Tuesday, February 9, 2010

Business Traveler Chronicles – Irish Elevator Encounter and Rules of Sauna Bathing

"Been out walking have yeh? It's cold out, is it?"

I rotated to my left while standing inside the plush gold elevator of the legendary Hotel National in Moscow and saw a rosy red face staring back at me. It was my own. (Elevators with mirrors are incredibly distracting and induce spontaneous acts of narcissism.)

I turned further left, past my faux fur hood and puffy down shoulder to see a smiling blond man. I was able to instantly smack a stereotype on him which was: Jolly Irish Gent.

I realized that I should answer his question in order to be polite.

"No, not out walking, really. Just the Metro... Yes, it is cold."

"Ah, yes, well, I'm off to the gym then."


I filed that information into the back of my mind and went to join Sara in our room to discuss our days out in the city conducting consumer research for work. When we arrived on the topic of potential dinner with our client, I came down with a sudden case of business traveler exhaustion, and I announced that I absolutely needed to immediately take some time for myself and go get some exercise at the, ahem... at the Gym.

I downed a heavy glass bottle of $12 Vittel water, careful not bang my front teeth (I have this fear of chipping my front teeth on glass bottles. Once, at a bachelorette party, I saw a girl get her front tooth chipped by a glass beer bottle, so I am really careful when drinking out of bottles made of glass.)

I threw on my 2.5-week-old workout clothes and laced up my running shoes before zooming out the door. I paused for a moment and then decided to double knot my shoes. I definitely do that a lot - I debate about whether I should double knot my shoes or not. There are pros and cons of double knotting your shoes.

I ran out the door to go up to the Seventh Floor where all the 500 rooms and the Fitness Center are. Sara and I are located on the Fifth Floor with the 300 rooms – make sense? No. I know.

The layout of this hotel is confusing and intimidating as hell. Built in 1903 by Alexander Ivanov, The National is sobering in its list of famous and infamous guests, including Ronald Reagan and Vladimir Lenin. It is a stone's throw from the Kremlin and the Red Square. How we got to stay here for our business trip, I have no clue, but what I can tell you is that we definitely do not fit in here.

At breakfast there are men in suits speaking with what sound like fake British accents (fake in the unbelievable prissiness of the cadence as well as the ridiculousness of the subject matter – mergers, acquisitions, the stock market, and purchasing small countries). Each morning as I sit slouched over my boiled egg and grapefruit, I don't dare look up out of shame for my wrinkled Banana Republic sweater, dirty boots, and blue jeans. Of course, in the USA, I'd be looking fairly put-together. But we aren't in America and this definitely ain't no Holiday Inn.

I walked into the entrance of the Fitness Center and approached the desk with the scary women in turquoise shirts. There are these women who 'run' the Fitness Center, and they are very strict. Sara and I were yelled at our first night here when we entered the Fitness Center past 10:00 PM.

"CLOSE. IT CLOSED!!" (okay, okay, we just wanted a PEAK.)

Anyway, we had a name for these dark-haired women in the turquoise shirts but it's not a nice name, so we will just call them The Gym Matrons. Tonight I walked up to the desk with a serious looking Gym Matron.

"GYM!?" She barked.

"Yes, ah, the Gym and, ah, the sauna?"

This is a bit bizarre, but at this classy hotel with its exclusive Fitness Center, you have to pay to use certain amenities, like the sauna. The small exercise room is free, and so is the pool, but you have to pay to use the sauna, the steam room and the tanning bed. There is a solarium where you can pay to sit in a vibrating chair that corrects your spine. You can also pay to go to a salon that's tucked down a narrow hall and, of course, you can pay to get a massage.

I had decided tonight that after making an attempt to find the Jolly Irish Gent at the Gym, I would splurge and go sit in the sauna and try to forget about the oppressive Russian winter. Russians love the sauna – or, Banya, as it is called here – and many women credit it for their lingering youth, lack of weight gain, and overall well-being. Visiting the banya is at least a half-day ritual, yet the 'Banya' in this hotel just looked like a regular sauna to me. Or so I thought.

Back to Gym Matron, she rigidly pointed her finger at the sign-in book and stared at me gravely, as though I were an astronaut and she were the last person to wave goodbye to me before screwing the space shuttle door shut. Wow, this Fitness Center stuff is serious!

