Wednesday, March 12, 2014

Washington Secrets

Love this picture. In my imagination, I am staying in a small old town somewhere in Europe. It's raining. The Old World is about to uncover some of its wonderful secrets in front of me. Then, I go to my hotel room - in an old building with very thick walls made of stone. I have a cup of something cozy, so I don't get sick after all day walking in the rain. I also start a fire in an old brick fireplace. As I hear the crackling sound, my body suddenly feels relaxed and very heavy. Maybe I snooze for a while. Maybe I get a notebook out and start writing.

In reality, I am staying in an old-ish (what's a hundred years old for the Old World) American town in the middle of Washington State. What you see is actually a very new, modern addition to the old plaza. It's made beautifully, with lots of care and imagination. But only rain is what is common between my dream and the reality. Rain and secrets.

This is an arch of a building in an old part of the plaza (or rather street), and we are about to go to the movies. We'll watch La Grande Bellezza (The Great Beauty). I have no idea yet what sort of movie it is. I don't follow news and am not aware that it is an official selection for an Oscar and the Cannes Festival. I don't really care for such things, and I rarely read any reviews, either before or after a movie. I only give a movie a try if I feel a spark of connection within me as I see a poster or read a short description, or even just the name of an actor or a director.

This one is what probably we'd call "not everyone's cup of tea"... although, why not? The message was simple and beautiful, and what probably Justin would describe it as my truest passion ... Living a genuine life. I don't care if it is just a private life or a life in art. All that matters to me - to be genuine, to be true to yourself. Any masterpiece was born from that very voice inside of oneself - not from the loud voices outside. And that is what this movie is about. Give this one a try. It's one of those weird, symbolic, powerful and incredibly beautiful films which will grow on you if you give it a chance. 

A great movie in a cozy old theater (or under a cozy blanket at home) is one of those irresistible things I enjoy doing on such slow rainy days as last Saturday was. There are some other things too. What did you say? Museums, yes. Museums are wonderful, I adore them. What else? Good books, yes. Oh yes, and those things as well. But also banya. What, you've never heard of it? Banya is the Russian word for what Scandinavians might call a sauna. I'm sure there are plenty of other good words in the world cultures for this phenomenon which I also have never heard about. All those Romans and Turks and Japanese and native Americans - they know something about their version of banya, for sure.

Russian Venus by Boris Kustodiev, 1926

Banya (Bath) by Zinaida Serebryakova, 1913

So many Russian artists are inspired by this subject - no big surprise there, of course.
To Russians, banya has to have three main ingredients:

- steam
- venik
- cold water/snow

What they are for? The steam part is pretty obvious, I just would like to emphasize that dry heat won't do. As our body gets all steamed up, we take a venik (a whisk, or a bunch of branches with leaves, tied together - usually birch or oak depending on the region in Russia) and literally strike ourselves (or our banya partners) with it. Not as in punishment - as in fun and pleasure, I mean, massage. (It doesn't make any sense, does it?) Then, all steamed up and "massaged" with a whisk until you can't take it any more, you dive either into icy-cold water (it can be a lake, river, even a barrel) or a snow drift in Winter. Now get out and rest. And then repeat. Have you heard of nirvana? This is nirvana the Russian way.

There is actually a Russian banya (or a few) in Seattle, but I have not been there yet, so I can't say anything. I bet it's good though. But I am ready to uncover some other Seattle (or rather Washingtonian) secrets for you.

We live in the area with a large Korean population - I haven't checked statistics, but I would guess it is one of largest (if not the largest) in the whole nation. And I am endlessly thankful to Koreans for two magnificent things they added to our life here - their amazing cuisine and their own, absolutely glorious version of banya. I usually go to two of their spas, one in Federal Way and one in Tacoma. But there are some more.

