Serenade’s End

In an update to my angsty previous post, things are back to relative normalcy with Sasha, Fey, and the gang. I’m sure there’s still weirdness bubbling under the surface, but we’ve been having normal conversations and I’ve pretty much snapped out of the funk I was in. Well, that funk.

Anyway, back to getting whipped in the ass with branches.

So, yeah, to recap, I’m naked, in the banya, with a bunch of other naked Russian guys, in plastic sandals with a strange (but traditional) woolen hat. I feel more wet than I ever have swimming. The overpowering humidity mixes with more sweat than I thought I was capable of producing. Later, recuperating in the lounge, I was told to drink water to make up for the alarming amount lost through the pores. I heard it’s even possible to lose a few pounds throughout the process. I ran through the cycle three times–endure the heat as long as you can bear it, dunk yourself thrice in the freezing wooden tubs, brief but crucial break in the showers–when my masseuse gestured for me to follow him into the steamroom. It was time. Apprehensive but undeterred (a good motto for those visiting Russia), I followed.

The next fifteen minutes defy description, at least to a certain extent. It was a kind of peak experience. Wholly consumed by the moment, my mind was torn between being pushed to the limits of endurance and the kind of inner peace one feels in any massage. It certainly wasn’t relaxing, but there was a definite sense of serenity; an oxymoronic active tranquility. I was desperate to escape, to find relief from the inundating heat and pressure, though simultaneously captivated by the intensity of it all. All this while the guy was busting out a pretty bitchin’ drum beat on my ass cheeks with his branches. That’s not an attempt at poetry; there was a fellow prisoner/massage recipient to my right, and our masseuses had quite a catchy duet going for a bit there, only adding to the surreality of the episode. Each whack brought a burning sting and a blast of hot air, on top of the room’s ever-present oppressive swelter; only alleviated, ever so briefly, when he would firmly press the branches into my upper back. The leaves must have been cooler than the air itself, and they offered a momentary respite

Some time into it, impossible to say how much, I heard the man ask my audience (remember, I was laying on a board in the central area of the room, surrounded by benches seating many burly Russian men, all of them older than me) how to say something in English. After some deliberation a chorus of heavily accented ‘turn over’s rang out. After the beating my buttocks received, I wasn’t so sure about exposing my opposite side to the line of fire. Apprehensive, yes, but undeterred. I flipped. Probably after seeing my crazed, rapidly-blinking eyes, one of the spectators asked if I was alright. “Всё хорошо,” I shakily replied. All good. Once more I was thrust into the vortex of lashes and heat. With a couple notably close calls the masseuse managed to avoid my most sensitive region, though the intensity of the smacks did not falter. More time passed, and I was told to sit up. I moved to put my sandals back on and was stopped; we weren’t quite done. Next I had to spread my arms, pat-down style, and each was whipped in turn; as well as my face and another coat for my back. Only then was I released to stumble, dazed, into the showers. The man wasn’t yet done with me, though. With his hand on my shoulder and my head under the showerhead, he alternated freezing cold and shockingly hot. After a couple minutes he headed off, with a farewell that I barely registered, and I was left with blissfully tepid water coursing down my body, thousand-yard stare on my face.

I left that day with my body coated in red and white blotches. Felt pretty good the rest of the day, too. Very relaxed. Mom got out about an hour after I did, and I spent a dreamy half hour listening to gentle music in the lobby while I waited. When she still didn’t show I headed outside for a walk in the soft rain, Fleet Foxes, Bon Iver, and Sufjan Stevens playing, and smoked a cigarette. Nobody tell my mom.

Mom

Mom visited last week. Flew in on a Friday evening. Very good to see her, I’m so glad she made the trip. We did some pretty awesome things in our tours of Moscow and St. Pete; stuff I won’t soon forget. But I’m gonna write it down anyway.

I meant to last week, but I was so busy. I would have done it on the train ride to or from Pete, but the trains didn’t have WiFi and I considered that a legitimate enough excuse. I don’t know why it’s so hard for me to write sometimes. I don’t hate it so much in the act, but the anticipation is killer. Recently I’ve had such trouble coming up with interesting things to discuss on the blog, too. That’s a lame excuse, though, and I know it. Whatever I write, even the most bullshit stuff, I’m going to love reflecting on in 10 years. Or 20. Or 50. (Hi 70-year-old me, hanging in there? World hasn’t ended yet?) But even still. Felt like I had nothing worthwhile to say.

That changed for sure when Mom came, though. Had some $150 caviar, danced until 2:30 at one of the hotter nightclubs in Moscow (Rolling Stone), saw a couple ballets at some magnificent theaters, toured multiple grand imperial palaces, and stayed in probably the fanciest hotel I’ll probably ever stay in (unless Mom ups the ante on one of the future family trips): the Four Seasons in St. Pete. I think it was like $370 or so a night. Not too bad for the states, but the place was downright ostentatious. Cool, though. Not exactly somewhere I’d go on my own.

Possibly the coolest thing I did, though, was take a bath. On Tuesday evening (or was it Monday…) we went to Сандуновские бани (Sanduny Baths), the oldest continually operating баня in Moscow. It opened in 1808, and I felt its history. Not just in the decor, a mix of old and new embodied by the traditional wooden tubs of water situated next to showers with modern plumbing and xeroxed, laminated sheets advertising shampoos for purchase at the front desk, but in the sense of continuity; of belonging to something deeper and aged. Timeworn masculinity. It was easier than I thought to disrobe and sit in a room with about a dozen other naked men of all ages, the temperature hovering around 200 °F. The heat hits in waves, washing over you like a dry shower. Saturated, coated, inundated in sweat, the bather sits on wooden slats sticking out from walls on a second-floor landing. Two tables lie in a central area next to the stairs for those lucky enough to get a ‘massage,’ code in Russian banyas for assault by birch branch. Everything is wood and steam, save for a massive clay furnace off in the corner into which a flushed worker on the lower level continuously shoveled coal. Occasionally, he would ascend and, with the flap of a large woolen sheet, blast the bathers with superheated air in an effort to spread it out. This was unbearable. Though there was no way to keep time in the physical and mental haze of the room, I’m sure my first time in lasted no more than five minutes. After I had cycled through the room and the freezing baths outside twice, my soon-to-be masseuse cautioned me in heavily accented English, “Not so fast. It is not healthy.” I had been pushing myself to stay in both places, extreme heat and relatively extreme cold, to the brink of my endurance.

You’ll have to wait until tomorrow for the rest of this experience, and some other adventures with Mom, until tomorrow. I promised myself I’d watch Birdman (at last!) tonight, and I don’t want to go to bed so late. I’m tired enough as it is.

До свидания.