Yesterday I checked another item off my "Things I must do in order to be Russian" list by going to the баня (banya). What is a banya? Well, first and foremost, it's an excellent way to get really dehydrated. But basically it's a sauna. I think if you live in the country and have your own, it's just a shack with an oven in it, but the banya we went to was quite fancy. A brief recap of the experience:
First you buy your tickets (for the мужской or женский side, depending on your gender) and go into a big, fancy changing room with leather sofas and a little cafe, where you undress and rent your sheet and towel and buy your dried birch twigs. Then you disrobe, wrap in your sheet (yes, a bed sheet) and go into a big room with showers, a small swimming pool, and these two giant wooden tubs of cold water. Off of this room is the sauna itself, which is a smallish stone room with an oven in one wall and a wooden platform in it. You climb up on the platform and sit there (on your bedsheet, because the benches are hot!) until you can't stand it anymore, and then you go out and get a bucket of water from the big tubs and pour it over yourself. This can be repeated many times, with breaks for snacks and drinks in the changing room when necessary, or dips in the pool, or showers (some people still use the banyas as their primary means of bathing).
So really, the big difference between the banya and a regular ol' sauna is the birch twigs, which you take turns beating each other with while you're sitting in the sauna room. This is supposed to get the toxins out of your skin, but as far as I could tell all it does is cover you in bits of dried leaf. It's fun, though.
The most interesting(/dangerous?) part is when the banya worker comes in and reheats the sauna. Everyone gets down on the floor of the platform and dries themselves off, because if you're wet or sitting too high up, you'll get burned. The worker does some stuff with the fire and throws buckets of water on it to make more steam, and keeps the oven door open until the people in the sauna have decided it's hot enough. Then she flicks birchy water on everyone (to cool them off? I wasn't clear on why this was happening, but it smelled really good) and everyone gets back up off the floor and sits on the benches. The first time all this happened, A. and I didn't know what was going on, so we sat on the benches, and then it got too hot and we wanted to leave. That was a big mistake, because when we stood up we were even higher off the ground, and it was too hot to breathe in without causing moderate to severe pain. Yeouch. Fortunately the second time there was a nice person in there who explained it to us, and no permanent damage was done to my skin or nostrils.
So. The banya is fun. I'm hoping there will be banyas out in the wild and woolly east, because I definitely wouldn't mind going again. There are a great many other things I could write about right now, including our visit to the American Center where we were attacked by ravenous Russian teachers of English, our trip to the Great Patriotic War (aka World War II) museum today (note: it was amazing, and you must go if you ever find yourself in Moscow), or how Russians and Americans apparently have very different concepts of what matches with what when it comes to clothing (imagine: leopard-print sundress and knockoff Burberry plaid high heels). But this has been a long post already.
One last thing! It is my birthday on Wednesday. I'll be 22. (Yay!)