Nate’s first day at the dacha

May 8, 2012


Sarah has written several times already about her dacha experiences, but having gone myself for the first time yesterday, I’d like to give a quick account of my time there, namely in the banya.

When we first arrived, Andrei, my friend Alena’s father, gave a very brief tour of the grounds and introduced me to Olya, who was already there. I offhandedly took Olya to be Alena’s sister, but was later informed that she is actually Andrei’s wife, and is two years older than her new daughter-in-law. (This, by the way, provided a strange cultural question: should I address her with the formal vy, as with Andrei, or the familiar ty? I hedged and went formal at first, but later switched to match my friends.)

Andrei then set us all to work, cutting down large branches of a dead tree so he could later set up a hammock. My four friends and I spent the next two hours or so hacking, sawing, and clipping branches into small piles that either became firewood or were transferred elsewhere. During this time Andrei prepared the banya, and informed we that he was going to “sweat me good.”

Now, for those of you who read Sarah’s memorable accounts, you already know that traditionally time in a Russian banya includes being beaten with leafy branches, in this case classic Siberian birch. My friends told me that Andrei would beat me pretty good, which, having seen photographs of the cuts and gashes endured by the more masochistic banya-goer, had me frightened as I stripped naked and made my way in.

I should also note that I was not alone: my friend Alesha was also with me, as was Andrei and his gravity-defying beer belly. Their nakedness only struck me as odd or somehow unfamiliar when I noticed the Viking-helmet style felt cap Andrei was wearing. Between this and the beating branches in each of his hands, I held my breath as I lay on the hot wooden bench in preparation for the first strike.

No blood was drawn, however. In fact, the foliage felt soft and rather pleasant, regardless of the force behind it. What I realized, though, is that a real banya experience lies less in being beaten with the wet branches than it does in being overwhelmed by the accompanying heat. In between lashes, Andrei twirled the branches over me, letting the water drip and sprinkle down before quickly evaporating. This created a sort of steam blanket that entrapped my entire body and became increasingly hot with each passing minute. At a certain point my body, starting from the bottoms of my feet, began to go numb.

This didn’t feel so bad, even after my arms and legs were entirely gone and I felt like a torso with a head. It was around this point, however, when my character began to override my interest in the experience. The hypochondriac within me started to worry about poor blood circulation. Was this a good idea? With a family history of heart conditions, surely my little ticker wouldn’t be able to handle another minute. The numbness crept through my legs and shoulders, spreading through my chest and up to my ears. Now I was just a head, with only enough ear left to hear Andrei’s heavy breathing as he lay into me.

Then he told me to get up and go outside: stage one was over.

According to him, a good steam comes in three parts, each one shorter than the last. After a few minutes out in the open front room, letting the Siberian breeze cool my body as I regained feeling, I went back in. Andrei said that if I was feeling little pricks all over, that was good—the blood was coming to the surface under my skin. I took this to be the physical analog of those little stars you see after staring at a light, the ones that dance purple and red on the edge of your eyes and then fall away. In other words, not permanently damaging.

The second round was not so bad. Actually, the effect received was the same, but this time I expected it, and accepted it with pleasure. With round two complete, Andrei told me to follow him out to the other room for what he called a “Jean-Claude Van Damme.” Familiar with Van Damme in name only, I had no idea what this could be, but as I closed the door behind me he threw a large bucket of cold water over my whole body. Feeling rushed back everywhere, and the feeling was good. “Vot tebye Van Damme!” Andrei shouted happily. “Now let’s get you back in there…”

Sitting outside in the Siberian wind after round three, I watched the sun set over Irkutsk in the distance. Neither my legs nor my hands were responding to my mental requests for movement, and for three or four minutes I stood with fingers and feet locked frighteningly stiff, looking like Edward Scissorhands bound to a life spent on tip-toe. When that subsided and my muscles relaxed, I poured some water over me, soaped up, dried off, and went into the house for some freshly grilled shashlyk kebab. After that we all went back home to the city. I slept great.

And so ended my first day at the dacha. It’s strange to say, after relating all of the strange feelings and non-feelings I endured there, but I really loved it all. The trials and frights throughout are nothing new. Out here, and maybe anywhere where things are unfamiliar, this is just part of integrating, and it’s become so normal that it often doesn’t even raise my blood pressure—which, given the family history, is saying a lot. But it’s the payout that makes it all worth it. I couldn’t claim to have my finger on the pulse of Russia if it didn’t get burned now and again, but much as heavy banya steam makes for easy breathing afterward, so too do experiences like this one make my time here both satisfying and unforgettable.


2 Responses to “Nate’s first day at the dacha”

  1. НА тя Ван Дамм!

  2. sarahinthegoldencircle said

    Yay I’m glad you got to go! It does feel really good, doesn’t it (at least after the initial shocks lol)?

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