Monday, February 27, 2012

Some thoughts on friendship and extremes in temperature

Three years ago, two of my friends- without consulting one another- each bought me blankets for Christmas.  Tales of my intolerance for cold have yielded no small amount of teasing, earning me the nickname "gargoyle toes" from my partner (he's cute, I know) and the occasional stare from strangers when I don two coats at outdoor sports events.  Prior to cohabitation, my bachelorette pad could have doubled as a greenhouse (luckily for my energy bill, my partner has restored the carbon balance and now you can safely leave raw meat in our living room).

When I announced my impending Moscow adventure, the most common response I got was approximately 8 seconds of blank stare followed by a 'you're going where?'  The idea that I, whose sartorial expression often involves a down coat in any weather lower than 64 degrees, would voluntary pack myself off to Moscow during January of all months, was in simply beyond comprehension for most of my close friends.

Painted against this background, two of my jaunts over the past week have managed to shock even myself.  Some alternative health practices held within Russian culture prescribe rapid changes between very very hot and very very cold to stave off sickness during the winter months.  Wanting to experience as much of Russia as I possibly can, I decided to take the metaphorical plunge into Russian bathhouses- баня (pronounced ban-yah)- and the more literal plunge into a frozen lake.  
Баняи (баня plural= ban-yee) can be either public or private, ornate or resembling the interior of your eighth grade gym locker room.  My first баня experience fell into the latter category at the public баня two metro stops up from my dorm.  I went with two of the other George Mason students, and forwent the full баня enchilada as I had grocery shopping and other overly tiring BS to attend to (grocery shopping sans car in snow with vestiges of Soviet shortage mentality contributing to shitty customer service=bad news bears), opting solely for a massage to work out the lingering kinks from my trans-Atlantic flight and the effects of Russia's impression of a Western style spring mattress.  What looked like a tiny storefront from the sidewalk gave way to an enormous entrance lobby with reception desk, restaurant, and ticket window (касса) where one can purchase entrance to the баня, rent towels, bathrobes, and, notably, the sticks that one beats against one's skin to work out toxins after several rounds of sauna-frigid water-sauna-frigid water fun.  I left these wonders to my fellow Patriots, and followed the masseuse up to the top floor (elevators, I miss you) for the most wonderful deep-tissue-beat-the-crap-out-of-you massage I have ever had.  You can have your relaxing aroma therapy and whathaveyou.  Give me a painfully deep back rub that leaves me feeling like my muscles have been taught a lesson about bunching up in knots, thank you very much.  No frills, no music, no fancy candles- just a tacky dolphin beach towel and an atmosphere rivaling the interior of my eighth grade locker room and a fabulous massage.  Perfect.

After having my new Russian friend work out my knots and teach me a few handy new vocab words (back spasm= резервное спазм, pronounced rezervnoyo spazm, pain= боль, pronounced bol, with the l pronounced very softly), I followed him back down the stairs and on the way passed by two naked, beet red men, both in their mid-50s.  привет, comrades. Yeesh.  I had been given a heads up by a friend that people walked around au natural, but I didn't think I was going to encounter men- much less bright cherry red from the sauna men- in this condition on my way down the stairs in post-massage daze.

Having a better idea of what I might encounter when I went full out баня-ing, I was equal parts apprehensive and curious when a floormate booked a private баня for fifteen HSE students to enjoy for an afternoon.  With visions of beet red old men pushing at the corners of my mind, I shrugged my shoulders and jumped on the metro to join in the fun, pacified by the fact that we would have the joint to ourselves.  Once inside the баня, it became clear why the owner had asked our friend who made the reservation if he was coming with his girlfriend, or if we were a group of couples.  The walls and ceilings were shellacked with frescoes of naked women, cherubs playing harps, and blond couples locked in embrace.  Along with the sauna, pool with freezing water, shower, a lounge room with sofas, TV, and massage chair, and room with pool table and snack bar, the баня had two 'resting rooms' comprised mainly of enormous beds and satin sheets.  Oh.