"Pless take towll."

Gym Matron walked me past the small pool and jacuzzi, past the solarium and down the stairs. We walked down the white tile hallway and we passed doors that were marked:

парилка – STEAM ROOM
сауны / бани – SAUNA ROOM / BANYA
массажный кабинет – MASSAGE ROOM

She opened the door to the small gym. It had an mid-1990's feel with grey equipment and green carpeting. On the elliptical machine, there was a middle-aged woman with a long blonde braid. She was wearing a one-piece swimsuit with tight pants and she appeared to be checking herself out in the floor to ceiling mirror. There was a heavy-set man sitting on the workout bench next to her and he appeared to be coaching this woman, as though it were her first time working out. His cell phone was ringing and he was taking photos of the woman.

The scene definitely had a vaguely 1990's European feel to it. I'm not sure what that means, but that's how it felt.

I had been planning on using that elliptical machine, so I had to find a second option. It was then that I slowly became aware of the rhythmic pounding to my right. I did a slow half-turn, but kept my eyes averted. All I needed was a peripheral confirmation that the man jogging on the treadmill was the Jolly Irish Gent from the elevator. From the corner of my eye, I saw black plants, black t-shirt, and yellow-blonde hair. Yep. It was him.

Of course this entire intro to the Gym lasted less than two or three seconds, but all these assessments were important. Most important of all was the fact that there was one more treadmill open and it was located right next to Ireland.

I hopped up on the treadmill, and very very slowly started to walk. Being used to treadmills in miles, seemed like it took forever for this treadmill to speed up in kilometers. Plus, it was strange to be able to briskly walk at "6.0" when that would be flat out running on a treadmill in the U.S. Here we come to my next point – Running. I haven't gone running in years and I am not a runner anymore. Once upon a time, yes, I was a part of the running culture but I am now one of those people who talks about running being bad for the joints and the jowls with all that bouncing up and down.

I promised myself I wouldn't do this, but before I knew it my competitive side showed up and I was cranking my treadmill up close to 8.0 (impossible for me on an American treadmill) and I began to run next to Ireland. It was fun because I immediately fell into the same pace and the same stride and we ran in unison like that for what seemed like a whole kilometer (which yes, I know, is not even one mile.) Running in unison with this Irish guy reminded me of being on the playground in elementary school and swinging in unison with the boys on the giant metal/rubber swing set. The technical term for swinging in unison with the boys was to be "married." I remembered that tonight with a little bit of silly glee.

Getting myself to run for this guy was a little out of control. I was relieved to remember that I had double-knotted my shoes as I began to imagine potential treadmill catastrophes. We didn't talk. It was just silent running, breathing, and occasional glances up at the TV which was playing strange Russian music videos. I began to doubt that Ireland even recognized me from the elevator, and my familiar low confidence that I display every morning at the businessman breakfast started to creep in. This guy was probably just being nice in the elevator, and he probably had no clue that I was the same girl with whom he had chatted.

But that was when his treadmill started to slow down (thank goodness! I could walk again too...) and he turned to me with the casual familiarity of a friendly colleague:

"I'm so sorry I have to go! I wish I didn't. I'm meeting friends at eight."

WHAT? So here I was bordering Ireland all this time and not only did he know who I was, he was acknowledging my passive attempts at flirting by forcing myself to run next to him. Ack, the people at this hotel are so smooth. I obviously am in the big leagues here and cannot use my usual Westin Hotel tactics. No, this is a much more complicated international playing field.

I played dumb, but he wouldn't have it.

"So, where ya frum?" He wanted to know.

"Um, the United Sta -"

"I know, I know! I meant where –"

"Oh. Um. Minnesota. Minneapolis, I mean."

"Ah. With that big mall."

And after that things got all blurry because all I heard him say was "I'm a pilot." What? Whoa. "Yes, I work as a private pilot. I flew some business clients here." I stammered out the phrase:

"I...I love airplanes? I just wrote a blog about an Airbus A330-300?"

Then I asked what kind of private airplane he flew. Turns out he flies a Cessna Citation X, which is only the fastest civilian aircraft made with a cruising speed of Mach .92. It flies at 45, 000 feet – way above the big bulky aircraft us mortals fly in below.