The Federal Way spa is called Palace Spa and is located close to where I live, is inexpensive, with a variety of amenities and services available, and has one plus if you'd like to bring your family with you - it is for both men and women. That means that there is a common area where we all wear shorts and t-shirts, can chat, play games, enjoy dry heat or a massage chair. And there are two separate areas for women and men where we have a steam room (my favorite of course), sauna and  pools with hot, warm and cold water. No shorts will be needed there. Since my daughter enjoys going to banya with me (Justin is not a fan of heat), I take her there from time to time.

I don't think we ever leave without splurging ourselves on good food too. Restaurants are equally wonderful in both spas, although every cook is unique, and no dish will be completely the same.

See this happy face? Have you noticed how we all get so much happier and relaxed after a good meal? When Anya was little (3-4 y.o.), she used to get under the table and sing merry songs after a meal in a restaurant. I call it "Chinese buffet syndrome".

Then there is Olympus Spa (the main one in Tacoma, opened in 1997, and another branch is North of Seattle, in Lynnwood). This one is for women only, and it is a small jewel, a restorative heaven truly honoring A Woman. I have to wait a little till my daughter can enter this one. It's smaller compared to Palace Spa, and the entrance is a bit more expensive (but still very affordable at $33 per day use), but has a few hot rooms and more pools with temperature range from 60 F (a waterfall pool) to 102 F (hot tub). Every detail is thought of. It is a very relaxing and beautiful place, made with a creative eye. For an additional $5, you can have unlimited green tea (and some snacks I believe) in a special tea room. I have not compared prices for the packages, but both spas offer different kinds of massage, body scrubs and facials.

There are no strict rules about how you should best sequence your day of relaxation. I usually just listen to my body and let it go completely. It can be any combination of pools (hot-cold-hot-cold-etc.), steam room, dry sauna - any way that pleases you. Just listen to your body, drink when you are thirsty, don't overheat yourself, so you don't faint, eat good food, but don't overeat - all reasonable things. And I guarantee you that if by chance (I'm not saying you'd do that - but let's just say it happens by accident) you happen to bring along a bag of worries, sorrows and other sad things with you to banya, then by the end of the day you will forget all about it. I saw many such bags left in banya. I had my own share of dragging a heavy bag with yucky stuff in it alone with me here and there, wherever I go. (I slowly learn to drop it right where I pick it up now.) No yucky baggage on the way out. Instead, you will take with you a goody bag full of good things -

good mood
good sleep
and the great beauty.

And that is all my Washington secrets for today, my friends. I bet that with a little research you will find such wonderful secrets very near you too.

Skirt - Chico's. Sweater - Lane Bryant. Jacket - ASOS. Scarf and umbrella - Target. Shoes - Dansko. Purse - B Makowsky


  1. Love seeing you in sexy leopard print, Natalia, that skirt is fabulous!
    Now, you seem in a creative, chatty, rather nostalgic but also a happy-to-be-where-you-are frame of mind. The first photos do have a rather European flavour; I like the sound of your imagined hotel room!
    Banya; how interesting. I know about the Scandinavian traditions of sauna, but hadn't heard the word banya before. Those paintings are so beautiful. Now it wouldn't be for me, I really struggle with humidity and high heat, I get all overcome and feel like I can't breathe the wet air. I know, I'm pathetic! I wish I liked it, because I know lots of people who love the deep clean, deep relaxation experience of it.
    The Korean food - now THAT, I could happily participate in! xxx

    1. You are insightful and very kind, my dear friend! Thank you for all. The great thing is that restaurants don't require attending banya, and we can happily enjoy Korean barbecue or their a-m-a-z-i-n-g soups together! I hope that one day, we will. :) I know that heat+humidity is not for all. Justin feels the same way you do! (He actually asked me to tell you that!) My mom waits till banya cools down, and then goes to just sort of take a quick bath (no steaming). We all are different! I am curious where and how you find your relaxation, what works for you?

