Thursday, October 1, 2009

The Banya

If you're reading this, then I'm going to assume a certain modicum of relief at the return of my blog, after a four-odd month hiatus. All going to plan (although plan isn’t a word I let myself get carried away with), I should be updating periodically (I want to say weekly, but am being realistic enough not to,) with an instalment of my account of those three months when I wasn't updating my blog, but instead finding things to write about.

Eventually, though. I still have a few tales of adventures in Murmansk, Suzdal' and the daily adventure of a Moscovian commute, before I begin recounting my European sojourn.

And what better place to begin than where I left off but the Arctic north of Murmansk?

If you recall, I and my band of adventurers (for is the narrator not inherently the leader of the party?) were in the frozen north, in January, had just finished our first day of exploring the city, and were on our way to visit a Russian, or sauna-house. And so we continue with our story.

In the centre of the city, around a corner, down a short, snow-covered road and into a dead-end and a courtyard surrounded on three sides by a tall, U-shaped building, there was no way we could have found this place without the guidance of a local taxi driver.

We walked up to the main entrance of the banya-house in the centre of the U, and a young woman admitted us and led us downstairs into the private banya. The room immediately at the bottom of the stairs was a small locker room, where we changed from our clothes into a sheet and plastic sandals. Through the other door of this locker room was a large kitchenette/sitting area, for the time in-between sauna sessions. Through the kitchenette and up another flight of stairs was a swimming pool, then a pair of showers, and finally, through the glass door at the far side of the shower room was the sauna itself.

I don't believe that I have used a sauna since I was a child, when I visited one with my old school-chum Joseph Lawless. It was a memory that over the course of 15 years was sequentially demoted the status of something I forgot. Stepping into the sauna -- and encountering all at once the terraced, slat seats, thick, hyper-humid air expanding in my throat after every breath, and, most of all, that smell that I had only encountered once before -- had my brain tearing through whatever filing system it uses to find what that spark of memory was.

Sauna smell, sauna smell . . . Where's the file on Sauna Smell? Ah, here it is. God dammit, why is the Stuff I Forgot file so damn full? And, while we're here, can we please review this But I Intend to Re-Learn it sub-folder? Seriously, this thing is getting ridiculously big: rock climbing, double-bass, Japanese, squash, basic outdoor survival skills and. . . what the hell? Female anatomy? When did we even create this file?

Alright, we'll look at this another time. Right now,
Sauna Smell. Let's see. . . vacation with Joseph Lawless and his family, 1993. Where's the file on Joseph? Ah, here, under Old Friends. Let's see. . . He went to school with me, and lived just around the corner, in that huge house with his huge family. He usually ate ham and mustard sandwiches for lunch, which bugged me, maybe because at the time I didn't like either ham or mustard. He moved to England in 1996, I kept in touch with him as a pen-pal for a few months -- he even wrote me a letter written in code once, which included the P.S. "Sorry if this was too difficult to crack," but that was written in the same code. Hey, I'll put a new entry in the To-Do file: look up Joseph on Facebook.. . . Jesus! This file is even bigger than the Stuff I Forgot folder! Look at some of these entries: get a haircut, wash bed sheets, stop eating McDonalds. Hey, I have three ideas that will make this file smaller: Get a haircut, wash the sheets, and stop eating McDonalds! And look at these two entries: Write a Symphony and Write a Novel. Both? I don’t think so. And when was the last time I even composed anything, let alone a large scale orchestral work? . . . Hey! No looking in the Stuff I Forgot file! No, I doubt that I'll ever do this. I'll re-file it in the . . . But Let's be Honest. . . sub-folder. Alright, I'll leave Write a Novel where it is -- but I'll do myself a favour: I won't experiment with stream-of-consciousness writing when I do. I'm also going to leave Write a Screenplay in there, even though it's a bigger pseudo-intellectual cliché than novelistic ambitions, but only under the condition that I make a sub-folder called But Missed the Chance, to include things like, oh, let's say Study for Year 13 English Exam: yes, I think we can call that ship 'sailed'. And, while we're at it, how about we put all of these Ask [BLANK] Out on Date files in there too? Seriously, some of these files are 10 years old. God, look at all of these. Should I give some advice? No? OK then. . . We'll make a new folder called Missed that Chance, and put those files in there. . . Yes, we'll re-file this entry too. I know I still see her regularly, but any chance I ever had has long gone, she has already re-filed me as a swell friend, so we'll have to move this entry to Missed that Chance as well.

By the way, I have one more entry for this
To-Do file: "Shut the Damn Door, You're Letting all the Heat Out".

