling tea while sitting around a fire right after being in hell’s den makes no sense to me, but I do it anyway so I don’t offend.
Then come the beatings. Ukrainians believe that if you let your best bud beat the crap out of you in the heated room with a bundle of moist birch leaves called a venik, your body will rid itself of bacteria and ailments. Vasylavich waves me back into hell’s den. I lay down butt cheeks up and ask no questions.
Vasylavich begins to beat me head to toe, and I grit my teeth. Here is the most masculine man in the universe with no clothes on, beating my nude body with a bundle of leaves. I won’t be telling my girlfriend about this one, I tell myself.
He tells me to then flip over on my back and he starts hitting my front side. I take a couple whacks to the face. At this point all I can do is keep my eyes closed and pray that I don’t pass out. After seven minutes of beatings, Vasylavich shakes my hand, lets out a big shiny grin and tells me I did a good job. Whatever that means.
For the next two hours everyone repeats the process at their own pace: sweating, a dip in the icy water, sipping scalding tea, roasting by the fire – everyone except me.
Vasylavich orders me around as if I’m one of his past war cadets. He instructs me on how to sit in the banya, how to breathe, when to go for a dip into the cold water, how slowly I must drink my tea, along with a laundry list of health benefits the banya provides. He’s letting me know how a true Ukrainian gets their banya on.
The night ends with a feeling of lightheadedness and rubbery relaxation.
“We have a sale on toasters starting tomorrow," Vasylavich says.
“How about banya next Monday?” asks Vanya.