Apparently, even Wednesday nights are fair game in terms of unexpected encounters of the Russian kind.
My buddies and I had missed dinner, but had completed our work relatively early compared to our procrastinating peers. Amidst jealous insults and mocking retorts, the three of us left our companions to their studies in favor of what we had deemed to be a “chill” night at the nearby Anatolya pizzeria/kebab house. When we got there, we noticed that the Turkish owners of the establishment had many prominently displayed hookahs (water tobacco pipes, like the one that the caterpillar smokes in Alice in Wonderland), far too many to be just for decoration. Seeing a good way to pass the time, I inquired “Можно курить?” and was met with a semi-shocked “Нет!” “Нет нет” I replied, realizing that she thought I meant smoke cigarettes. “Можно курить хуку? I asked, using the US term “hookah”, ostensibly Arabic for “pipe”. I was met with a confused “Что?”. “Можно курить шишу?” I attempted, this time using the word for the shisha tobacco used in these pipes, a common synecdoche for referring to the pipe as well. “Что?” Not to be cowed, I tried once again, this time gesticulating wildly to the hookahs and using the alternative Persian word for the pipe, asking “Можно курить наргилэ?” Success. The waitress replied with an amused “А…Кальян хочешь курить?” “Да! Каляьн!” we replied enthusiastically, all surprised that there was yet another term for the popular Arabic past time…
Ordering our pizzas and quietly smoking from the pipe, whose end was in the shape of a pretty cool looking glass Asp, we were suddenly joined by a group of young ethnic Russians, who had been celebrating the end of their exams. As we got to know each other better, one of our new friends, Anton, mentioned that his friend, Oleg, had a dacha nearby that was equipped with a Russian banya. Having seen our share of the Soviet classic “Ирония судьбы”, we could never presume to turn down what of course would be a valuable and extremely authentic Russian experience.
The banya itself was small, holding 4 persons at a time, and was pleasantly wood-fired. As the women prepared sausages on the outdoor grill and Oleg stoked the banya fire, I marveled at how little I felt like a stranger. This despite both the novelty of the experience and the companionship. Anton poured bowl after bowl of water onto the coals, until we finally all dashed out of the banya, running, then hobbling, barefoot across the rocky path to the river. Our bodies steamed as we plunged our heads into the surprisingly non-frigid lake. Russia was about 50 feet away on the opposing bank. When I got back, eating sausages, Anton revealed to me that the true Russian authenticity of the experience did not ultimately lie in the dacha, the banya or the sausages, but instead in the camaraderie that had been created in such a short time. “We are Russians,” Anton explained “nothing matters when we are together like this, everybody is everybody’s friend. There are no enemies at the dacha.” With that, we got dressed and took a cab home, excited that we had been, even if briefly, a part of a culture separate from our own.