This afternoon I went to a Russian sauna, or banya. One of my colleagues has extensive experience in Russia and has taken advantage of Manitoba's similarity to the Russian winter to build himself a banya in his backyard.
He found a supply of cedarwood and built a shed with a small outer room. I entered the outer room and stripped off my clothes, hanging them on a hook. Glasses came off immediately: too much steam to see with them on anyway. A swimsuit (too much of a new comer to this sort of thing to consider au naturel), and I was ready to go further in and much hotter. My friend only makes the banya about 70 Celsius (about 160 Fahrenheit). We're not setting any records, but it feels warm in the early Manitoba winter.
Soon sweat drips from my face and body and every pore. I can't see well without my glasses in any case, and with sweat flowing freely down my face I spend most of the time with my hands wiping my eyes. Three other men are there. They all sit on the top seat (we have three levels in the small sauna). John pours water into a container on the woodstove, and steam fills the air.
After about 10 minutes one of the others leads the way out; he's the closest to a newcomer besides me. I sit on the bottom seat, where the heat is lowest. And I follow him out without hesitation. The four of us cool off outside. The snow just covers the ground, so no rolling around in the snow today. The two who are most experienced take cold water from a tap and pour it over themselves. I just cool off, grateful to be able to see again.
Then back inside. John adds oil with some peppermint to the water this time, and scent mingled with steam fills the air. Soon I am holding my hands over my eyes again. Another 10 minutes and my first banya of the year is over. I cool off outside, put my clothes back on, and head for home.
It's a good experience. Physically it helps to bring out anything inside the body that needs to be purged. The four of us found that the steam and heat and cold also greases conversation and friendship. Perhaps holding one's hands over one's eyes helps men to speak more easily ....
The banya over, I walked back to the main campus building with one of the others. The two stalwarts remained in the banya for another half hour. I fingered my glasses, waiting for the frames to shrink enough for my to reinsert the right lens. A hot metal frame combined with a cool plastic-glass lens makes for loss of lens: unanticipated consequences of the banya. Next time I'll leave my glasses outside the hut entirely.