We quickly bestowed the moniker "the Boinking баня" on our friendly neighborhood bathhouse, and commenced enjoying sweating in the sauna for 8-15 minutes and then jumping into the icy water.  Open pores, sweat out the remnants of McDonald's fixes, cheap beer, and too many late nights, dive into freezing pool, close pores, rinse and repeat.  Standing on the train platform waiting to head home, I had the most wonderful feeling of lightness- my arms, especially, felt almost hollow. Every inch of me felt warm and airy, and that night I slept soundly and nightmare free.

Building on the success of баня bonding, several of us Studencheskya (the name of our dorm) dwellers took up an invitation to go swimming in a frozen lake just outside of the city.  According to my dorm neighbor, this once was a common practice during the early years of the Soviet Union, when people were very health conscientious.  The extreme jolt to the system was thought to ward off sickness mid-winter, and promote general health.  Too bad you had to be mentally ill to try it.

Just kidding. 

After all, the thermometer had finally hit 0 degrees C, making it practically tropical outside. 

I had gone to bed a little too late the night before our jump, and sitting bleary eyed in the kitchen the next morning I decided to pass and dive back between the covers instead of under the ice.  Tucked warmly into my bed, I could almost hear my two favorite authors’- the venerable Davids Sedaris and Rakoff- voices narrating the experience I was choosing to forego:  “Just think, the lake I wouldn’t be caught dead in might actually be where I am found dead!”

Mustering up a rallying cry reminiscence of those abstinent only WhatWouldJesusDo teens from 1998- after all, What Would David Sedaris Do? - I crawled out from under my scratchy dorm issued blankets, pulled on my bikini, two layers of thermal long johns, George Mason sweatpants, snow boots, Columbia fleece pull over, and down parka, and made tracks for the lake of doom. 

Rocking back and forth half asleep on the metro, I kept trying to avoid thinking about what was about to happen.  Lake. Frozen. Ice needs to be broken to get in lake that is frozen.  Beth in lake that is frozen that ice needs to be broken to get into. Does not compute. 

Forty minutes, three metro line changes, five city blocks and three quarters of a mile walk through a park later, our little intrepid group of ice swimmers came upon the lake and were greeted by…another naked old man (might we be seeing a trend here?).  отлично (pronounced at-leech-na- awesome/excellent). 

Said naked old man- ballpark 70-80- started animatedly shouting at us in rapid fire Russian.  The six of us who speak crappy Russian (or, in my case, um, almost none) stared blankly while the three among us who are approaching fluency along with Anton, the native Russian student who had invited us for this excursion responded to the man’s distressed exclamations.  Whipping out my most commonly used phrase, “Что?” (pronounced schtow- what?), I looked expectantly at Anton.  Apparently the hole in the lake was for the express enjoyment of the members of a club which existed for the sole purpose of frozen lake jumping.  Our antics were encroaching on their turf…er, water. 

Great. Not only was I about to jump into freezing water, I was about to piss off an elderly frozenlakejumping enthusiast in the process. 
Preparing the Lake of Doom
After being assured by Anton that we were ok to proceed, the manly men of our group stripped down to their skivvies (we left the completely nude style to the angry gentleman) and slipped and slid their way down the frozen steps that led to the fated hole in the ice.  I caught sight of the angry naked man making the sign of the cross and kneeling on the bottom step before lowering himself into the water. I don’t recall the ‘jump into freezing water’ religious practice from my church days.  Perhaps this was a last confession prior to death by hypothermia.

March of the penguin men
I remember seeing a documentary sometime in elementary school (yay for substitute teacher day with its random films!) where penguins vie to push one another into holes in the ice to ‘test’ whether there are hungry predators lurking below in hopes of a penguiny snack from the heavens above.  Watching the men jostle each other down the final steps was somewhat akin to this process- each cheering the others on and elbowing one another good naturedly as they approached the hole, each making it clear that they were not afraid to jump in, but also appearing not too eager to be the first to go.

