Several Hours in a Russian Баня

October 9, 2011

Going to a баня, or a traditional Russian bath house, is generally a must for any Russian visitors – so after 6 weeks here, we decided it was time to see what all the fuss is about. Our coordinator, Adrien, found a place in the outer rings of Moscow that lets groups rent it out for periods of time. So on this rather rainy Sunday evening, we bought supplies (lots of water, then some wine, bread and cheese – not Russian, but delicious) and trekked out to ВДНХ, the most Soviet section of Moscow I’ve seen so far. ВДНХ (Выставка движения народного хозайства) is an exposition, or series of monuments to the amazing agricultural abilities of the Soviet people. The famous “Worker and Kolkhoz Woman” statue, since 1947 the symbol for MosFilm movie studios, is also located in this area. I feel compelled to add that the ethnic makeup visibly differs from that of downtown Tverskaya, where I live and where RGGU is located. In a recent edition of Afisha, a Russian magazine that lists all the art, cultural, sporting, and other events occurring at that time in Moscow, an article questioned whether Moscow was being divided into ethnic quarters. Let’s just say the faces on the streets and the metro at ВДНХ as compared to the faces I see in the region around my apartment and university would support the assertion that such a trend is occurring in Moscow.

But I certainly wasn’t thinking about Moscow demographics in relation to housing while I was at the banya – that would indicate a serious failure of the entire banya experience. Traditionally, a banya is built next a body of water, and in the winter bathers alternate between the wet, extreme heat inside the banya with jumping into the freezing cold water of the river or lake. This banya was equipped with the incredibly hot and humid room, equipped with the typical wooden benches and large stove in the corner. Instead of a river, there was a mid-sized pool in the adjoining room that may not have been Siberian icy cold, but certainly did the trick for us. (This banya also had a lovely large dining room and a huge entertainment room upstairs – apparently banyas change with the times.) Humid and incredibly hot doesn’t really do the banya justice – it literally felt like I was breathing in water, so moist was the air, and we couldn’t stay more than 10 minutes or so before needing to dunk in the icy pool. Hydrating before, during, and after the banya experience is essential – as I’m noticing right now.

Besides feeling more relaxed than I ever have in my life – more so than after a massage – my skin feels incredibly soft, and my nose may have forgiven me for a month of dry and dirty Moscow air. I joked with the others that I wanted to build a banya at home in Vermont – Dad, want a new project? And the best part of the banya experience turned out to be the three-month-old kitten that played around in the dining room while we sampled our basil bread (a surprising but delicious find), Brie and wine. Apologies for the lack of pictures – humidity and heat seemed dangerous conditions for my little camera…

One more week before we head to Riga and Tallinn for our program-sponsored adventure…

Hillary

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