St Petersburg, Russian Federation
After a full day at The Hermitage with kind Katya, which will have to occupy a blog of its own, I headed off with Anton and his energetic father Sergei (who is a petrophysicist was state petro-giant GAZPROM) to join them on their weekly Saturday afternoon banya session. With not much common language between us, I knew I was in for an experience when the tied bundles of dried birch and oak branches (venik) were produced and we entered naked into the sanctum of intense heat and steam with large men wearing strange felt hats. I was exhausted when Katya and I returned from The Hermitage. As the LP says “navigating [this place] is an art in [and of] itself.” Anton and Sergei were waiting. Just bring a towel and thongs they instructed. We walked up Middle Prospect for 10 minutes and down a back alley to a large old building. Walking up the decrepit and broad flight of stairs to the third floor I smelt stale tobacco smoke. As I’ve now grown accustomed most stair wells are full of the fug of stale smoke and this one was no exception. We came into a plain reception area with a series of curtained cubicles. A stern looking lady attended the reception. Euro 2012 showed on the little tele in front of her. Stripping down and hanging our clothes, Anton flashed open his towel wrapped around his waist by way of indicating to me that putting on my speedoes was not appropriate. I happily took them off! Towels wrapped around us we entered the wet area of the showers and large cold dip pool. I stood around naked a little unsure of what to do next while Anton and Sergei walked about preparing things. First they set to soak in large soaking buckets the dried oak leaves wrapped tight into large bundles by their branches and tied by multiple turns of twine. And then throwing me a pointy felt hat to put on (mine was a stained white one with the Russian Red Star on the front) we entered the sauna. Immediately the heat was intense and imposing. The room was dark and lined in timbers and the smell was pleasant. We laid a linen cloth on the wood benches at the top of a platform accessed by stairs and sat down. One of the men in the dark corner decided it needed more heat and walks down to the boiler in the corner and using a large long-handled ladle, threw water from a bucket onto the coals. The increase in ambient temperature was almost instant. With my arms rigid straight on my thighs I leant slightly forward and breathed hard and intentionally through my mouth – breathing through the nose stung the delicate skin in my nostrils. After a time that wasn’t too soon we stood and slowly stepped down and out to he relative coolness of the shower and prep area. I slowly climbed the ladder to the cold pool. Being on the third floor it wasn’t at floor level. Instead it was like a massive trough with large unwieldy ladder steps up and over for access. Now it was time for the fraternal administration of oak leaf beating. While I sat breathing slowly in the hot steam I watched Sergei douse the wet leaf bundles with a mixture of pone and eucalyptus oil. He then rose to the platform and walked up and back shaking these branches above his head. We were hit by the fine spray of wonderful aromatics and soon the bath house was a perfumed sanctum of men taking the time to care an honour each other. Sergei asked me to lie down but then changed his mind and thought it better to have a demonstration first on his son – they of course do this habitually / ritually every week.