Sunday, February 11, 2007

At the Schvitz

And speaking of Russia... It just so happens that my dear friend Marga decided to celebrate her birthday by going to the Russian baths on Avenue I in Brooklyn.
I thought it was very fitting, since I have been badmouthing the Russians on this blog of late, that I should take a good schvitz in their very midst. If you can't beat em, join em.
Well, this is why I love New York. You take the F train and 40 minutes later you are half naked in the middle of Russia.
The place outside is festooned with the following flags: the US Olympic Team, Israel, Russia and the US. So far so good, although the relationship to the Olympics is hard to grasp once you walk in and find hairy, massive creatures dismembering smoked fish with their bare hands.
First thing you see as you walk in is a picture of the Lubavitcher Rebbe. But I don't think the place is just for Jews. For one, they have oysters and calamari on the menu. Yes, the menu.
The baths are co-ed and everybody wears a bathing suit. There are far more men than there are women. The men ogle unabashedly, as if they have never seen a member of the female species.

There are plastic tables and chairs surrounding three pools. A long one, with relatively murky, cool water, a bubbling jacuzzi and a small arctic plunge pool. Around them there is a small steam room and several saunas. Buckets with cedar branches are there for flagellating yourself with them at the saunas. You douse them with scalding water and hit yourself silly. It's supposed to be very good for you. You can also use the buckets at the saunas to dump cold water into your heated body. When you are not doing any of these ablutions, you sit and eat and drink. A man who looks like he could have been a wrestling coach offers us a massage and I can just picture his arms pulverizing my bones and tenderizing my flesh none too tenderly. We politely decline.
Marga had said in the invitation that we could buy beer and food there. Beer and food at the schvitz? These things don't seem to belong in close proximity. Now, I started to warm up to the concept of eating and drinking at the shvitz, were it not for the less than meticulous eating and drinking conditions. There were many empty tables that had not been cleared up of dirty dishes, wherever someone left a wet towel, nobody picked it up, etc. I am not particularly squeamish, but one wonders about all that swimming and sweating after eating smoked fish with your bare hands. Let's say that you have to develop a bit of a stomach for it. Once you do, it is great, anthropological fun. And it relaxes the hell out of you. I defy yoga to leave you more happily relaxed.

There is a "VIP room", full of half naked humongous men having proper dinner (soup, meat, vodka) wearing only their bathing suits. You can see into all of these rooms (except the saunas) because they are encased in glass. The schvitz is a social activity, not a place to meditate and relax, but to see and be seen. Everybody wears a cellphone clipped to the towel around their waist.
There is a room with a huge sign that indicates "No Smoking" where everybody puffs happily away. There is a sign in the saunas that says, "do not pour water on the stones", and there is bound to be a Russian right opposite the sign doing exactly that. It's a great way to learn about a foreign culture.

At the baths themselves, only "finger foods" are allowed. This means a variety of smoked fishes and herrings and something called Siberian dumplings which were the closest to the kreplach my grandma used to make. I went at the Siberian dumplings with a vengeance, as my friends asked what was in them with deep distrust. Whatever it was, they were incredible.
Some of us wanted to go for the whole Russian experience but we ended up ordering non-scary food like French fries and fried calamari and platters of grapefruit and pineapple. All quite good.
Black tea was served with jam and honey; though, sadly, we didn't order it. We drank Baltika beer and as you are also allowed to bring your own food (!), had birthday cake and sandwiches and cava (Spanish champagne).
We mostly sat and drank, and used the jacuzzi, and stared at the fascinating Russian pop videos pouring out of several huge TV screens. They all seem to be singing the same horrid song and using the same director of photography, circa 1990.

The saunas, for those of you familiar with the dainty, Ikea-ish, wooden slats variety, look rather like the dungeons in a fairy tale. They are of brick and stone, and the door to the sauna oven is of heavy iron, like a giant samovar. And the patrons take their steaming seriously. It seems to be a cherished endurance contest to emerge from the sauna after what seems hours, baked within an inch of their lives, and jump into the plunge pool, which is close to freezing. People wear pointy felt hats at the sauna, presumably to retain the heat. They are all glowing red, and I guess this is how they must stave off any puny little virus that comes their way. Burn it and cool it and thrash it and gorge it to death.
The steam bath and the jacuzzi and the kreplach felt so good, I wouldn't mind going back all the way to Mother Russia on the F.

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