Bath by Zinaida Serebriakova, 1913 (source)
Write about your first experience of swimming. How old were you? Was it in a swimming pool with an instructor, or someone kicked you and you fell into a lake? Were you with your friends, your parents or by yourself? Did you learn how to swim eventually? Do you love it, hate it, or are you indifferent to it?
This subject tempts me to go down memory lane once again. It is not my character, but myself who learned to swim fairly late, when I was 14 or so. It is not my character, but myself who first felt she was supported by water and could trust it not in a lake, in a sea, in a river, but in a little swimming pool at a day spa, or banya as we call it in my mother’s tongue. It is not my character, but myself who still loves water and goes swimming from time to time – in summer, it is Puget Sound (it is not universally icy cold everywhere), and in winter, it is a neighborhood swimming pool.
We were in the 8th grade, 14 or 15 years old when one of my classmates brought up going to banya. I don’t remember who it was, it very well might have been myself, as I am known for throwing ideas in the air and starting informal groups with a common interest. We decided to go there every week, on Friday afternoons (I think by that time Saturday was a day off school), and it soon became our little tradition, as probably 6 to 8 girls all together, in their winter coats and fur hats, scarves around their necks and mittens protecting their hands marched through the town. I bet more than one of us had valenki on their feet – traditional snow boots made of thick sheep wool felt. Each of us would have a roomy tote bag with a bath towel with her, and some of us also kept a dried birch venik in there – a bunch of dried branches with leaves on them, the best and only tool one needs in Russian banya, other than a tazik, an aluminum bowl, or rather a small tub, to soak veniks before using them. I had a venik simply because my dad is a huge fan of banya and collected birch branches to make veniks for himself.
Walking with our veniks through the town, we giggled anticipating our unusual adventure. At our town’s public banya (every city or town has one in Russia), we took our clothes off, revealing our growing and changing bodies in front of each other, still shy of our new shapes, still not sure whether this or that shape was “right” or pretty, we entered the main area, with a steam room, an icy cold tub which was the modern version of the olden days' barrels where our ancestors would dip their heated bodies – summertime in water, wintertime in snow. There was a separate area with faucets of cold and hot water and a stock of taziks where we could wash ourselves. And also a little swimming pool with a temperature pleasant enough for just hanging in there – a thing that all teenagers in all countries know how to do well.
I remember grown women greeted us, looking at our youthful beauty with curiosity and a hint of sadness about days passed by, and yelling at us from time to time to shut the door and not let the steam out when we’d open a steam room door, hesitating to enter. Their bodies were so different from ours – stretched skin, round bellies, heavy breasts hanging freely, all much too familiar now when I am about their age and have a teenage daughter myself. Some of them, the most passionate, almost professional banya goers, were wearing little wool hats to protect their heads from the extreme heat. They’d hit each other with veniks, soaked in a tazik with hot water and therefore softened in advance, getting a wonderful body massage, groaning, squawking, almost screaming in ecstasy.
The pool area was more to the liking of most of the girls at that point. We’d dunk our heated bodies in it, and those of us who could swim, would swim along the perimeter or across the small pool, and those of us who couldn’t, would just hold the metal ladder leading into the water, chat and giggle with the rest of girls. I couldn’t swim. With both of my parents being raised in a village and loving not just swimming, but diving head down in the water, I was never that adventurous physically, and being sick for a few years of my childhood, I was heavily protected by mom who wouldn’t even let me attend a choir class, let alone learn how to swim. I don’t remember whether I was the only one in our little group who did not know how to swim or not, but I remember that I did not feel embarrassed which probably would be easy to feel in that situation. One of the girls said swimming was really easy and showed me how to move hands in a big circle, and how to move legs, “frog-like” she said. I tried it, and… immediately started swimming! First, close to the edges of the pool, ready to grab them if I panicked, but soon going a little further into the middle of the pool. By the end of that banya day, I was not only rested and relaxed, but I also learned to trust the water to keep my body, to trust my body to do something new, and to trust my spontaneous teacher.
Our little banya adventures continued for a while, but soon there were not six, but four girls going… then three girls… until only two of us were left. Ever since that first trip to banya, I fell in love not just with the banya experience itself, which is still my most favorite form of deep relaxation, but in love with water. And I still move my legs like a frog when I swim.
* * *