  2. I love the Russian paintings – sauna-like experiences not so much. I hate sweating!

    1. I am very delighted that you loved the art! These two are some of my favorite artists. The light in the second painting is just incredible... I understand about not liking sweating! I don't enjoy it too. But banya is something more than that to me, and somehow, it works. But I know - we are all built differently. Just as I asked Curtise, I would like to ask you - what brings you this sense of peace and relaxation? That's what really matters. :)

  3. You look very sleek and sexy in your leopard print pencil skirt and yes, that does look like an albeit cleaned-up European town. I love your description of rain and secrets, very evocative, There is something very intimate about being holed up indoors with the rain lashing down outside.
    Banya, that's a new word added to my repertoire and one to impress the many Russian I meet in India who happily chat away to me assuming I'm Russian! The art is glorious and I'm enjoying seeing your daughter demonstrating the bathing!
    I'm a cold blooded creature and can bask away in humidity and heat, I'd never leave! xxxx

    1. Now, Vix, you are mine kinda girl! We will go to banya together some day! I can spend (and often do) the whole day there, hours and hours... But it's not the same when it's really hot and humid outside to me. I actually don't like hot humid weather, I prefer our mild summers here in the PNW. Banya is different. It's the contrast of hot and cold - that's what makes banya such a delight.
      It's so funny that Russians think that you are Russian! But I can see why. :)

  4. Delightful!! I'm so happy to read about your experiences at the Korean spa. There is a large one near me that a friend has raved about so now I know I must check it out. Sounds like what the doctor has ordered. Your leopard print skirt, combined with the rest of your outfit, looks wonderful!! I took a year of Russian in high school (I remember how to say the alphabet, count to 11, say hello/thank you/please, and sing a classic folk song the name of which I forget. Something about "thank you sweetheart for how you love me"). Banya is new, and I love it!!! Thank you for a delightful view into your world. XXOO

    1. Now this bring me joy! Such a wonderful comment, Jean! Thank you. I am impressed actually how much of Russian you remember! Language is so easy to forget when we don't use it. I know I forgot practically all my German (years of studying in university). I just have never really got to use it. The song... hmmm... I wonder which one is it. You will have to sing it for me, OK? :) And please take an opportunity and visit your Korean spa. Please write about it. I hope you'll love it as much as I do!

  5. Russian banya is definitely not for me! Couples of times that I tried it finished for me in no good way - I fainted. Just can't bear the humidity and heat combo. Love your leopard print skirt, looks cool!

    1. Olga, I am so sorry to hear that you fainted! That has never happen to me - not once in my life... We all are different, that's for sure. I don't like hot and humid weather (the one you probably have where you live now), but banya is different though - it's the contrast between hot and cold. Well, I hope you have some other way to really really relax! I wonder what is it? :)

  6. I love the idea of saunas but my face doesn't. Very bad for someone with roseaca.

    I really want to see that movie. Thanks for the recommendation. I love slightly different films.


    1. Sorry that you can't use saunas! Again, I'd love to know what is your way of relaxation? Massage? Yoga? Meditation? Banya is sort of a natural mix of all those things, and then some... that's the way I see it. :)

      I would love to hear from you what your feelings/thoughts about this movie! If nothing else, it is simply a beautiful piece of art, very enjoyable to just look at. But of course there is more to it. :)

  7. Such a pretty skirt and worn with the brights, so fabulous! Relaxation is so good for the soul. You daughter looks truly relaxed and happy. You are a wonderful writer and these pictures are great too.

    blue hue wonderland

    1. Thank you, dear Ann, for your beautiful words! I have so much fun blogging, and this community of amazing bloggers and readers is just so incredibly supportive! I don't think I've ever ran into such level of acceptance, support and encouragement before. Thank you again for introducing me to this wonderful group of women! :) :) :)

  8. Love the orange, red leopard and expose of Washington secrets! Your outfit is wonderful and the writing is superlative, it makes me appreciate all of the nook and crannies any place has to offer. Ot is good yd learned to relax, Sam I can always see a sere pen expression on your face? Love the photos of the spa. AAhhhh..
    XX, Elle

    1. Going to a spa is like entering my little personal heaven, and I am so happy to share it with friends... you are welcome! :)
      Thank you for such a praise to my writing, Elle, that means A LOT to me!