Lover of the Russian Queen

Holy Toledo.

I honestly cannot believe how crazy this week has been. I thought because I had taken Monday off, the days would magically fly by, and what a far flung fantasy that turned out to be!

Waking up today I was feeling more Forrest Gump, (post-multiple cross country runs) than Flash Gordon:

This morning, as has been the case for the past few days, as soon as our alarm went off, Nymeria announced her arrival in the bedroom by jumping up on the bed, and slathering us with her kitty kisses (and not to mention some very enthusiastic whisker rubs/headbutts.)

Also, our little gal purrs like the mother of all trains. Believe you me – the dream of a few extra minutes of glorious shut eye is resoundingly destroyed what with this fur monster-cum-locomotive, luxuriating next to your ear.

One day I will expire from cuteness overload.

It’s a good thing I’m madly in love with her.

When I dream tonight, I’ll dream of this:

"BED AND BREAKFAST"

The lobby of our “bed and breakfast” looks as though a bomb had gone off only minutes prior to our arrival.  Plaster crumbles off of the walls and coats the exposed concrete floor.  Someone has been painting, but it seems that they have left halfway through the job.  Perhaps to buy more cigarettes, judging from the healthy number of butts that litter the floor.  They have also left their paint splattered socks and a coffee mug half full of coagulated brew.  A stench of ammonia hangs in the air.

We climb the stairs of a building that was built over one hundred years ago, and is only now undergoing cosmetic upgrades.  Our guides from the university tell us that all the structural work was completed after the implosion of the Soviet Union.

Due to the state of the place, I can’t help suspect that Nikolai and Gleb are not really here to help us to rooms, but instead to kill us and make off with our identification and luggage.  The door we stop at looks like the entrance to a bank safe I have seen in every action movie I have ever watched.

Nikolai turns to us as says, “By the way, don’t really expect breakfast.  Bed you can rely on, but I’m pretty sure that sign is lost in translation.”

Right, I nod.

Also, he turns his face closer to mine.  “Did you bring bathroom paper?”

I did, I say.  One roll.

“Every restaurant you go to, get more,” he says.

One morning, during the second week of my trip, Aimee, a young teacher from California asks me if I would like to accompany her to the banya.

Vodka. Nuff said.

We don’t have a workshop to attend and because I have six new mosquito bites and can already smell the alcohol seeping out of my skin, I say yes.  I haven’t exercised once since arriving in St. Petersburg and I figure if I can’t go for a run, I might as well sit in a sweltering sauna and sweat the booze out.

On the walk to the spa, I buy an apple blini.

The building is old, but neat looking with a carved wood banister and great frosted windows.  At the front office we purchase our dried birch branches, cardboard sandals and scratchy luffa sponges.  A young woman with heavy shadowed eyes tells us that level four is the woman’s area.

As we ascend the staircase, we pass numerous elderly men, sprawled out on small benches, with miniscule towels clumsily strewn across their genitals.  Though most look as though they are asleep, we catch many of them eyeing us and we pass by.

Once we enter the woman’s only area, we are greeted by a petite lady, with bleached-blond hair, who sits behind a cluttered desk painting her nails.  She asks us if we are excited for the sauna and when we tell her yes, she expresses delight over the fact that we have chosen her place for our first time.  She hands us each a long, white sheet and a scratchy burlap hat.

Supposedly we are supposed to wear these once inside the sauna; it is a uniform that will protect us against the heat of the room.

(It doesn’t.)

Disregard whatever anyone has ever told you about Russian saunas.  Russian saunas are HOT.

Hotter than hot.

It is a hot that screams, and bites and slaps and stings.   It gets into your mouth, burns down your legs and punches you in the face.  And it is unrelenting.  It is so hot that you can’t just take off your clothes and walk right into one.

I often found myself going to my happy place (aka this picture)

You have to prepare.

This is done by travelling back and forth between the two smaller saunas, located in a different area of the spa.  There is a “dry” sauna (supposedly cooler than the “real” sauna) and a “wet” sauna where you immerse yourself in a warm, slick fog that vaguely smells of freshly-picked lavender.  The contrast between the arid and moist should raise your core temperature to certain degree – that way you won’t immediately expire upon making contact with the debilitating and searing broil that is the banya.

(It doesn’t.)

The sheet that I was given at the front (supposedly to wrap around my body) soaks completely within seconds of my entrance into the “dry” sauna.  I give up and take it off.

I also notice that no one else is wearing the burlap hat I was given. I was told that it works well to keep the body’s core temperature low, but I just feel the Western fool sitting around in a scratchy Gilligan-inspired cap.

We soak our birch branches is a bucket of hot water so they don’t cut us when we start to flagellate each other.  (Flagellate truly being the operative word.)

Finally, we feel as though we are ready to enter the real sauna.  As soon as I walk in, I realize that no one is truly ever ready.

No one.

Okay, so this isn't the woman who beat me up, but they look very similar.

I am then accosted by a seventy-eight year old babushka (I know this because it was the only thing I could actually understand coming out of her mouth was her age) who announces that as it is her birthday, (or at least that is what I think she was saying) and that it is her responsibility to exfoliate my skin with not only my branches, but hers as well.  She flings me down onto a wooden bench with the ease of a man fifty years her junior.

I cry out in pain because the wood is so hot it is literally burning my skin – my most sensitive parts feel as though they are about to pack it in and leave for a less harsh climate.  For the next five minutes (though it seems like five years) I am thwacked from head to toe on both of sides of my body.

Finally, she stops.  “Okay!” she barks.  “Get up and you do your front!”

At first I don’t understand, but she soon rectifies my misunderstanding with a good hard swat across my chest.

Do your front!  She admonishes me.  Do it!

So I do.  I do my front.  I stand there, in the sweltering heat, self-flagellating with a dried birch branch.

My entire body feels as though it is one big blister.

Okay, enough, my drill instructor barks.  Out, out!  She shoos me out of the sauna and into a shower stall.  This may be a little hot, another woman tells me, before they turn on the faucet.  Out pours water fit for a teapot.

One minute, they tell me.  I begin to picture how my death will be transcribed back in Canada.  “Canadian women steamed in Russian bath. Death ruled non-suspicious due to stupid hat.”

Two days later, out at Peterhof, still looking for my sanity.

Just as I reach the point of no return, the water is turned off and I’m shleped across to the room to a whirlpool filled with ice cold water.

“Jump” I’m told.

I do.

As my feverish body makes contact with the frigid expanse of the pool something becomes crystal clear. I suddenly realize why Russian women live so long.

They are made of steel.

Baptized in this fire, they are made of steel.