Monday, December 10, 2007

the babushka beat me with birch branches

Eddie, the jaunty owner of the dandy Kosmonaut hostel in Lviv arranged a trip to a Ukrainian bath, the bania. "The people who go say it's the highlight of their Lviv visit." I was convinced. Day bags packed with towels, toiletries, flip-flops, bottles of water, and foam squares (I'll explain), we hopped a bus to the bania. The bania is segregated into men's and women's sections, and since I was the only one in present company with two X chromosomes, I quizzed Eddie on protocol before heading in on my own. I kinda wished there was another girl going in with me, just so I wouldn't feel so starkly on my own, but the only other girl at the hostel was the receptionist.

Outside the bania we purchased bouquets of leafy branches from a guy who had set up shop on a side porch. There were a couple of different species, and feeling in the mood to spurge, I chose the slightly more pricey traditional birch for 15 hryvnia (~$3.00). Inside we each paid an additional 15 hryvnia entrance fee. Before heading off in our separate directions, Eddie explained once again what would happen, adding, "that's if it goes perfectly." Hmm. The door to adventure was a slab of metal that looked like it could be concealing a nuclear bomb shelter, and there was nothing to do but walk through it.

The only thing behind the door was an unremarkable locker room with a naked lady reading a newspaper. I found the attendant, showed her my receipt, and made sure to mention "No Ukrainian." She nodded, and pointed out a locker for me. I stowed my clothes, all of them, and armed with my bottle of water, towel, birch bouquet, and foam square (don't worry, I'll explain), and doing my best to coerce my self-consciousness to go hide in the corner for a while, went through the second bomb blast door.

I expected to be in the sauna, but instead found myself in a big, industrial room that in general descriptive terms mimicked the Turkish hamam, except nowhere near as nice. I think that room was built in the sixties, and nothing has been updated since. There were stone blocks for resting, showers along one end, the cold plunge pool on the other end, and taps along each opposite side. At first glance I'd call it dilapidated, but mostly everything seemed to work, so the dereliction was only surface deep. I didn't know what kind of attendance to expect for a Monday afternoon, but it was busy, women everywhere sitting on the blocks resting, washing themselves from plastic basins, or rinsing off under a shower. Trying hard to look like I knew what I was doing, I cast furtive glances around to get the lay of the land and my bearings. After what seemed like a long time, but probably wasn't really, I figured out there was another door. I had found the sauna.

The Ukrainian sauna is wood, and who knows how long it's been there. Wood saunas on some level are a nose-wrinkling concept. Take hot, humid conditions, add an organic medium, toss in a little bacteria. I would think that this results in a steamy bacteria stewpot, but clearly people have enjoyed saunas for centuries without keeling over from infections, so why strain the brain with worry. Looking even shabbier than the washroom, the sauna was a rise of wooden steps, and here's where the foam square comes into play. Something to sit on instead of soaking wet wood. And it was broiling in there. Somehow the hot air is piped through the vertical faces of the steps, so sitting on one scorched the small of my back and my heels simultaneously. But once I found a happy place, it was really lovely. I have a history if turning my nose up at saunas, but after three months in strange beds on average once every three days, carrying a 15 kilogram rucksack, and forgetting my soap half the time I take showers, sitting, sweating, and baking, bacteria hoedown or no, was just what I needed.

The process in the bania is to go between the sauna and the cold plunge a few times, maybe taking an hour and a half in total to do it. The wash room is also for resting and rehydrating before heading back into the extreme heat. The birch branches you take with you into the sauna, and let them soften up in the heat and moisture. Once they've rehydrated, you basically slap them all over your body. Exfoliation is one desired result, and maybe it's also that the leaves have essential oils that are good for your skin. Eddie told me to not use them my first time in the sauna, but while I was sitting there, an old lady came up and started talking to me. I gave her a smile. "Aahh, no Ukrainian." Pointing to myself. "American." She got it, but that didn't stop her from rattling on. I think she guessed, quite correctly, that I was in there for the first time, and was trying to give me some information. Including on how to use the birch. Handing her my bouquet, this little cute babushka in a headscarf swatted me all over with birch branches. All I could do was stare at the soggy, wooden steps with a stupid smile plastered on my face. It was almost too funny for words, and I don't think I'm doing it justice. Basically, I'm stark naked and sweating in a Ukrainian sauna, and an old lady is beating me with a bouquet of birch branches.

After a while the heat became too much, and I had to leave. Figuring Babushka was my bath buddy, I checked with her about getting into the cold plunge. She told me to first take a quick shower, I guess to wash off sweat and leaves, but it also cooled me down enough that the cold plunge wasn't quite as shocking as it could have been. I was too much of a chicken to jump in, instead walking down the steps, and couldn't steel myself enough to dunk my head under. After I got out there seemed to be some sort of sauna maintenance going on, so I just rested on one of the stone blocks, taking note of the range of women in there. It was all over the age map, and not a hint of anyone being self-conscious about body image. There were even a couple of teenagers, and one girl who looked somewhere in the neighborhood of six years old. For them it was just another day in the bania. It didn't matter what anyone else looked like, or even what they looked like. I can't imagine the scene anywhere in the west, at least not conducted with the same air of nonchalance. Oh, here comes Babushka again...

I thought that maybe she singled me out since I was the obvious newbie, but she did it to someone else later. She scrubbed me down with a scrubby mitt. Same goofy smile on my face as before, I realized it was a good thing that I had come in on my own; being there with another girl who I could talk to would have created some degree of separation between me and the locals. Babushka adopted me because I was on my own. I'm happy she did for the amusing experience alone, but it also made me rethink the conclusion that I had come to in Kiev, that Ukrainians were by nature kind of rude and unfriendly. I realized I had based that pretty much on service industry interactions, and that everyone I met subsequently in Lviv were quite cordial, service industry or otherwise.

Back in the sauna, I lay on the steps, staring at the dripping ceiling and wondering if that white stuff was mold or something else. Again, not sure how that joint was holding together. It was a room constructed of soaking wet warped wood that would never, ever dry out. Thinking about it, I suppose wet wood is strong enough, it just gave the place the ambience of a garden shed after three days of rain, complete with the fragrance of greenery from the bouquets. I saw one woman who had two difference species, slapping them both against her body, one in each hand. Another droll detail was the woolly caps worn by a number of bathers. Asking Eddie about this afterwards, he surmised that it's to protect hair from the heat of the sauna, but wearing a wool cap while otherwise in the nude was incongruous fashion.

I wasn't counting the minutes, but it felt like each time I went into the sauna, I was able to stand it for less time than before. I'd slowly heat up, and then suddenly I'd be way too hot. I'd stand up, and my feet would start to burn for being near the vents, and it was a small test of endurance to calmly walk out instead of taking a flying jump down the stairs in the general direction of the door. Four times in and out, and it was time to meet up with the guys in the café. Babushka was still socializing with a gaggle of other ladies, and at last glance they were all drinking tea from china cups with an orange or two floated in one of the plastic wash basins. I floated out of the locker room, feeling as shiny and uplifted as the urchin depicted on the souvenir bar of soap I purchased from the front kiosk.

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