Saturday, March 02, 2013

A Day at the Baths

Written on Jan. 26, 2013
Remember Empress Theodora of Constantinople? No? Ex-prostitute/alleged nymphomaniac, mistress of Emperor Justinian, used witchcraft to get him to marry her, ruled together over the Byzantine Empire in the 6th century? Ring a bell?

I’m thinking about Empress Theodora today because she loved extravagant baths: slaves oiled and washed her body, groups of small children massaged her with their tiny fingers, odalisques played the lute as she swam about in a dreamy haze, etc. In her time, a "porphyry shaft" (whatever that is, sounds dirty) bearing her statue stood in the public courtyard of the Arcadian Baths overlooking the blue, blue sea.

Illustration by Jon Lai at
Now, I understand that the Arcadian Baths were known for their external splendor and their internal luxury, and that sounds lovely and I would like to go there myself someday. But seeing as how I live in 21st-century Brooklyn and am here on a cold winter's day wanting a bath now, and aside from which the Arcadian Baths fell to ruin centuries ago, I’ll settle for a visit to Brooklyn Banya, located only a few blocks from my apartment.

External Splendor

Brooklyn Banya, “The Best Russian Turkish Bathhouse in Brooklyn,” is a great place to steam and sweat the winter out of your bones. I’m not a public baths virgin – I’ve experienced the Korean Paradise Sauna in Chicago, where naked ladies scrub each other's backs, as well as the Moroccan hammam of Agadir, where half-naked Berber attendants stretch you out on a stone slab and clean you with argan-oil soap – and Banya is right up there with the best of them. (I’ve also toured the ancient Roman baths in Bath, England, but only managed to dip a hand in one of the pools.)

To get to Banya, I walk to the corner of Coney Island Avenue and Church Avenue, turn right at Rocky's Pizzeria, head down CIA past a discount liquor store and the Halal Gyro CafĂ© to an oddly styled 1950s chalet constructed of brick and painted concrete blocks. Inside, I pay my $25 to the Russian hostess, who gives me a locker key for the women’s dressing room upstairs. Banya is open to men, women and children, and everybody showers and changes into swimsuits before going down to the baths.

The great thing is that you don’t have to bring anything but $25 and your swimsuit. Banya provides everything you need: soap, towels and slippers. But I brought my own flip-flops, which is allowed. It’s all very casual. You can just be yourself! In a very watery environment!

Internal Luxury

Banya is not a “bath” the way you’d normally think of a bath. 

For one thing, there are no tubs like you have at home, obviously, but big pools – a hot whirlpool and a cold pool where you can go for a mini swim. Then there’s the dry sauna, the wet sauna and the steam room, not to mention a freezing cold pull-chain shower for the toughest people or a temperature-controlled shower for scaredy-cats like me.

They’ve also got a full restaurant at Banya, right next to the pools, where they serve vodka along with home-made pickle plates, borscht, blintzes with caviar and a big piles of garlic potatoes and dumplings. Oh yes, this is public bathing in the grand Russian style. Or, you can be straight-edge clean and eat nothing and just drink water and/or Banya’s special black tea made with honey and cherries.

What I love about Banya is that it’s a real Brooklyn mix of people – so aside from white ladies like me, there are real Russians, local families with kids, hipsters, middle-aged men with big bellies and hot chicks in string bikinis.

Rest assured, it’s all very clean. The Banya website insists on this: “The facilities are very clean – the cleanest of all the Banyas, and the staff works really hard to keep it that way. We take great pride and care in what we do.” And I can tell you from personal experience that the pools are full of chlorine.

“At some point in the sauna, you will see people beating one another with leafy birch branches. This is normal, enjoyable, and also supposedly increases circulation,” the Banya site explains. “It definitely exfoliates. If you want, you can buy a birch branch for $20 and beat your friends with it. We sell them at the front desk. Or you can get a real treatment from our “PLATSKA MAN” for $30.”

Did I tell you this place is awesome!??!

Dreamy Haze

I do believe I saw the PLATSKA MAN in action – at any rate, there was a fit guy in a speedo and a flannel cap who had a woman laid out before him in the wet sauna, and he was swishing and slapping and pressing a big bunch of birch leaves all up and down her body.

As for me, I just did my own thing, unassisted. I started with the hot whirlpool, then moved to the cold pool for a refreshing dip, then entered the wet sauna where I saw the PLATSKA MAN, continued with a cold shower, then on to the dry sauna, where I stretched out on sweet-smelling wooden planks, then cold pool, hot pool, dry sauna…. 

…. somewhere along the line I slipped into a dreamy haze and time passed unnoticed as all stress and toxins left my body….

All of this built up to the final finish: the steam bath. Which, to tell you the truth, scares me a little bit. I went to a party at Banya once, and a man I didn’t know followed me into the steam bath and propositioned me even though we couldn’t see each other through all the steam, so that was a bit strange, and I left before getting the full benefit.

But this time I was with my husband and only unsure about whether I could cope with the intense steam cloud of heavy wet eucalyptus-scented heat that comes blasting out of a vent at timed intervals. I did cope, and it was lovely. And then we agreed that we were hungry, and not for borscht or dumplings, so we went home, limp and relaxed as two blissed-out ragdolls.

It was just as promised:

After all the sweating and relaxing walking out of the Banya, feeling ten years younger with skin soft and smooth like babies, you will promise yourself to come back.