We stepped into the sauna and shut the door. Immediately, Vadim and Radim both regular banya users, casually shed their anti-naked sheets and sat down. The rest of us (Pascal excluded, having chosen, in the interests of decency, to wait until all of us were out of the sauna before using it herself) were a little surprised. Any good Anglo-Saxon man is never more naked than he needs to be.

When our surprise subsided, though, we adopted a "When in Rome" approach to the situation, and soon I was sitting in a small dark room, sweating heavily, surrounded by naked men and reminding myself that I am broadening my horizons . . . culturally.

10 or 15 minutes later and I had raised my core body temperature enough to warrant concluding banya-round-1. I stepped out of the room, quickly showered off the sweat, and jumped into the pool -- which I understand to be the tradition -- covered my lower half and returned to the sitting area. The shower is meant to be warm, and only for the purpose of cleaning oneself. The pool is something to do with rapidly lowering your body temperature after the sauna, although the pool was in fact quite an agreeable temperature, and was a pleasant sorbet between courses.

Once all of the men were out of the sauna, Pascal took her turn, complaining about being the only woman, and having to sit on her on own in the sauna.

Banya-round-2, and I asked Vadim and Radim what the purpose of jumping into the pool was. Neither seemed especially confident of an explanation, but a really authentic banya is a stand-alone building, usually near a river, and one alternates between the banya and river, sometimes needing to break a hole in the river-ice before jumping in. And in places where there isn't a river to jump into, banya goers instead roll around in the snow. . .

The look on the face of the woman who ran the banya as we ran past her and outside, wearing nothing but sheets, made me think that maybe it wasn't all that authentic after all.

saunas are fairly common-place throughout the world, and stepping naked into a small room with about 1000% humidity didn't much jar my sense of cultural familiarity. Running outside and leaping into the snow scored a few points higher on the Oliver Burns "Wait, What?" scale, but was offset by the fact that I can now say "Yeah? Well once I rolled around mostly naked in the snow, North of the Arctic Circle in January."

A part of the banya experience that I found a great deal stranger than a coincidence of snow and nudity related to birch leaves and their application.

For reasons that require a great deal of hand-waving to complete the explanation, it's healthy to hit oneself all with a handful of short, leafy birch branches while inside the banya. It's not a self-inflicted beating, the idea isn't to destroy the leaves (or the skin) but rather a series of vigorous taps across the torso and limbs. It has the supposed benefit (can you sense a limited feeling of credulity on my part?) of drawing the blood closer to the surface of the skin, thereby being. . . good. It would appear to be taken for granted that it is a sensible idea, so, naturally, I joined in.

My Wait, What? scale was set to skyrocket further -- from code Eh? OK, as I stepped into the banya and stripped naked; to code At Least I Have a Good Story to Tell as I lay in the Arctic snow; to code I can't Believe Nobody's Pulling my Leg About This as I flagellated myself with foliage. But there was more room left at the top of the scale. My Wait, What? scale in fact reached its second highest possible rating: code Comfort Zone? Oh, Yes, I Used to Have One of Those, a Long, Long Time Ago, only one degree short of code Fuck This! I'm Going Back to New Zealand!

Not being a typical line of thought for me to have, it didn't occur to me that it is virtually impossibly to hit oneself on the back with leaves. A man needs help.

At first there was a bit of controversy, as my inner dialogue, overworked as it was, did battle with itself, one voice in the back of my mind kept saying I don't know if you've noticed, but you’re lying on your stomach, naked and sweating so much that it looks like you've been submerged, as your friend, who is also naked and covered in sweat, beats your back with leaves. Go on, anchor this to your past experiences, go on. I dare you to find a way to make this familiar! While another voice was saying Shut up! This is culturally authentic!

The truth is, though, that is was actually quite relaxing. It's easy enough for an outsider, viewing a novel cultural experience, to pass a qualitative judgement from the perspective of his-or-her- own culture. For instance, an unfamiliar outsider, looking in on the sporting traditions of New Zealand, may see it as a bizarre to consider it recreational for a man to take in hand an a-spherical orb of synthetic leather, stand in front of a line of 15 large, powerful men -- who are united in their desire to forcibly bring to the ground the first man -- and running towards them. Repeatedly. On the other hand, most New Zealanders don’t call this “strange”, they call it “rugby”, or occasionally “Rugby”.

Where an outsider sees naked men hitting one-another with sticks, in insider sees a normal night at the banya; where an insider sees an ordinary game of rugby, an outsider sees 30 men with a poor sense of self preservation. This is one of the things I find that I most like about the world – my view of things is inherently embedded in my background and experience, as is everyone else’s. It is only by exposing myself to different people, with different backgrounds upon which they base their thoughts and views, that I am able to approach the unattainable goal of objectivity: the ability to see things for what they are, and not simply for what I have convinced myself that they ought to be.