Dedicated to my boyfriend.
Years ago, when we were all young and had spare time, we experimented with recreational drugs. Now, many of us are responsible, middle-aged adults, working to save for our retirement. We are so far removed from recreational drugs that when someone yells “it’s 4:20!” we experience a fear that we forgot to pick the kids up at school. However, the reality is being middle-aged is not that bad. And maybe you still smoke a little pot now and then when the kids are not around, reliving your youth with every inhale and then coughing it out. Even better, you are in a time of your life where you actually have the money to experiment in other ways, like buying a sports car, vacationing out of the country instead of in a tent, or treating yourself to regular spa treatments. Although rather jejune advice at this point in our lives, we should all try to do something fun every single day. Let’s start with a spa visit. Where should we go?
Recently, during a conversation with a single middle-aged friend, he mentioned that he goes to a “banya”. I had never heard this word nor knew the meaning. Before I could gather more information, another set of friends invited us to join them at a local banya. After learning the difference between a local banya and a local “spa” (I use the word “spa” loosely), my curiosity was piqued. One sounded foreign and the other pornographic. We immediately decided to try them out, and started with the banya.
A banya refers to a Russian sauna. Although the Russian banya is very similar to a Finnish sauna, it is distinguishable through the extreme temperatures that burn your butt cheeks while you beat yourself with tree limbs. Unfortunately, we did not do any research before our banya date. To preface the visit, here is a little history:
According to Wiki … my favorite online pseudo-cyclopedia …. the purpose of a banya is to sweat. As you start to sweat, you whack yourself all over with your own personal dried branches of a Eucalyptus tree. Then, when you are done torturing yourself and your lungs are parched, you leave the sauna and step into an ice pool that is about 45°F to refresh.
Our experience did not quite meet the encyclopedia definition of a banya visit. As typical Americans, we expected a more spa like visit with every amenity in the world offered to make us as comfortable as possible while we detox to perfect health in a matter of a few hours. Our first mistake was my cohort’s inability to remember to bring a bathing suit. We were greeted by an un-amused Russian and offered a bathrobe, one towel, and prison shower shoes in exchange for our wallets and cell phones. The dining hall/relaxation room consisted of plastic pool furniture and an 18″ television with rabbit ears. Fortunately, they offer ice water at no extra charge.
As my boyfriend awkwardly strolled into the dining room in his underwear and bathrobe, we chose a nice set of white plastic chairs at a matching round plastic table, ordered something off the menu that we could not pronounce, and proceeded to move in and out of the various saunas. Luck would have it that a young American couple was spending a kid free evening there as well, along with a very rowdy group of Russians. The couple explained a few of the idiosyncracies and then oddly mentioned the other mysterious spa we were considering. After 5 minutes, we couldn’t stand the heat and played pool for about an hour. The ice pool was out-of-order. At the point when we could not identify our food product we were served and the Russians were into their 5th bottle of vodka (did I mention it is a BYOB place), we traded our towels and robes back in for our lives. We left with the feeling of detoxification or bad heat burns, not sure.
But, alas, that was not the end of the banya. Our friends who spoke highly of it, invited us back as part of a group. Why not, let’s give it another try. This time my boyfriend remembered an extra pair of shorts and our friends indulged us with cold Champaign and vodka upon our hasty exit of each suffocating sauna. They also knew what to order off the menu. The big faux pas came while we were sitting in the sauna with an older Russian gentleman. He was furiously beating himself with his dried branches as we watched in horror. This was the first time we witnessed a beating, and then it dawned on me that what they were selling in the lobby was not for decorating a large vase in your living room. The gentleman offered to let me try. He got me going and it actually felt pretty good. We all took turns happily beating ourselves the man’s branches. When we checked out, the pre-occupied Russian was shocked that we shared the branches and leaves and admonished us. Apparently tradition states that you do not share of the tree. Or maybe it was the lost revenue from not purchasing our own dead tree. Either way, we gave it the old college try, but still managed to not fit in.
In my quest to find daily bliss while achieving ultimate health in mere hours, I started considering another type of spa that a co-worker and yet another set of friends had told us about, all of whom preferred the spa. I should have known better coming from a European and friends who couldn’t be farther from reality; but yet, I planned a rendezvous at the mysterious spa.