Like I said, Whoa.

My sneaker started to slide on the sweaty conveyor belt of my treadmill and I slammed down on the STOP button. The Irish man continued to talk to me for about five minutes and told me about all these amazing places to visit in Moscow, like the Sky Lounge and the Swiss Hotel. I did not mention that on my first day in Moscow last week, all I did was eat at McDonalds outside the Kremlin. No, I did not admit these things to the worldly Cessna pilot. Definitely not.

"So, do you, like, have a co-pilot?"

"Oh, yes, sure. I am off to the Swiss Hotel tonight for dinner with my co-pilot and his wife."

For a split second, I hypothesized that I might get a spontaneous dinner invite, but, then again, I think this whole world of historic hotels and private airplanes is a bit out of my league.

Alas, he really did have to go, which was fine because it was time for me to go get my 320 rubles worth in the sauna. We exchanged goodbyes, and right at that moment, Gym Matron showed up.

"You sauna NOW?"

I wondered how the hell she met me at the sauna room door at the very same moment that I showed up, but then I had the sick realization that there are video cameras everywhere and she had been watching me in the gym in order to know when it was time to let me into the sauna. So I guess I am being video taped and observed in my famous hotel outside the Kremlin in Russia. Nice.

Gym Matron left me by myself in the white tiled room that housed the smaller wooden sauna. She handed me a white robe and white slippers with an ominous look in her eye as she passed the items into my arms. "For AFTER Banya."

In addition to housing the small wooden sauna, the white tiled banya room included a deep blue tub, a shower with six spigots, wooden benches, a toilet, and a wall dryer. I ignored these extra elements in the room as I did not see their relevance with the inner wooden sauna room. Inside the sauna, things seemed normal enough... well, things seemed normal for about two and a half minutes.

As I sat on the wooden bench inside the sauna, my neck started pricking and my ears started ringing. I squinted in confusion at the thermometer on the wall and relaxed when I saw that it only read 110 degrees. I knew 110 degrees was not too horribly hot for a sauna. I tried to continue to ignore the increasingly tender feeling on my neck and chest. But then I remembered the kilometer treadmill and I realized that I had just had a stupid American moment. I looked back at the thermometer. Oh no. It was then that I remembered that the sauna at the St. Petersburg hotel had been set at 60 degrees Celsius. And that felt hot. My eyes were stinging with salty sweat that was springing from my scorching forehead, and upon my second viewing of the thermometer on the wall I saw that this sauna was indeed set almost twice as hot at 110 degrees Celsius.

So, for those of you who have been paying attention, the conversion for that comes to 230 degrees Fahrenheit.

I instantly knew that my tender neck meant my necklace was burning my flesh and my ringing ears meant my brain was screaming:

I barely made it past the scorching rocks next to the glass door and I slipped on my way out because my fingers were holding my metal necklace off my burning skin. In the tiled room I systematically ripped off my workout clothes – t-shirt, sports bra, sweat pants, socks, shoes, necklace, earrings, hair binder - everything. All of these items were absolutely burning hot and I should never have been wearing these foreign objects on my body inside that inferno. It was as if I had just walked through a bee's nest and was in hysterics at being stung all over my body.

There I stood, burning and naked in the white tiled room. I was completed disoriented and confused. First of all, I was unclear as to whether or not I had this room to myself or if someone else could pay 320 rubles and also get inside at the same time.

I put on my plushy white Hotel National robe and reassessed my surroundings. I noticed a sign on the wall that I had failed to see before. It said RULES OF SAUNA BATHING and it was 20 steps long. Here is a sampling:

Step 13. REST

Don't forget - there are 14 other steps in the process. Needless to say, once I saw this mysterious sign, I was curiously intrigued by this whole banya business. So maybe the Russians were on to something. I had previously had an ignorant impression that banya was just another word for the 10-minute sauna I take after a 30-minute workout, but I was clearly mistaken. This set of rules was a complex ritual that included activities like sitting in a cold tub of water (Step 12) and undergoing an optional tanning bed session (Step 18).

