Russia's banya culture is just like being at a sports bar ... except you're naked
MOSCOW -- The naked Russian man was talking about Argentina.
"Why do they play like this?" he said, clutching a pile of branches he then used to smack against his friend (also naked) over and over. The friend grunted. A short discussion of Jorge Sampaoli, Argentina's national-team coach, ensued.
I sat nearby (naked as well). I was in a Russian banya ("bathhouse") early Saturday evening, and this conversation was like countless others among soccer fans during this World Cup, save for the fact that it started in a small room heated to nearly 200 degrees Fahrenheit, continued in a freezing-cold plunge pool and involved people who were wearing nothing but hats made of felt.
The banya experience is one of my favorite parts of visiting Russia. I've never really liked going to American spas, but the community element of a Russian banya is something I really enjoy, even if it's not always entirely clear what is going on.
On this night, I went with my friend (and landlord for this month) Patrick, who generally makes a banya visit once per week. We arrived right around kickoff of the France-Argentina round-of-16 match, paid roughly a $25 entry fee -- it's more if you need to buy a hat or sandals, but we had brought our own -- and were given numbered rubber bracelets that corresponded to lockers in the changing room. We put our belongings in the lockers, stripped off our clothes, slipped into sandals and wrapped towels around us as we went into the waiting area. This room was like a sports bar, with booths and banquettes, televisions everywhere, a bar and waiters walking throughout taking food orders.
We watched a few moments of the game and then a bell clanged out, prompting nearly everyone in the room to stand up. We shuffled, along with most of the other men (banyas are almost always single-sex) into the sauna, which was dim, with bench seating which quickly filled.
Standing in the sauna is nearly impossible. Heat rises and the steam that wafts in is even hotter. If you can't find a bench, crouching or sitting on the wooden planks -- put your towel down first! -- will do. The heat is overwhelming, the sort that makes you feel as though your skin is boiling in its own sweat.
Generally, there is a group of men who control the heat and the steam and any additions to the room, like adding lavender or other aromas, for example; that group rotates day by day. On this day, the group in charge wore what seemed to be Santa Claus-style felt hats (everyone wears some kind of hat to keep the heat from burning your ears and scalp), and the addition was oranges, which we smelled and squeezed, letting the juices run down our shoulders and legs.
There was lively banter among the group, too, as well as appreciation for those who helped make the experience happen. A man named Victor received an ovation when he entered the sauna because, as the leader explained, "he brought the oranges."
There was also singing. As we sat in the heat, a song would begin, and a rousing group performance followed. Patrick informed me that one of the songs included lines such as "I'm on a horse, riding through Russia," and "I love Russia, and Russia loves me." The end of the song was frequently used as a way to indicate when it was time to leave the heat, though many of the older patrons exited earlier.
We spent about 5-10 minutes in the heat before exiting into the bathing room. There, I enjoyed stepping under one of the wooden buckets that is constantly being filled with freezing-cold water. Pull on a nearby chain and the bucket tips, dousing your fiery skin in a deluge that simultaneously knocks the wind out of you and feels glorious. There are also regular showers and plunge pools, chilled to bone-numbing temperatures, where I prepared myself to return to the heat.
Patrick and I typically would do two or three heat-cold-heat cycles, which seemed about standard. We did not hit each other with the branches while in the heat, though that is popular and is, I guess, akin to a really vigorous massage. After completing our routine we returned to the lounge area, where everyone was sitting around in their hats and (sometimes) their towels, eating dumplings or other snacks and drinking beer while watching the soccer.
This circuit continued for several hours and the atmosphere was friendly. Save for the nudity, it was really like any other soccer pub. That reality was crystalized for me later in the game, when I was talking with the men who were moaning about the Argentine coach earlier.
"Why do you root for Argentina, anyway?" I asked. One of them turned toward me to answer but dropped his felt hat as he did. He bent over, squatted down -- fully naked -- and went to grab it, and I politely averted my eyes.
His voice came up from the floor.
"Why Argentina?" he said. "Lionel Messi, of course."
Sam Borden is a Global Sports Correspondent for ESPN, also covering soccer for ESPN FC. Follow him on Twitter @SamBorden.