Beaten at the banya
One of the easiest ways for PCVs in Ukraine to integrate into their communities is the banya. It is a ritual which includes nakedness, steam, heat, food, and alcohol (though not all at once). I have, in my two-plus years here, read many an account and Facebook status that talk about peoples’ experiences at the banya. I myself went to the sauna a number of times, but before yesterday, not a Ukrainian banya.
My friends’ parents have a dacha, and I was invited to go with them to take a steam yesterday after our day of classes. It would be great, they said – invite their friends from Kiev, my friend Meeghan, have some barbecue, have a steam, hang out and chat. I didn’t have to bring anything buy myself, and a sheet (though in the end I did not bring a sheet either because I don’t have any extra).
The dacha itself is nice, but to be honest, I would not live there. It is among other dachas, has two rooms plus a kitchen type room (with no stove and no sink). Apparently there is electricity, though they need to hook it up. It is kind of like a rustic cabin among others, some of which have been or are in the process of being modernized, others of which have been completely abandoned.
For people who don’t know what dachas are, they have a long history, going back to the time of Peter the Great, when dachas were were small estates in the country, which were given to loyal vassals by the tsar. Most dachas were nationalized after the Bolshevik Revolution of 1917, and the nicest ones were given to those who were in political favor at the time (and taken away when the person fell out of favor).
After World War II, dacha development grew. Because the land was considered communal, and thus no one “owned” anything, people began to occupy unused parcels of land and use them for growing food and built structures on them – anything from the simplest shed to a rather nice (relatively speaking) house. Because these structures were unheated, usually did not have running water or heat, and were uninsulated, people did not usually live there year-round, but visited them in the summer. Most people who lived in cities lived in concrete multi-story buildings (which still exist in post-Soviet countries today) and liked to go to dachas to get close to nature (and grow food).
After the Soviet Union collapsed, dachas were privatized and many (though not all) people still have the dachas, the ownership of which is passed through the family. For example, I know someone who inherited a dacha and small plot of land from her grandmother. The challenge with this is, if people do not use the dachas or move out of the city that the dacha is near, the dacha and land go neglected and can become targets for vandals and thieves.
The dacha we visited yesterday is, I believe, of the more traditional style, and attached to it is the banya – the real reason to visit! This banya has a place where you build the fire. The fire heats up the water and rocks inside the banya, causing steam – so it is not a dry sauna, it is more of a steam room (with wooden walls and benches).
But we didn’t start with the banya, because it has to be prepared (fired up, water brought in). We set up the table and the hammock (in which we all took a turn but was taken over by the two boys with us), had some wine, and took a walk (and ended up getting a bit lost. The “roads” are not marked, and neither are the houses). I did not particularly want to eat before going into the hot room, but that was the schedule. We did not go in co-ed, but according to gender, so we were able to get the full effects by going in without any clothing of any kind (or any bathing suit).
While inside, another part of the tradition of the banya is that after sitting in the steam, getting doused with cold water, and sitting in the steam some more, you lay down on the bench and get beaten with a “broom” made of Birch branches (no I don’t have a photo of it, because I was not wearing clothing). But it was actually kind of fun – I lay there laughing the whole time I was getting beaten.
How can you top that?
We came back out, had another snack and a lot of water while the boys and men took their turn, then returned for another session – two was all I did, because as I said, I had a full stomach and to me, a full stomach and a hot room don’t go so well together. So I called it a night on the banya after two rounds.
After we all finished, we stayed for more wine and conversation. This is the kind of day I will miss when I leave.