Well, of course now my adventurous side was sparked, and I wanted to see if I could handle banya time by following the intricate list of rules. I sprung to action on Step 2, which was stated something like Cleanse yourself with a picture of a shower. I shuffled over to the shower where I turned on one faucet that pored icy cold water down in a waterfall. Then I turned on three other faucets that spit out tepid water from the side of the shower. Finally, a huge round shower head rained hot water down on my head. The multiple sources of water at varying temperatures made me feel like I was on a ride at a water amusement park, and the effect made me nauseous.

Next I decided to try filling up the deep tub with water. I climbed down into it, plugged the drain, and then sat on the steps while the faucet poured cool water into the bottom. After about a minute, I started to feel guilty about this step because it seemed like a huge waste of water. So I aborted step 12.

I was doing all these steps out of order, by the way.

My confidence came back and I decided I wanted another go at the 230 degree sauna. I made sure my necklace and jewelry were off, and I pulled my hair into a high ponytail because even my hair started to burn me when I was in there. Apparently there are these special felt hats that Russians sometimes wear to protect their heads from the intense heat. But I did not have a felt hat, so I just had to make do.

Back in the banya/sauna chamber, I gingerly laid down on the wooden bench and watched the 5-minute sand timer on the wall to see how long I could make it. Based on the small pile of sand at the bottom of the timer, I think I made it about 45 seconds.

I projectiled myself through the glass sauna door back out into the white tile room, huffing and puffing frustrated scorched banya air. I decided to practice Step 13 - Rest - and that was when some logistical thoughts started to creep in.

First of all, what was the protocol for post-banya? The Rule Sheet ended at Step 20 which simply stated to drink juice and the icon showed two people sitting at a table enjoying themselves. There was no Step 21 "Go back to room wearing robe and slippers – It's OK to do this even at historic Russian hotel."

I felt trapped in the white tiled room. My face was beet red, my hair was scraggly wet, and I didn't know which was worse etiquette in this uber serious and historic landmark – to walk down the hall and up the elevator to my room in my white robe and slippers or to change back into smelly gym clothes and pretend that I never experienced any sacred banya-time. I had limited options.

I went with the latter, knowing that it would be the American thing to do, especially if I ran into my client, or, god forbid, my new Irish pilot friend. As I approached my pile of haphazardly folded wet clothes on the wooden bench, I discovered a fresh horror –

Among my piping hot pile clothing, my red plastic hotel key card had melted.

Shit. This was bad. I knew that Sara was out to dinner with our client and I also knew that I would most likely be thrown onto the frosty Russian streets outside the Kremlin if I showed my appalling appearance in the grandly golden lobby of the Hotel National.

I sat for a few minutes considering my options.
  1. I could hide in the banya for another hour and a half (320 rubles gets you two hours)
  2. I could risk going into the lobby and humiliating myself among the diplomats and business leaders
  3. I could swing by the room of the Irish pilot and see if he could help
Realizing that all three options were definitely misery-inducing, I created a fourth option which was to jam my key card into my door and hope that it worked.

On my way out, Gym Matron chastised me for not wearing my robe and slippers out of the banya. As it turns out, I guess I was supposed to wear them to my room after all. She looked at me in my sweaty gym clothes and I knew that she was disgusted with me. I was disgusted with myself, too.

I inquired with Gym Matron:

"Does 320 rubles buy me 2-hours of private time in the banya?"

"Jusss today."

Wait - no, she did not understand me. She thought I was talking about payment and whether or not I would have to pay again in the future for the privilege of using the banya room.

"No, what I meant was, while I was in there, could other people come in? Does Banya lock?"

"Jusss today."

"NO, that's not exactly what I mean, you see –"

"Man and woman in Banya. Man and woman go into Banya at same time."

Wait, what? Was she serious? So, was she saying that at any point during my banya indoctrination, while I ran around that white tiled room naked and red as a lobster for 30 minutes, woman and man could have also come in to have their own banya?"

Yes, that was what she was saying.

At that moment, I exhaled a few silent prayers. One was a small prayer of thanks for my luck at meeting a good-looking Irish Cessna pilot in the elevator, and the other was a prayer of gratitude that none of the other Russians or powerful business people at this hotel had chosen to squeeze in a hot sauna tonight. Perhaps a third prayer should be giving thanks that the Irish pilot did not decide to have himself a banya, either.

But giving thanks to that, I suppose, is debatable.

1 comment:

  1. Elaborate and sadistic...you just have to love eastern Europe.