The Banya

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There is an old-world tradition, and by old world, I don’t mean just Europe, I mean older, wiser cultures than ours, that involves heat and steam and separation from the world for a time.

It has a unique name in almost every culture. Hammam, Han Zao, Dungai Fu, Temascal, Mushi Buro and sauna, are just a few words to describe it. 

My family has always called it the Banya.

My earliest memories of the banya took place in dry saunas on ferries traveling between Norway and Finland. My dad, a Ukrainian who was born in China and whose parents immigrated to America, has the need for banya in his blood. And even as a small child, I can remember slipping into the 200-degree heat of a sauna with him and watching him close his eyes and forget about the world for a few moments in the cleansing atmosphere of wood and heated stones and water.

My dad and I have visited banyas in Hungary, Austria, Latvia, Finland, Ukraine and here in America. While my grandparents were alive, the bathhouses and public swimming pools of Calistoga, California offered a respite from city life and a way to reconnect as family.

And so it was a great pleasure to find a real banya hiding away in the Chicago neighborhood of Cicero just in time for my 39th birthday. 

At noon on a sunny but chilly January afternoon, the banya was relatively quiet when we walked in. The attendant offered us two towels, a waist wrap and what looked like a pillow case along with rubber slippers and a set of keys.

Inside there was a dry Russian sauna, which featured three rows of benches on two sides of a massive brick oven, and a Turkish wet sauna, which had the same rough layout, but which was a bit larger and featured many buckets stuck under trickles of cold water.

Two rows of lockers lined a room full of leather chairs with showers at one end and a cold dipping pool at the other.

When I was a child, I would run in and out of the sauna, while my father would participate in the more traditional aspects of banya.

It wasn’t until I was a reporter working in Ukraine that I learned the ritualistic aspects. Several of the reporters and editors from the Kyiv Post, where I was working the summer before the Orange Revolution, would meet up at a local banya after the paper went to press.

Someone would bring sausages and bread, while another person brought a large bottle of Nemiroff vodka, which we would dispose of rather quickly between sessions in the dry sauna and steam rooms.

The first sweat was a long and cleansing sweat in the dry sauna. Since the newspaper folks often took over the banya for an afternoon, we would talk politics until you were dizzy from the heat.

We would then stumble out of the sauna and into a cold shower before plunging into a cold swimming pool.

The second sweat was shorter, but most would grab a handful of birch branches with dried leaves attached with which they would proceed to beat themselves on the back and legs. Some would take turns beating each others’ legs and backs with the branches.

Someone always increased the heat by throwing a ladle-full of water into the ovens, and soon it was too hot to breathe, and we’d pile out and race for the cold-water faucets if the showers were full. And then it was right back into the pool to let the heat drain away in the chilly water.

The invigoration that took place was fantastic. Your body tingled with the intensity of the extremes, and you often felt completely relaxed and yet buzzed at the same time. I’ve only ever experienced this in a banya, though some friends claim a certain green liquor will produce the same effect. I prefer the banya method myself.

The smell of grilled sausages would waft over the banya, and one by one the bathers would make their way to a long wooden table to eat bread and pickles and sausages while downing copious amounts of Nemiroff and Slavutych beer.

After hours of conversation, eating and drinking, most would head back to the dry sauna to begin the process again, and a good afternoon at the bathhouse could turn into a six or seven hour experience that trailed off into the evening.

When you walked out of the bathhouse into the moist, warm air of a Kyiv thunderstorm, you felt exceedingly clean and optimistic, which was good, since most of the bathers planned to head to dinner and then a night of drinking at the The Drum.

These great memories danced around my head as I visited the Chicago Sweatlodge with a good friend and fellow journalist.

We picked up news conversations as easily as if we’d been discussing them for weeks as we sat in the dry sauna for 10-15 minutes at a time, and then we’d step under the cold showers before dunking in a ridiculously cold pool that stole your very breath away completely before you reemerged dripping and gasping at the shock of it.

Recovery was quick, and after a few moments and a glass of cold water, we would head into the Turkish wet sauna, where men would dump buckets of cold water over their heads and replace the felted wool hats atop their heads so they could withstand the damp heat longer than in the dry sauna.

Others would lay on a mat while another man would dip a handful of oak leaves and branches in a bucket of soapy water and proceed to bathe, message and beat the back of the other man.

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When the heat became unbearable, we’d head back to the showers and the cold pool and then recover in leather seats under flatscreen TVs overhead, where we’d continue to talk about the news and the trajectory of our careers.

The other men talked loudly in Russian. And though my Russian is rusty, I could pick up on their conversations with a word or two. Some talked about their families and the challenge of finding a rest home for a well-loved father, while others discussed business and the Manti Te’o story repeating itself on half the televisions in the place.

After a few turns in the wet and dry saunas, we made our way to the dining area and ordered pelmeni, chebureki, peirogi and chicken soup. While we waited for the food, we enjoyed a shot of well-chilled Russian vodka followed by a big glass of Obolon Premium.

The food was delicious and handmade, which reminded me of my grandmother. Chess boards and other games lined one wall of the dining area, and many conversations took place over food and vodka in the overly optimistic atmosphere of a post-sweat dining area.

After finishing our meal, we elected to skip another planned afternoon activity to do several more rounds in the saunas.

I left my cellphone in the locker, which counts for the longest waking hours I’ve ever been separated from that technology. And that is just one of the many magics of the baths.

Leaving the world outside for a while to bask in the invigorating and restorative nature of the sweats is truly one of the most relaxing ways to spend any amount of time, and I feel a truly important thing to practice in life as often as you can afford. 

The baths are not cheap, not cheap enough to do every day, of course, but I could see myself escaping the business of life for a day at the baths every couple of months, and I shall in fact make it a priority in my life.

After a few more turns in the saunas and the cold pool, we sat in the leather chairs and alternated between conversation, listening to others and watching the muted televisions.

One final round in the Turkish wet sauna seemed to be enough, and after breathing the damp heat as long as we could stand, I took one more dunk in the cold pool, staying in just long enough to feel completely helpless.

I showered under warm water and dressed, and we headed back toward the suburbs and life and all the reasons for which you need to visit the banya as often as necessary.

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