After the exhausting VDNKh experience – vodka, borsh, ice-skating and cosmos exploration -, we needed to recover and try something else that would help us feel better. Dmitry booked a Russian Spa, a banya, a “special one in the middle of a park, a true one heated by real wood”, he said. Called Par – which means “stream”-. So off we went – the seven of us – on the 2nd of January. It was like being sent in a wooden house in the country side with an inside sauna and an outside pool. The whole wooden house was for us. There was a huge “living room” with sofas and a big square coffee table. The house also had a first storey with a billiard and bedrooms, should someone of us want a little rest.
Before any drink, Dmitry told us we had to go to the sauna, a proper woodfired one. Once inside, we got hit by the heat, the temperature was between 105 and 110 degrees Celsius. I thought it was Fahrenheit but I was far from right.
So we were told not to stay inside more than 15 minutes and then to get outside and jump into the cold swimming pool. What a shock! Imagine a difference of 100 degrees in a few seconds but we did it a few times, especially after Dmitry had ‘beaten’ us with the traditional Venik leaves.
What an experience! we went four or five times in the sauna and the same number of times in the pool. We had drinks, food in between, and lots of fun. We exchanged jokes. Dmitry showed us a funny video of Russian guys laughing at different English accents in the world. I followed up with the Scottish blokes on the lift trying to get the “eleven” right for the lift voice recognition but inevitably failed.
Time just flew… We left the place and Dmitry and Maria were obviously up for more drinks and food. Instead of going back to the hotel, the taxis were directed to their flat…
We were only half way through the night. Dmitry and Maria live in a nice flat in a new apartments complex, a sort of gated community. On one of the living room’s wall, a huge painting of a peaceful field full of poppies and a house in the middle on top of a hill is one of Uncle Yakov’s art piece. He is the photographer, the one who took Dmitry’s pictures 27 years ago, on his first day at school. He prefered fine art to photography and Dmitry’s film was the last one he shot… Maria invited us to have a look at their family albums. There was a big pile of them, of their six years together: wedding, business trips, family holidays, kids. They love photography too, obviously. Dmitry got us more drinks: vodka for men, wine for women.
And we had some of Maria’s wonderful salad, called “Olivier” – a sort of Macédoine salade with beef -, then some cake and more drinks. With alcohol and the relaxing and wellbeing effect of the banya, everybody was in a jolly mood. Dmitry talked more about his family, his childhood, how the school and the area where he grew up was: “We are only two from my age who survived really. All the other ones are on drugs, alcoholic or prostitutes. Some are even dead”, he said. He added that his mum saved him when she took him out of school and sent him to a boarding school in Switzerland. “Anyway, the headmaster was about to expell me because I was doing too many bad things…’ he admitted. When you see him now and his pictures when he was 6 years old, it’s difficult to imagine Dmitry could have been a bad boy.
We also talked about Russia, Armenia “where people take so much time before they drink” and of Novyi Urengoy, a city in the far north where people mainly work in gas industries. Dmitry seems to be fascinated by this place and absolutely wants to take me there next time I am in Russia. Why not? This is the kind of weird place I have always been interested in. Then Marion took over. She seemed to have recovered from the Banya experience. She looked so funny there in her dressing gown and her hat – yes, you must wear a wooden hat in a Russian sauna, otherewise the heat might burn your hair! -, when she took the Venik leaves in her hands and started playing with them, she really looked like the guru of the sauna. We had such a laugh.
Anyway, here she was at the table, suddenly more serious, asking Dmitry questions about the photos, about how he felt when he saw them. He answered he didn’t feel anything really, he was on a business trip in Germany and had a plane to catch. “I thought it was a joke because I only saw one photo, then I saw the whole link with the 16 pictures so I thought it wasn’t and wondered who that Elisabeth Blanchet was. What did she want?” Nothing really, except for bringing back these photos to him, as they were his not mine. And I thought it would be a nice surprise as he wouldn’t have seen them or even known their existence…
At 4am we were still sitting around the table. We had the banya after effect mixed with the alcohol. It was time to go. Dmitry had a last word who touched everyone saying: “I think our meeting is a small thing that will make the world more happy. For example, seven people are more happy but two people only meet!” I tried to film what Dmitry was saying but could hear a strange recurrent noise. It was Marion chewing a gerkin. What an unforgetable night!