Oct 2018 19

“Can you believe this is only forty-five dollars? What a great deal!”

Since I had no idea what I was in for, I couldn’t agree with my friend C at this point. I mean, what was going to happen in the bathhouse, and what would one normally pay for this experience? Are bathhouse happenings usually at a much higher premium? No clue. But there I was wearing the provided robe and slippers, and exiting the change room area to venture into my first Russian Banya, or bathhouse.

In an effort to try new things during my month-long break from alcohol, I took up C’s offer of treating me to an alcohol-free night out to mark my halfway point. It seemed like a strange celebratory offer when I got his first text:

Like a lot of people, who are idiots, the only bathhouses I knew of were the kind that my mom told me never to go to or the guys in the high school locker room hate-mongered as ‘gay’. So, I honestly didn’t know what my friend was asking me to. Hey, love is love (and lust is lust!), but I thought I better be pretty sure I want to experiment if that’s what he was inviting me to.

“No, it’s not gay. I mean, maybe gay people go there, like anywhere if that’s your thing, but we’ll go for a steam and some Russian dinner. It’s amazing. You’ll love it.”

Okay, I was curious and into that kind of new-experience experimenting.

A look on the website revealed a place where time seems to have frozen at around 1952 Russia. Thoughts of Dr Zhivago, big fur hats, struggle struggle struggle, and order and restraint – “Svetlana, I love you so much but I must drown myself in the Volga River just to be free of it. We are not allowed happiness in this life. I must prove my worth to Mother Russia.” – washed through my head.

“I’m in.”

So there I was exiting the change room and all I hear is Russian. Everyone is speaking Russian. It was men’s night Thursday (they have family nights, all ‘gender’ nights, and dedicated women or men only nights), so the place is full of large, strong Russian men (in swimsuits for you people wondering) talking to each other in Russian. And there’s us – C, from Guatemala, and me – the little half-Japanese guy. There would be no ‘blending in’ here.

So ya, maybe I watched Eastern Promises too many times where Viggo Mortensen is the Russian Gangster and he kills that dude in the sauna in a brutal naked fight scene – but I’m immediately a bit intimidated. I mean, look at the map and see the size of Russia, and fittingly now look at the size of Japan. That gives you an idea of what I’m saying here.

But no strange looks from Alexei, Bogdan, or Vladimir. A couple of friendly nods as we walked in to see men going in and out of sauna rooms with serious looks. This place was all business.

And the business was: We’re all here to fuckin torture our bodies.

So here’s what happens… Basically through various methods, you get your body super super hot like you’re standing in front of the open door of a furnace and shovelling coal to keep the Kremlin warm, and then immediately, and I mean instant and shockingly – Siberian cold. You repeat the cycle as many times as you want. It’s supposed to draw out toxins, help clear your head, be a bit social, and also wear you out like a cardio workout.

How you get hot – There’s a traditional Russian Banya room – a wooden dry sauna room with a brick oven. And a couple of Turkish Hammams – wet saunas with steam clouds so thick you could be walking into a big hand job party and not even see it going on, actually. Meh. Kind of kinky.

How you get cold – The dunk tank – a round in-ground pool that only fits one, filled with 5 degree celsius water that you, yes, jump into right after exiting any sauna. Or, optionally, stand under a large wooden barrel type shower, pull a chain and get doused.

Your body has no fucking clue what is going on.

One moment I’m sweating out of every pore like I’m a dog locked in a black car on a July day with the windows rolled up and about to pass out, and then all of a sudden my whole body is shocked into alertness like you’re making a snow angel naked in February while at the same time, Vadim whips you with a thousand Mr. Freezies.

I have to say, I liked it.

Okay, the naked guy with the full Russian body tattoos, including on his face and skull, kind of freaked me out at first when we walked into the Banya but he turned out to be super nice.

Like kids who get to the bottom of the waterslide and immediately want to go back up to the top, we did about 6 cycles of this.

Anyhow… we’re not done. They encourage you to take a break between cycles, so in our robes, we went to the dining room which is decorated with a VERY large Stalin poster overlooking red vinyl booths, and a lot of Russian artwork and commemorative plates and glasses on display.  There, shaking from what we had just endured – I had trouble pouring myself some tea – we enjoyed a Russian meal, complete with homemade Kombucha. Dumplings, Beef Stew, Cabbage Rolls, and just to keep it kind of miserable so we don’t start loving Communism too much – some sad rye bread.

I have to restate, I ate in a robe.

There’s also a relaxation room with leather couches (and the best wood panelling I’ve seen since 1980s Rexdale) that seated about 20 and tonight’s feature was some Russian nature documentary.

I left feeling high. Giddy. Better than getting drunk. Better than getting stoned. I feel switched on and alive. I’m exhausted but it’s a happy exhaustion. And strangely, I feel like I got a nice smothering and nurturing hug from a really hard-as-nails and fierce-in-her-love Russian Mom that I’ve never known.

“Can you believe this is only forty-five dollars?”

Nyet, C, I can’t. What a deal.