Thursday, March 10, 2011

The Way Things Work...

We recently started teaching English at Moscow's Sports' University on the far north side of the city (just under an hour and a half commute from where we live.) Our first week there, we were given a tour of their enormous facility, complete with separate gyms and equipment for over 40 different types of sports for students there. While we work primarily with students in the volleyball department (yes, that's right, you can declare “Volleyball” as your major at this university,) I believe many of Russia's future professional athletes study here now. Most students dream to go on to the professional sport world, while others will become future coaches or trainers. I am still a bit curious what kinds of classes are offered for students here, however, 5 years of volleyball seems like a substantial amount of time in class... Their chalkboards are field diagrams with magnets for different players and positions. I'd like to take an exam here just to see what it's like. Most likely I would fail volleyball, but maybe I could pass a running test.

At any rate, walking home from our class yesterday, I was struck with the utter randomness of our situation there at the Sport's University. Because of the girth and expense of the university facilities, security there is actually very strict. There are turntables and guards at every entrance by which students can only enter by swiping their electronic student cards. As we don't have these cards, a volleyball program director or coach must meet us at the entrance every week to swipe us in for our class. It's a very elaborate system. Our coworkers with the Athletes in Action program in Moscow, who actually invited us to undertake this venture, actually all have student cards, though. How they came across those cards, how they even began working with this prestigious place in Moscow, is really a fascinating story in and of itself. It also serves as an intriguing look into how things actually get done in the Russian culture and it all begins, if you hadn't guessed, with a trip to the Russian Banya.

For those of you who don't know what a banya is, it's worth attempting to experience rather than reading about. It's best compared to a sauna here in the US, but so, so much more. You begin with a steam in a stifling sauna room with temperatures over 100 degrees. Once you've reached your heat maximum, you file out of the steam room and quickly jump into a pool of ice water (or if available, into the deep snow outside.) That will really get your heart going. You may take a little pause at this point in a common room reserved for tea or vodka, but then quickly repeat that same cycle of sauna and cold pool. After a couple rounds, out come the birch branches, for which the Russian banya remains infamous. Your third trip into the sauna, a fellow banyaneer beats you with birch branches. The purpose of this tradition is not merely sadistic (as is often thought to be the case), it is intended to draw the blood to the surface of the skin, increase circulation, and clear one's pores for further cleansing. The task of beating is not for the faint of heart. As it turns out, it's actually a skill much prized in the Russian banya sub-culture, and, as we'll see, can be a very handy tool to have at one's disposal.

Our friend, Victor, a former professional athlete and banya-goer extraordinaire, had long been going to the very same banya as the head Dean of the Moscow Sport's University. Not until recently, however, had Victor shown his true talent with the birch branches and befriended the Dean with a connection as hearty as the blows delivered. During one banya trip, where Victor particularly effectively pummeled the Dean with a fist-full of branches, the Dean exclaimed, “You're the best I've ever met with the branches. Ask for anything you want, anything, and I'll give it to you.” “My friends want student cards so they can go to your university.” “They're yours.” Within a week, our Athletes in Action were presented their very own student cards for full access to the university and facilities there.

And that's the way things work. No American could have predicted that outcome, let alone begun to try to secure student cards in that way or had the ability to do so. No amount of paperwork, bureaucratic tape, polite requests, overbearing demands seem to substitute for a good beating in this culture. One never knows quite where the gift of the birch branches, once shared, will open doors here in Russia. However, with visa qualms always lurking in the ever-present future, it may be a skill worth learning.