The long, meandering, and true story of an American’s first experience with Banya
Prior to December 19, 2017, the entirety of my context on the practice known as “Banya” came from the following calendar invite a few weeks ahead of my trip to Ukraine:
This remained my only context as I pulled up to a small house tucked within a forest a few kilometers from the Ukrainian-Russian border. A tall, lanky, bald man opened the door, exchanged unknown words in Russian with other members of our group, and I was led to a changing room before being handed a towel and what appeared to be a wool winter hat.
“To protect head,” explained Oleg, the veteran Banya-goer of the group whose knowledge of the process seemed beyond dispute. I put on the hat and put aside my questions about what my head needed protection from (as well as the advertised use of a swimsuit), putting my faith in the calendar invite that “Oleg knows.”
The next 30 minutes were indeed what I had expected from a bath house visit: a bunch of barely-covered men sweating together in a tiny wooden box. Occasionally, when the air became so thick that it started to weigh down my lungs, grunts and groans would escape to commune with the group: we’re in this together. After all available body fluid had been thoroughly sweat out, we left the Banya Box and entered a private room with a TV and table set with tea, beer, cured fish, soup, and other snacks — a welcome surprise!
Well, I thought as I took a bite of my cured fish, if this is Banya, I suppose I can see why people like it!
I was startled when the bald man that greeted us entered the room, clapped his hands, and said what was translated to me as, “Okay, who’s ready for Banya?”
Was this whole charade simply Pre-Banya?
The other American in our group went first, while I flipped channels between Russian game shows and a Crimea Channel documentary about turtles. About 20 minutes later, the American re-emerged with a glow and spring in his step. “Maaaan, that was awesome. I feel so relaxed. I feel good, man.”
Emboldened by his reaction and the knowledge that another American had indeed survived a Banya experience, I volunteered to go next. The bald man I had by now named Banya Man led me back to the Banya Box, and motioned his hand at the ledge for me to sit. Ignorant of the process, I followed his instruction dutifully and waited.
“No, down,” corrected Banya Man, patting the ledge. I started to do so, but he stopped me abruptly. “No! Towel off.”
“No, that’s okay. Towel on,” I replied sheepishly. I felt guilty about my puritan American baggage, but I was positive that I was not comfortable being butt-naked in a tiny enclosed space with this stranger.
“No — is okay. Is Banya,” reassured Banya Man, as if simply being reminded that this was Banya would erase years of cultural programming.
It was here that I had a decision to make: Would I be able to power through my senseless discomfort, and give myself to this new cultural experience? Or would I shy away and allow myself to be ruled by the irrational body anxiety of my homeland? Determined above all else to not be that American, I took off my towel and lied down — butt triumphantly in the air.
This isn’t so bad. Go you! You’re going to have a great massage — and who cares about a little nudity anyway. Besides, you’ve been working out.
My pep talk was cut short as my head was abruptly lifted and then shoved back down into a pillow of cool, wet oak leaves.
What the fucking shit?!
Before I could even begin to grapple with my new reality, yet another bushel of leaves was put on the back of my head, encasing me from neck up in a blinding helmet of moist foliage. My heartbeat accelerated rapidly as I began to assess the situation.
Okay, Alex. Your head is encased in wet leaves and you’re naked in this tiny room with this strange Ukrainian man. And you can’t see. No, this wasn’t what we were expecting, but everything is fine. This is going to be fine. Everything is going to be just fine.
It was at that moment that I heard a rustling sound through my leafy helmet, as if a predator were hiding in the bushes. Occasionally, small drops of water would find their way to my backside.
There is a perfectly rational explanation for this. Everything is fine. Maybe it is just some ritual to scare away demons. What kind of leaves are these anyway? It’s probably not poison oak — that wouldn’t make any sense for business. But what if they think that the face swelling is just demons exiting your body? No, don’t be stupid, Alex. This is a modern country. You were just at an office with these people. These are perfectly rational and normal individuals that wouldn’t put your face in poison oak. Especially not when you are naked.
I felt a swift swat directly on my ass with what definitely felt like branches and leaves.
“WHAT THE FUCK ARE YOU DOING?!” I shot up and yelled, indignant.
“Is Banya!!!” protested Banya Man, bewildered by my question. “Is good for you! Release tension.”
We glared at each other intently as we both tried to wrap our heads around the gap in cultural contexts. His interest in the relief of my tension seemed as sincere as my desire to not have anything funky go up my butt.
I breathed in deep, laid back down, and gave myself another pep talk as Banya Man began to beat me up and down my backside.
This is just part of Banya. You got this. We are are in this together.
FWACK! FWACK! FWACK!
This is really just an intense massage. I know we don’t usually like massages but it’s not that weird. Everything is fine.
