“Sergei, you good?” I say, looking at my colleague seated before a spread of horsemeat
and beer. “I'm good, David, enjoy.”
Vasily walks me through a thick wooden door into the next chamber, where he tends
to some mechanics. He opens the metal door to a compartment and ensures that a burning
fire has the pile of stones good and hot. We then move to the third room of the wooden
cabin, the bathhouse itself. There are wooden benches, and I sit comfortably on one as
Vasily opens another metal door—accessing the same compartment but from this other
room—and douses the hot stones with water. There is a sizzling sound, and the heat in the
bathhouse goes immediately from really, really hot to unbearable.
I am sweating profusely. “ Aaarrrhhh .” Vasily is making an animal sound, suggesting
he's enjoying the heat. I would not call it enjoyable, but I do feel and appreciate the thera-
peutic nature of all this. I take a deep breath—the air is hot and clean as it runs into my
He's trying to get my attention. This isn't my first rodeo, so I know what's about to hap-
pen. As per tradition, Vasily has taken a birch branch—the venik —out of a bucket where
it was soaking, and he is motioning for me to lie down. I do, and he begins whacking me
violently with the branch, while making that animal noise: “ Aaarrrhhh .”
I really can appreciate most banya traditions. But the idea that violent contact with birch
somehow adds to the experience seems like a stretch. After a few whacks Vasily lies down,
and I return the favor.
After ten minutes of this, we both return to the middle chamber, where the next tradition
awaits. There is a bucket of ice-cold water, and I dump it over myself, screaming bloody
murder but knowing this is somehow making me a healthier and happier person, because
why would generations of Russian men have done it otherwise?
Vasily does his dunk. Both dripping wet and shivering, we return to Sergei and sit at the
“How was it?”
“Great, Sergei, thanks. You sure you don't want a turn?”
“Sausage?” Vasily is holding a chunk of horsemeat in his right hand, and a large sharp
knife in his right. By this point Sergei and I have concluded that Vasily seems genuinely
harmless—though Sergei still decides not to drink the beer or vodka (I take one for the
Vasily and I are sharing a small bench in boxer shorts, our wet bodies all but touching.
“So you're a doctor,” I ask, with Sergei generously translating.