In my chosen bathhouse in Moscow we would rest between steams, our hair wet, our skin flushed, our backs slumped against benches, our chests rising and falling with a slow, pleasant fatigue from swings in temperature, hot to cold to hot to cold.
We would talk about our jobs, and our loves. We would talk about ourselves, too, when we were able to see ourselves as independent from work, or women.
Sometimes we would talk about what we were feeling, not emotions so much as the physical sensations. Was the steam dry enough, soft enough, light enough? Were our senses aroused more, say, by the aroma of beer with reassuring overtones of mustard, or that of wormwood with slashing accents of peppermint?
Sometimes, when the steam was just right, we would not talk at all. Great steam, like great art, has the power to bring on quiet.
We already would have cooled off – under a shower stream, or in the frigid plunge pool. The phases of hot and cold, the heat of the steam and the cool of the water, are the yin and yang of the Russian banya. One does not happen without the other.
Nobody ever has to remind himself to cool down after steaming. It is innate. The body wants it.
The most important thing in the banya is to listen to the body.
The second most important thing is to do what it says.
Between steams we would drink cool mineral water, too, bottled on the slopes of the Caucasus Mountains. Some of us would drink cool kvas, the dark, foamy, non-alcoholic drink made from fermented rye bread. And some would drink cold beer.
It is something of a taboo to drink cold liquids between steams — let alone alcohol, which banya tradition forbids.
Bathers usually sip warm or hot drinks, such as tea with honey. Hot drinks keep the temperature of the body on a low heat, continue the slow sweat – that is, continue to make us cooler.
Drinking hot tea only seems incongruous, like eating spicy foods in hot climates.
Alcohol, on the other hand, dehydrates the body, makes it more likely we will not hear our body’s signals, let alone do what they tell us.
Still, many in Russia drink alcohol between steams.
The banya is the most Russian thing there is, after all. And nothing can be considered truly Russian if the rules cannot be broken.