We Went to a Russian Bath With Austra
"No. No naked."
I am at the Russian and Turkish baths on east 10th St. with all four members of witchy Canadian synth-pop group Austra (Katie Stelmanis, Maya Postepski, Ryan Wosniak and Dorian Wolf), plus Maya's lovely French girlfriend Mathilde. At least two of them are nursing green juices. All of them are hung over from the previous night's excursion to Coyote Ugly, which they didn't realize was the Coyote Ugly, infamous frat bar, when they stumbled upon it after their triumphant Webster Hall show. Despite being a bit surprised, they were enjoying the kitchiness of it all until Dorian tried to get up and dance and was directed to a sign that said "NO DICKS ON THE BAR." How heteronormative! Not to mention off base; it's not like he was literally trying to place his dick on the bar.
It's a coed day, which means we are not allowed to be naked, as the stern Russian receptionist has just informed a baffled Mathilde. (In France, she tells me, this is not really an issue.) We have to wear bathing suit bottoms or the spa's weird black shorts or we'll be kicked out, but equality dictates we can be topless, which seems preferable to the awkward samurai robes which seem designed to create excessive sideboob. (I'm talking 50, 60% here.) After taking a few pictures outside, we get changed and go downstairs to see what's what.
The main relaxation area consists of a long, thin corridor with several saunas coming off of it, which opens into a larger room flanked by showers, massage areas, and a larger steam room. At the center of it all is a decent sized pool of water, which looks inviting until we realize it's a cold plunge. "Is there a hot tub?" asks Katie hopefully. "Jacuzzi?" responds a brawny Russian woman. "No. This is real Russian banya, no spa."
We start things off in the aromatherapy steam room, which is like sitting in a hot, moist room full of Vicks vapo rub. A few of us cough productively. I tell them they played a great show last night and mean it; they're one of my favorite bands to go see, as well as to dance around naked to by myself in my room, and I'm trying not to be too big a dork about it. I'm also trying not to look at their boobs. I don't mind if they look at mine, though.
"This feels like we're coming full circle as a band," muses Maya. "In Munich on our first tour, one of the first things we did as a band was reveal our bodies to each other." How intimate! We talk for a bit about how nobody danced at their show (besides my friends, of course, who were fuh-reaking out), and what a big bummer that was---perhaps the venue's expensive drinks meant everyone was too sober?---until Ryan says "I can't see" and we realize we've all had enough.
Out in the main area, we encounter a sage looking old man with a beard like Socrates wearing his robe like a toga who tells us "this is where you wanna go," gesturing towards the largest sauna. We obey. Once inside, he instructs us to sit on the lowest level (which is slightly less hot) and tells us about the traditional banya experience: "The oak leaves are picked on the first full moon in June...they bind them together, soak them...a Russian man puts you on a shelf and he beats you and stretches you, heating you to a point of excruciating ecstasy." Hot! Then he tells us he's been growing his beard for decades because a spirit guide appeared to him during a mushroom trip in the '60s and told him to, adding to my thesis that all the best personal grooming decisions are made under the influence of psychedelics.
When the banya gets too hot to stand, Katie and I try out the cold plunge, which makes us feel like we being stuck by pins and needles all over our bodies. Katie lets out a single shrill squeak, while I am a bit louder. I'm totally sober, but I feel dizzy and weird. There's no free water at this place, so I start drinking from the sink like an animal. We're about to go looking for the others when Socrates brings a muscular Russian masseuse down and directs him what to do. "Those two," he says, pointing at us. We are getting hooked up with a platza, so why do I feel like we're about to be kidnapped?
We go back into the big sauna, where I am instructed to lie face down on the top (hottest) platform. The masseuse begins wordlessly beating me with the oak branches, which he alternates with pouring a lukewarn olive oil soap solution over me. Sometimes my limbs get so hot from the sauna I feel like I'm getting burned, but I deal with it as a bizarre point of pride. There's some scrubbing, a bit of aggressive stretching of my limbs, a lot of massaging that's a good bit harder than I like it, and a bit of foot stuff that makes me giggle uncontrollably. It's not exactly enjoyable, but I think it'll be good for the stiffness left over from two nights ago when I got stoned and fell asleep in a weird position on the couch. When that side is done, he tells me to turn over for the other side. "Nice!" he says, looking at my boobs. (I'm pretty sure they're not supposed to do that.) Then he boops me affectionately on the nose and sends me on my way. I've got some questions for this guy, but I need to get out of the sauna before I faint.
After Katie's treatment, he brings us out by the severe Russian cold tub and puts a mud mask on our faces. "Ten minutes," he says, and walks away. "I think the Russian man likes us," says Katie. "Did he 'boop' you on the nose, too?" I say that he did, and ask her if she always meets wise old hippies who give her presents on tour. "No, I'm not very charming," she replies. "This is the best stuff we've been given...better than free Reeboks."