Shouts of “holy shit!” and equally charming curses in Russian rang out across the frozen park as one by one the guys took their turn jumping in and ducking quickly under the icy water.  Running back up the steps, they congratulated each other on their awesomeness while passing around hot rum laced with sugar.  “Again! We go again!” my friend Alexis shouted, and the guys clamored back down the steps, now bespeckled with blood from whomever had cut their toe on the first time down- everyone’s feet were numb so we couldn’t tell whose foot was cut. 
European unity: Frenchmen Alexis and Mathieu celebrate with German York

It turned out that the second dip was ill advised (yes, even more so than the first).  What had been exhilarating time one was just plain painful and cold round two.  Armed with this information, the three of us women peeled off layer after layer of winter wear and headed down the stairs to face the algid water awaiting us below. I was intent on wearing my George Mason shirt in- could there be a better way to thank the institution who had made this experience possible than to freeze to death decked in their insignia? - but as I hit the last steps a few of the men convinced me that being clad in frozen wet cotton would likely result in nogoodverybad outcomes.  Peeling off this last layer, bikini Beth cautiously hit the final step, clinging to the railing on the way down.  The only thing I could think of that would be worse than jumping into freezing water would be falling into freezing water.  I can just imagine the letter home to my mother: “We regret to inform you that your moron daughter hit her head on a frozen staircase while attempting to jump into a lake and was found clad only in a swimsuit in 32F weather.”

The longest step
The last step down was the worst.  The faster this was over the better- the only thing between me and a nap was a little frigid water- but lowering myself past the final stair as I shook off a friend’s flip-flops (which he had generously donated to the cause of me not cutting my bare feet) required me to push any semblance of logic out of my mind.  Clearly this was among the stupider things I have ever done, but it would also go down as among my more badass accomplishments as well. 

Hitting the water knocked my breath out.  It was so cold; it’s hard to describe it as anything other than painful.  God only knows how Leonardo DiCaprio’s character kept blabbering to Rose in Titanic.  I couldn’t think or breathe, much less come up with coherent speech.

Get me outta here!!!
I was back out of the water before 10 seconds had passed.  The few steps back up were covered by thick sheets of ice, and on the second step I started to slip back down the stairs.  My frozen hands couldn’t grasp the railing properly, and just as panic began to rise in my chest three sets of hands reached to pull me safely unto the landing.  A fourth set handed me the borrowed sandals and my towel, and I cheered on the other two women while heading up the staircase towards the glorious warmth of my sweatpants waiting above.

The badass girls club
By the time I reached my clothes at the top of the stairs, extraordinary warmth suffused my entire body; that contented happiness of falling asleep in front of the fireplace after Christmas dinner, where every cell of my body is warm from the inside out, my head empty of anything but appreciation for the glowing heat.  I understood why the men had gone back for round two- I felt wonderful. I choose to eschew the pain of a double dip, but cheered on the other girls clad only in my swimsuit, towel and borrowed flip-flops.  Once they made their way back up the steps we toasted our success, grabbed our clothes and headed to the squat house where our naked elderly pal had agreed to let us change.  The interior was covered in pictures of people who have taken the plunge over the years, beet red and smiling between chattering teeth.  A striped cat batted at my long johns, and I tried to focus on getting dressed rather than the smell of very, very ripe gym sock that pervaded the little room. 

That afternoon I took the most glorious nap I have ever enjoyed.  I emerged from my dreamless slumber warm and refreshed, so knocked out that I forgot for a second- just long enough to hit my head- that I was on the bottom bunk.  I stared up at the springs above my head and let my mind wander, thinking back over the days’ events.

In addition to giving me bragging rights, the icy adventure and баня bonding yielded a nice metaphor for the friendships I am building here and the ones I am missing from home. Friends are the people who encourage you to jump in when faced with challenges, who cheer you on and warm you up.  When you lose your footing and start to slip back into things that have caused you pain (like, say, a frozen lake), they reach for your hand and keep you from falling.  They help you sweat out the toxins in your life, and offer you companionship as you work through the process of letting go of the crap, be it toxic relationships in your life or junk in your pores.

The thing that scared me the most about studying abroad (yes, even more than the cold) was the prospect of being away from the relationships I treasure at home.  I have been abundantly blessed with friendships that have spanned decades, hardships, differences of opinion, weddings, divorces, babies, graduate school, career changes, and now continents.  In return for suspending my fears about the distance between me and those I love, I have gained more people in my life that make me laugh, challenge me to incorporate new points of view, encourage me to embrace the unknown, and, occasionally, to take leaps of faith that I won't freeze in new environments.

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