Perhaps fearing that he had been too abusive, Banya Man began to mix other techniques into his routine to win back my favor. He started wrapping my feet in leaves and pressing on them, then shifted to using the leaves to push down on my butt.
Alright, now he’s massaging your butt. He is touching your butt. Please don’t stick anything up my butt…please please please please don’t stick anything up my butt.
Unsure of proper Banya protocol, utterly uncomfortable, and feeling an acute need to shut down my inner monologue by any means necessary, I decided to engage Banya Man in small talk.
“So, uh…how many Banya do you do per day?”
“Depend. If clean — lots of work! No clean, no work.”
My descent into anxiety was swift and unforgiving as several new variables were introduced into my experience.
What kind of cleaning regimen do they use between Banya? Do they have special Banya Box cleaning equipment? What if someone has an STI? Are Ukrainian STIs worse than American STIs? What is the threshold for “not clean”? And what do they have to do when that happens? Ugh, I should have gone first, it was probably cleaned right before our group. Right? Or does the heat kill the bacteria?
“Now turn!” Banya Man commanded.
“No…I am okay,” I whispered through the leaves.
“No! Is Banya! Time for front!”
I couldn’t move. I sat on the precipice of what would surely be a horrifying sexual experience, running through every step in the chain of events that led me to this moment.
Was it that I agreed to take my towel off? Did I show him that I can’t say no? Or was I doomed from the moment I arrived? Is this finally the time that saying “yes” to everything catches up with me? Am I going to be molested? Will the Ukrainian police even care? Since we paid for this does this count as prostitution? Am I going to go to Ukrainian jail? Am I going to die?
“Turn!” shouted Banya Man one more time.
Get yourself together, Schiff, I chided myself — using my last name to communicate that this was no time for messing around. We are in too deep on this. You got us into this situation and you are going to see it the fuck through. You are going to be uncomfortable. You are going to be horrified. But he is not going to touch your dick.
I turned over and groaned, and Banya Man restored my freshly-soaked helmet of foliage.
You are having a goddamn moment of cultural exchange. You will later marvel at the diversity of human behavior and rituals. You will Wikipedia the origins of Banya and discuss them with your Ukrainian friends, impressing them with your open-minded and worldly attitude. Everything is fucking fine. This is just a series of compounding misunderstandings.
I was completely blind to the outside world, but keenly aware that not only was my genitalia exposed but it was looking right back at Banya Man.
After approximately three seconds of resolve, my anxiety came crushing down on me with each whack of leaves on the front side of my body. My façade of perseverance crumbled.
This isn’t fine. This isn’t fine. You are not okay. Your dick is staring this guy in the face. What if he does something? You can’t see. You’re blind. Oh god…what if he is judging the size of my dick? Am I bigger or smaller than his typical clientele? How do Ukrainian dicks compare to American dicks? Wait, why do you even care? OH GOD PLEASE MAKE THIS END!
Finally, I heard another clap, followed by: “Okay, now time for Banya.”
My blood began to boil. “I’m sorry…what?”
“Banya! Time now for Banya!”
“What the fuck was this then?!”
“No! You go out door. You run through other door. Then you jump in pool. You do 3 times.”
Distraught, I was frozen in existential crisis at the notion that I might have to do this entire routine several more times. I began to question whether any of this was real, or if I was part of some Ukrainian game show — or, worse, simply being tormented by a bored and disgruntled Banya Man.
“GO!” Banya Man yelled.
I breathed deeply and bolted out the door. I ran through the pool area — or rather fast-waddled, not used to running in the nude — and out the door into winter’s cold embrace. There was a very tiny pool dug into the ground, surrounded by snow.
“JUMP!” Banya Man yelled from the doorway.
With nothing else to lose, I jumped into water that couldn’t have been more than a few degrees above freezing — screaming at a pitch I didn’t know I could hit as soon as my testicles touched the water. I got out as quickly as I could, and Banya Man was waiting for me by a lounge chair.
“Sit! Now time for Banya.”
The temperature shock left me feeling so woozy that I could do nothing else but give in to the experience — whatever it may be. Banya Man began to rub my temples and gaslight me that I feel great.
“See? Banya good. Stress all melt away. Feel light and relaxed.”
It was at about this moment that I believe I truly understood Russian literature for the first time — that very particular kind of categorical, dark arbitrariness I remembered in Dostoyevsky. I was but a naked Sisyphus, at the whim of Banya Man’s rules, none of which made sense or seemed to abide by any sensible moral framework. My illusion of control became clearer and clearer through faint protests that fell on deaf ears.
Finally, after an eternity in a dreamy, dazed, naked stupor, Banya Man asked me one more question:
“Okay, now done with Banya. You want massage?”