We knew one thing: We weren’t going to the banya on a Thursday night. We’d been reading The Rough Guide to Moscow ahead of our trip to Russia, and it was clear that would be a bad idea. “A word of warning,” the guide advised. “Russian mobsters love partying at the banya. They usually rent a private section and bring their call girls along; drunken quarrels may occur, followed by murders the next day…This tends to happen on Thursday nights, at baths that stay open late.”
It was about a decade ago, and my friend Jenn and I had traveled to Moscow to visit another buddy, Emma, whose husband works in oil and gas and had been transferred there from Houston. In addition to visiting Red Square, Saint Basil’s Cathedral, and Gorky Park—and drinking, oh, all the vodka—we’d decided the trip wouldn’t be complete without experiencing a Russian banya, or bathhouse.
We didn’t know what this would entail, beyond getting totally nude and slapping each other with twigs. Our host informed us that she really didn’t want to do either of those things, instead opting to run errands with her driver after dropping us off. So we were on our own when we arrived to the banya on a freezing winter afternoon.
After some pitiful attempts to communicate, we made it inside, where we stripped down and tried to be cool about it. There were a couple of babushkas in the room, but mostly, the other women looked like models, which wasn’t anxiety-inducing at all (ahem). They were clutching huge glass mugs of beer, and yes, lightly smacking themselves and each other with veniks—bunches of leafy birch—which is said to improve circulation and open pores.
We showered, and then hit the steaming sauna, lying back and sweating as we carefully stared at the ceiling, before dumping buckets of freezing water over our heads, hitting the hot tub, and then enduring the cold water all over again. We didn’t get that we were supposed to purchase our veniks, so we picked one up and were about to give it a whirl—not understanding that it had been used, ew—when a woman whose beer was as big as she was took pity on us and explained the deal in perfect English.
So we got some fresh twigs (and beers) and slapped beat each other for a bit, then did the hot-cold cycle a few more times before deciding we were done. I’m not sure what I expected, but afterward, clothed and rosy-cheeked, I realized that I felt like a million bucks. I’ve been a fan of a nice shvitz ever since, for years taking advantage of the steam room at the Tellepsen Downtown YMCA, where, to my knowledge, there is little quarrelling and no murdering on Thursdays or any other night of the week.
I don’t know if a good steam makes me look great, but it definitely makes me feel great, and that’s more important to me. But reader, who says that in 2019 in Houston, we can’t aim for both? Let us count the ways…