A hot date at NYC’s Russian & Turkish Baths

“So what are you doing tonight, Jimmy?”

As I listen to the question, I gasp for air. Steam clouds my eyes as sweat drips down my face. The smell of eucalyptus hangs heavy in the air.

“My wife, she thinks I’m gonna bring her flowers or take her out for sushi,” Jimmy says, his voice thick with the swagger of a New York City accent.

“She thinks I’m gonna do one. I’m gonna do both. That’s how you make her happy.”

The men laugh while the moisture suffocates me. It’s Valentine’s Day, and I’m in a steam room at the Russian & Turkish Baths in downtown NYC.

Jimmy continues talking, discussing the finer points of his marriage (“Put it this way, when I go to work, at least I’m getting out of the house”) and debating the merits of different falafel joints (“You can’t say one is the best, that one is only best for you”). When he leaves the room, he drops a gem on two girls chatting about failed relationships: “Without love, we can’t have peace.”

The Russian & Turkish Baths are an East Village institution, and tonight it’s crowded with couples, singles and regulars like Jimmy and his crew, all seeking a hot, steamy respite from the February cold. New Yorkers in varying levels of undress hop from room to room: the mild steam room, the pleasant redwood sauna room, the radiator-heated Turkish Room, the intensely scented Aromatherapy Room. A regular advises us to stay no longer than 15 minutes in each spot and take a plunge in the icy central pool between sessions, which is said to improve circulation.

Then, the regular points us to the largest room, the big Kahuna, the star of the bathhouse: the Russian Sauna room. Here, an oven filled with 20,000 pounds of stones cooked overnight emits a radiant heat that ranges from intense to unbearable. Before we head in, we listen to the splashing of water and whipping of platza oak leaves, and we watch as people emerge with bright red skin, soaked from head to toe and looking like they’re about to have a heart attack. I brace myself.

Inside it feels like a cauldron and smells like a heady mix of essential oils and B.O. The room is packed with people, some sitting on bleacher-style benches, some receiving platza oak leaf treatments ($40) from husky men in robes and some dousing themselves with buckets of ice cold water streaming from a spout in the center of the room. The walls are solid rock. I’d never seen anything like it.

Unfortunately, I only last about 3.25 minutes before the room started spinning. The Russian Sauna isn’t for the faint of heart. I push my way out, skin bright red, and dive into the plunge pool. I think I’m done.

Upstairs the smell of homestyle Russian food greets us. After a quick shower and change, we ditch our plans for a swanky night of dinner and dancing and settle instead for a warm meal of dumplings and borscht — no flowers or sushi needed.

The Russian & Turkish Baths are located at 268 10th Street in New York City. A one-day pass is $35 and includes facilities, robes, slippers, towels, soap, razor and timeless words of wisdom.

[Image via Russian & Turkish Baths]

Travel diary: How I found acceptance in a Spanish hospital

Avid travelers wear the title of “wanderer” like a badge of honor.

I know I do – I never completely related to my peers in my small Nebraska hometown. My brain was always dreaming, always scheming for ways to create the life I wanted – and that didn’t include Nebraska.

I fell in love with Spain as a teen – the architecture and culture drew me in with its passionate allure and never let go. It seemed only natural that I’d spend a semester studying there.

I sent for my student visa, packed my bags and traveled to the Alhambra-lined horizon of Granada, Spain, in early 2004.

“You’re living with Senora Cordon,” the director told me as we arrived one rainy January night. My host mother — a plump Spanish woman with perfectly-coifed blond hair and dozens of leopard-print scarves – was genuinely interested in my well-being. So far, so good.

My elation soon turned into a routine of class, class and more class. The school, an offshoot of the Universidad de Granada, was filled with American students — not exactly the multicultural experience I envisioned.

[Photo: Flickr/*CezCze* (off-line)]
I started to feel isolated — I wasn’t connecting with fellow students, a problem I chalked up to being shy. Many of my classmates partied nightly; I opted for shopping at El Corte Ingles.

I was unhappy – sad that my experience wasn’t turning into the supreme adventure I envisioned, sad that I was wasting the opportunity.

Sad until I woke up one morning with a decision: I had to make the most of my time in Spain and find a way to connect with the country. I soon happened on a volunteer opportunity with Hospital Materno Infantil Virgen de las Nieves, a dusty and run-down hospital perched high above Granada.

The hospital treated children with cancer and it was our job to entertain them. Each Tuesday I made the 30-minute walk and took the elevator up several floors until I was greeted by young laughter. Language barriers kept us from fluently communicating, but tea sets and toy trucks had a way of bridging the gap.

The young faces were familiar each week – until my final visit. A new boy, tiny and timid, stood out.

I felt an immediate connection to him and we spent much of the hour-long session coloring. Afterward, I walked into the hallway as he followed. His parents were in the hallway and I immediately recognized them as Gitanos, or Gypsies with Romani ancestry. Gitanos are generally not well liked, thanks to their lingering reputation as pickpockets – so that explained some of his playroom apprehension.

He walked over and whispered something to his parents and they looked at me with wide-eyes and shy smiles. I returned the smile and their appreciation.

Walking home that night I realized something: We’re all searching for acceptance, no matter what language we speak or customs we follow. I found acceptance from that small family.

Do I feel completely accepted now?

No, but that’s why I travel: I end up finding a piece of myself in each place I visit.