At Stanford there’s a sentiment that you have to apply for competitive grants to travel to exotic countries in order to have new experiences and become more culturally knowledgeable. Nope. Last Saturday night I discovered that an opportunity for genuine cultural immersion was only a brief 45-minute car ride away. And when I say cultural immersion, I really mean it in the most literal sense: I spent my evening plunging into pools and sweating in saunas of various temperatures in a Russian bathhouse otherwise known as a Banya. To be honest I didn’t really have any preconceived notions about Russian bathhouses the same way I haven’t previously thought too much about the subway system in Amsterdam or the daily routine of a turtle. But I live in Slav where this is an annual tradition and I am not one to pass up on new experiences; so, on Saturday night I found myself at Archimedes Banya in a seedy residential area of San Francisco.
When we walked in we had to hand over our IDs and sign a somewhat unorthodox waiver that essentially said that Archimedes Banya is not responsible for injuries incurred from exposure to acute temperatures or old naked Russian men. We were also presented with the option of buying some Banya specific accessories such as a felt hat, which resembles a four-cornered lampshade and is worn to protect the head from intense heat and bunches of dried eucalyptus leaves, which are meant for others to massage (read: hit) you with. This is apparently meant to increase blood flow but the technique is somewhat suspicious considering you are supposed to gently stroke the individual you are massaging (read: victim) with the branches and then THWACK! Whack them somewhat hard so that they are caught off guard, which is supposed to be the optimal procedure for improving circulation. It is definitely an effective method though for what end is unclear.
We were given bathrobes and sent off to our private room, which resembled an unfinished and subsequently abandoned apartment. We then made our way over to the by now highly anticipated Banya which turned out to be a kind of alternate universe — it had a quality of being outside of time and place. It is underground and Romanesque murals cover the walls. Middle-aged men and women in various degrees of undress shuffle between baths and saunas making Full Moon on the Quad look conservative. They moved with the leisureliness and familiarity that suggested this might be a weekly activity. To the outside world the question was “Why on earth are you going to a bath house on Saturday night?” but inside the Banya it was, “Why on earth are you not?”
Well, for starters I never saw the allure of submitting oneself to extreme temperatures for extended periods of time. Also I was hoping getting hit by branches would be surprisingly cathartic but it essentially feels exactly like you would expect it to. So I can’t say I will buy a membership to the Archimedes Banya anytime soon. But the unique and sensational nature of the experience definitely beats most other routine Saturday night activities. You just don’t see enrobed couples eating Borsht while engrossed in a chess match at Sig Nu. Either way, you’ll probably wake up Sunday morning trying to remember what happened the night before.