I’m playing with my hair out of nervousness. I never do this. Isn’t this the behavior of a preteen boy, mustering up the courage to ask a girl out on his first date? Yet there’s nothing better to do with my nerves right now – my nails are just too short to bite.
Somehow, I ended up at this Russian banya at 8:30 at night with my friend Vanya and a handful of gold-toothed, potbellied accomplices.
Two nights ago I was at an electronics store lost in an episode of neediness. I’m looking for a European adapter and next thing you know, I’m shooting the breeze with a mean-faced employee named Vanya. He says he’s been to the USA in plain English. He says he likes cheeseburgers and big coffees of America. This is what I remember so fondly.
Vanya’s boss, this big heap of meat, comes swaying around the corner, introducing himself as Vasylavich, a past war colonel in the Afghanistan-Russian War, past power-lifter, present hunter, and present manager of the electronics store.
Would I like to buy a flatscreen television, he asks? Maybe I’d like a microwave or a hair dryer?
Next thing I know, I’m in his back office and he’s showing me photos of himself in a Siberian forest standing next to a bear the size of a VW bug. He’s talking, yet the only thing I can focus on is his upper plate of gold teeth, shining like polished switchblades.
Vasylavich’s photo-showing and telling of war stories is interrupted by Vanya’s polite request for Vasylavich to stop hassling the American. I say “polite” because Vasylavich is the last guy anyone would want to offend. His forearms are the size of my legs, and I’m sure he killed someone in the war with his bare hands. He just has that look.
I exit the store with an adapter at a discounted price. No flatscreen television, no microwave and no hair dryer, at least not this time. As I leave the store pondering the encounter I just had, Vanya tells me to come to the Russian banya with him and Vasylavich, along with a handful of Vasylavich’s old pals.
Without considering the offer, I sputter out “yes.”
What do we do at the banya?
"You’ll see," Vanya replies, like he’s up to something.
Walking home over black ice and through packs of pissed-off stray dogs, I begin to wonder what I’m getting myself into. In reality, I’ve known these guys for only 45 minutes.
Vanya tells me to stand where I am and only speak in Russian. I try not to stare, but two men are sitting at one of the tables in fine leather coats, smacking their lips and speaking in guttural tones. Their greasy fingers are shining under the dim lamp light, food's strewn out across the table, and they’re taking their sweet, sweet time – as if this is their last meal.
One licks his fingers and adjusts his diamond-studded gold ring. The other pours a liquid into a shot glass and holds it up in invitation.
Instead of accepting, Vasylavich, like any past war colonel would, commands the two men over to where we’re standing with a wave of his furry forearm. The two men don’t hesitate. They get up, stumble a bit, and walk over to where we’re standing, starting conversation with Vasylavish with a light slug to his shoulder. They are so close I can smell their dinner breath: seasoned meat, cigarettes, vodka.
My pulse quickens and an unfamiliar nervous energy starts playing puppet master with my entire being as the two look me over. Thoughts collide in fast-pace electro-magic: Where are we?
Dniprodzerdzynsk, Ukraine (even though it’s Ukraine, the banya is still labeled “Russian”), standing in the waiting room of a restaurant attached to a banya, waiting for 8:30 to come so we can enter the banya room and sweat like Arab traders in the peak of the Saharan summer.
Vasylavich keeps making small talk with the fellas while the rest of our group leaves the restaurant waiting area and enters the three-room banya section, comprising a lounge room with leather couches near a wood-stacked fireplace (left), a golden figure of Poseidon hanging above an aqua-tiled miniature pool (top) and a wood-walled hot box (Americans call this a dry sauna).
I ask Vanya why all the fuss about keeping a hush. He says the guys that were sitting at the table own this place and they’re in the Russian mafia (even though it’s Ukraine, the Russian mafia still operates here).
They don’t like Americans, he says, as he begins to strip down.
I undress down to my bathing suit as the others undress to the nude. Looks from the others are shot my way as if I’ve lost my mind, daring to wear shorts in a banya. A tingling bout of nostalgia hits me; I feel like I’m getting the attention a man deserves for sporting a polka-dot speedo in a crowd of muscle-greased, star-tattooed beach bros playing horseshoes at Pacific Beach Drive.
Vasylavich enters the room and starts chuckling like a giddy toddler at the sight of my shorts. Vasylavich is just about the last guy I would want laughing me. So I take it all off and tell myself I can live with this – after all, cultural integration comes at a price, however steep the cost. The banya ritual has begun.
Nine of us walk in line towards the wood-walled, stone-heated room. I sit down on one of the two benches in the 10’X20’ enclosure. I’m sandwiched between four greasy, hairy-bodied men: an Aikido master, a steel factory worker, a butcher and Vasylavich. On the other bench are Vanya and three others. The temperature reads 105 degrees Celsius (221 degrees Fahrenheit) and it sure feels like it. My nostrils sting as if I’m sniffing fire. My heart is beating in my head and I can see the steel factory worker’s belly beating like an oversized drum.
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.