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It's Not the Camac ...

July 15, 2010 By:
Tania Barnes, JE Feature
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Don't know borsht about "the baths"? That can change at the Royal Palace (left) or at Philly's Southampton Spa. Photo by Tania Barnes

A stocky man appears from the shadows, wearing a fat gold chain and speaking in a thick accent. For $25, he offers to beat me.

This isn't a fight club: It's Royal Palace baths, a Russian "bath house," or banya, on the edge of Brighton Beach, Brooklyn, where Russians and intrepid foreigners pay $40 to roast inside wooden rooms heated to as much as 200 degrees.

They also thump themselves with veniki, or "oak branches." It's all to improve circulation and health.

The spa is one part paradise to two parts kitsch nightmare: "Welcome to Royal Palace!" two beautiful women -- skinny jeans fitted snugly into boots, gloss-slicked lips, eyelashes like the sharp points of a star -- greet visitors in Russian at the entrance.

Here are the Betty and Veronica of Brighton Beach, with mismatched personalities: The blonde is cool, taken with some secret text exchange on her phone; the brunette chatty, making jokes with customers and reminding them to tip.

The name, Royal Palace, is fitting.

"We like everything royal," says my Russian friend Masha. No matter that the Russians killed their own royal family.

"Yes," Masha demurs, "but we like what they like."

The banya itself is a kind of torture, but there's pleasure in it, too.

Here is the Russian national psyche: Suffering is edifying, and the banya's cleansing fire makes you pure again. Through pain, pleasure -- the two are never far apart.

On a recent afternoon, aging men built like kegs, their great stomachs protruding beneath towels slung around their necks, lounge around the pool in the main room. They drink beer and snack on vobla, salt-dried fish.

The room smells -- not unpleasantly -- of chlorine, fish and freshly laundered towels.

Three men circle the room, masseuses competing for clients. They are insistent: "Slushai, slushai," they say. "Listen, listen." They promise a discount if you pay them directly, cash, no need for the front desk to know.

Back pain? They'll work the spongy discs between your vertebrae to get the blood flowing again. Headaches? They'll find your pressure points and release the tension.

It's my first time, and so I go where everyone goes: the Russian steam room. There are also Finnish, Turkish and Roman saunas, each heated to different temperatures with dry (Finnish) or wet (Turkish) heat.

After a few minutes in the sauna, I'm so hot I can barely speak. Masha implores me to wrap a towel around my head; the Russians are already wearing shapky ("felt hats") to protect their heads from the heat.

A group of men in their 30s catch sight of me, this American girl suffering in their Slavic inferno, and laugh.

"It's nothing yet!" one of them says.

He decides I'm an amusing specimen. "We'll get undressed," he smiles, "then it'll really be like Russia!"

I put my head down and listen to feet squish across the floor in sandals and flip-flops as people come and go, wishing each other slegkim parom -- a "good steam," followed, in Russia, by going out into the snow to roll around or, like here, dunking themselves in frigid baths.

The ritual lasts hours, whole days: steam room, snow-roll or ice-cold bath, maybe to the pool for a swim and snack, then back into the steam room again. In between, the women rub honey and salt over their faces; some slick on a mint-green paste.

I sneak out of the steam room, hoping to find some relief in a tepid shower. But one of the men from the group catches me, and shakes his head. "You have to go in," he says, gesturing toward the glowering green square of ice water in the corner.

I demur, but it's to no avail: Things must be done the proper way. I jump; the pain is as if I'd hurled myself against a glass table. I claw my way out and collapse on a stone bench.

Back in the steam room, a young man enters: the executioner. With a ladle and a few deft flicks of the wrist, he flings water, scooped from a bucket, on the hot stones inside the small oven. The stones hiss and growl as they release steam into the air, producing heat.

For those who don't want to travel as far, Philadelphia has its own banya: The Southampton Spa, with Russian and Turkish baths, on Second Street Pike in Southampton (www.southamptonspa.com).

After five hours of torture, I'm exhausted, banya-drunk. Its only 8 p.m., but I fall asleep upright at the table while waiting for my "salad in a glass," a Moscow-priced juice made from red peppers, lettuce, tomatoes and carrots.

"Ah," Masha says, looking at me, "and that's how you know you're done with banya."

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