I had seen this so-called spa from the road over the years. It was so popular, its rapid expansion forced it to move to a larger space and take on a safari-like appearance. As you drive and walk up, it’s hard to determine any one theme. Once again, the term spa made me think of Neiman Marcus where I would be pampered in luxury accommodations and leave feeling and looking like Miss America. But from the looks of this spa , I wasn’t sure if I was going to Medieval Times or an amusement park.
We picked a Saturday night for our visit, and that was our first mistake. There was literally a line at the front door. Surely there is an attraction here, but what? The shock began at the check in where you trade your personal identity for a number with which you conduct all of your transactions. Then you are given prison clothing, no horrible shower shoes though, only bare feet, and then segregated by sex.
Unlike an American spa with private changing areas, you are cast into a huge open dressing room where you dawn your prison clothes. You can choose to purchase other services as well, like a nice sitz bath, or share a pool spa with other naked women who all appear to be ladies of the evening. If you are self-conscious, this is definitely not the place for you. When you are ready, you dress up in your prison outfit and explore this massive spa with no continual theme. The common areas included a grand hall filled with communal seating of all shapes and sizes, a theater area, an eatery, and entry to the individual themed spa rooms. People were strewn about as if placed there by a tornado. Some were reading newspapers, others on computers, some passed-out as if they were in a coma, and others were devouring Asian delicacies. It was a bazaar of the highest order.
On the brighter side, each individual spa room, also communal, contained beautiful stones and a chance for peace and quiet if you were lucky enough to find a room with a spare space on the floor and no gaggle of ladies gabbing. Each themed spa had specific elements from the environment. For instance, one room contained salt rocks allowing for detox. Another offered a special wood and amethyst stones, offering detox. Another was a cold room, offering detox. There was definitely a pattern, it just didn’t match. Not only were people slumbering on the furniture and the floors of the spas, but when the spa was full, they would merely collapse on the floor outside the spa door. This went on for hours despite others converting the common space into their living rooms with televisions blaring news in various languages, children running and screaming, and the smell of cabbage cooking. They either had some serious meditative practices or they were sleeping off a hangover. What happened to using your own living room?
We had already been stripped of our dignity and our money, so we decided to make the best of our spa visit and each get a massage. Unlike Massage Envy, there was no couples massage. Ladies receive their massages by ladies in a separate area of the spa, and men receive their massages by men in the men’s dressing room. I’m sure had my boyfriend been made aware of this fact, reservations would never have been made. But we forged on like people who wanted to get their $20 worth. I entered the massage room with a glass door and crawled under the covers on the table. I undressed under the sheets. Who puts a glass door on a massage room? Where was the incense and the soothing paint colors? I’m guessing they weren’t from China or Japan since there were no pictures of cherry blossoms. Then this very sweet Korean woman entered the room to begin the massage. Within 5 minutes, she was literally sitting on my back and pounding on me. Trapped under her legs, I wasn’t sure I was going to survive. I wondered how my boyfriend was managing.
My boyfriend and I met back up at the eatery for what we thought was frozen yogurt to reward ourselves for making it that far in our new foreign environment. How great was this. We get to experience a foreign country without the expense. We ate our giant serving of frozen baby food and shared our massage stories. My boyfriend apparently struggled to understand what was happening. When the masseuse adamantly instructed him to remove his clothing, he hastily complied and threw them in the hamper. Then, it hit him, he had also removed his underwear which were now in the hamper as well. I don’t know what else he experienced because by this time the frozen dessert was coming out of my nose from laughing so hard. I doubt I will ever talk my boyfriend into returning.
I’m a fairly open person. I think being flexible and open to new experiences makes life interesting and fun. So, experience these places for yourself and do not base any opinion on what I have written here. For my wonderful boyfriend who will forever be skeptical of any place called a “spa”, I’m sorry. For those more curious, Page 38 of the May 2012 D Magazine issue has a story on such a Spa & Sauna. I recommend not going on a Saturday night. www.dmagazine.com