Existential Panic World Tour Part 11: Sweaty Naked Men

I’m realizing that this trip to Russia not really much of a tourist excursion. For one thing, there ain’t a whole lot to see here in the hinterland. Instead, this is an exercise in Russian cultural immersion. This became particularly evident on the car ride from Kazan to Yoshkar-Ola, when our burly contact here, Andrey, turned to me and asked in his thickly accented English if I’d ever been to a Russian Banya. “A Russian Barnyard?” I asked. A Banya is basically a sauna but its social significance is much more. The Banya is apparently one of the social lubricants that makes society flow. Like Japanese after-work drinking secession or the American tailgate party, it is a time when men are allowed to cast aside their societal roles and carouse like equals with their brethren.

When I mentioned to other Russians and the handful of American ex-pats living here that I was scheduled for such a banya, inevitability their reaction insinuated that I was really going to be in for something. On Monday, Andrey and a driver (Andrey refuses to learn to drive for some reason) picked me up, picked up an armful of alcohol, and then drove to a soccer field. The banya was a small wooden shack built on the edge of the grounds. Apparently, Andrey and a bunch of his buddies from Mari State University gather at this unremarkable hut and “relax.” Andrey pounded on the metal door for sometime before a squat naked man with a remarkably hairy back answered the door. Inside about a dozen middle-aged men were stripping naked, all of them looked like David Crosby or Wilfred Brimley. It was not a pretty sight. Andrey asked me if I wanted a beer before the sauna. I promptly said yes. After the beer and after I stripped, Andrey lead me to the sauna. Upon opening the door I was confronted with the sight of two naked very sweaty men flogging themselves with birch-branches. “It is kind of Russian massage” Andrey said to me. Ok, I thought. I sat in the sauna, allowed myself to slow cook in the intense heat of the room and followed suit with everyone else and began flogging myself with said foliage. (It feels like getting molested by a shrub.) The manly thing to do is to sit there swatting yourself until you have been so cooked your ears begin to curl. I was never quite that gung-ho. Then, with ears curled, the next thing you do to test your macho metal is to plunge into an icy cold pool of water in the next room. It’s kind of like daring your cardiovascular system to have a heart attack. Another variation is to leap, buck naked, into a snow drift and roll around while. Though it’s blasted cold out, there is, as of yet, nary a snow drift. So my banya-comrades made do with standing outside, naked, smoking cigarettes. We would sit around, make crude jokes, slap backs and make statements like “In Russia, men are men and women are women.” Yes, this was male bonding at its most raw and naked (literally). All that was absent was the drums and the Robert Bly books.

After continuing with the grueling sauna, ice water, exposure rotation, I was already feeling a bit buzzed. But no Russian adventure would be complete without the vodka. We all gathered around a buffet of sorts that a couple of the boys had set up. Handing me a glass of vodka (shots are for wimps) Andrey leaned over to me and said, “Russian proverb…After banya you can sell your pants but you must drink.” I asked him to repeat it, just to make sure I heard that right. I have no idea what this pearl of folk widsom actually means (especially considering no one in the room was wearing pants) but I took it as a subtle hint that I should be prepared for some serious drinking. After a toast, they knocked the entire contents of the glass back, as did I. Then another toast and another half glass. There was an impress array of food on the table before me, sauerkraut, bread, honey, olives and of course a big plate of lard. My banya-mates were somewhat perplexed why I wasn’t partaking in what they considered a staple food, but in my mind a line needed to be drawn. I would get naked, I would be happy to parboil and then freeze myself, and I’d be happy to suck down as excessive about of alcohol, but dammit I was not going to eat a chunk of lard. Moreover, seeing Andrey naked and hairy gnawing on a huge chunk of fat will be one of those traumatic images (if only on an aesethetic level) that will stay with me for a long, long time.

As weird as the experience was, though, I found myself actually having fun. And after two more half-glasses of vodka, I found that I was having a whiz-bang of a time. The final toast was to me, for being the sole intrepid American in this uniquely Russian experience. I counter-toasted them for making my banya-going something I won’t soon forget. And then I knocked back all the vodka in one gulp. Andrey said to me in a grave earnest tone, “you drink like a Russian.” I took that as a compliment.

Of course, after four glasses of vodka and three beers I wasn’t merely drunk, sloshed or plastered. I was out of my tiny head. When I arrived home, mom in true Russian tradition was making Borsch. She was also entertaining Donna, a very tall very blonde college student teaching English here and Shirley, the peevish wife of a missionary computer-programmer. (His life project is to make an electronic Bible in Russian with annotations. Yes, clearly what Russia need more than a viable political system, improved health care and a functional infrastructure is an electronic Bible in Russian with annotations.) I staggered into the kitchen, said something unintelligible I’m sure, and then promptly passed out in my bedroom. It wasn’t yet 6 O’clock at night. Later that night, Andrey called. When mom informed him that I was in a vodka coma, we replied with surprise saying, “But we didn’t drink that much.”

That night I felt like I had seen though the stereotypes to glimpse at the real Russia. And perhaps I saw more than I wanted to.

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2 Responses to “Existential Panic World Tour Part 11: Sweaty Naked Men”



  1. 1 Friendster « WITMOT Trackback on April 22, 2008 at 1:28 pm
  2. 2 Adventures in Corporate Teamwork « WITMOT? Trackback on May 21, 2008 at 12:04 pm

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