Taking the Polar Bear Plunge (DUDE, Where’s My English?)

In Russia, there is a long and glorious tradition associated with what we in America might call a sauna. (There it is called a баня or “banya.”) In these banyas, which are typically built of wood, there is a heater with a rock chamber and a small hole for water, to create steam. Men and women strip down and enter the banya with one goal in mind – to sweat.

While in the banya, these people hit each other all over with small bundles of sticks called veniks (веники) to help improve circulation.

And when they’re done sweating and beating, it is customary for them to run out into the snow and, if possible, jump into a pond or lake of freezing water.

I’m told that the shock is incredible, and can be enough to momentarily stop your heart.

I’m also told that it’s the most exhilarating feeling in the whole world.

As someone for whom the log ride at Six Flags Fiesta is too intense, I’m not sure that I’d ever have the gumption to do something like this. (My memory of the log ride includes getting to the top of the hill, looking down in sheer terror, and turning to Kelly yelling “LET ME OFF! MAKE THEM LET ME OFF THIS THING RIGHT NOW!) But for some people, jumping into heart-stopping water after having the sweat beaten out of them is the ultimate in adrenaline rushes.

Today, I experienced a little bit of what I imagine these people must feel just as they jump into the water- where else, but in my Russian class.

(This is your friendly public service announcement warning you that there WILL in fact be Cyrillic in this post. All who are annoyed by my propensity to type in Russian should do one of the following:

  • Skip to the next visible English word
  • Get over it
  • Bite me

That is all.)

I knew it was coming. We’d been warned last semester. And truth be told, I was looking forward to it. You don’t become more proficient without constantly raising the bar. I get that. I really do.

Still, when Dr. Garza said: “Сейчас мы будем говорить только по-русски,” I think that just for a moment, my heart actually stopped.

See, even though I knew it was coming, I don’t think I ever really believed it. Could Dr. Garza REALLY have just said that we would be speaking only in Russian? Didn’t he know that we’d only had one semester of Russian language? Of course he knew – he taught us! It just… it just… it couldn’t be right.

But off he went, spewing a string of Russian words that initially left my brain in a tailspin.

Wait! I thought. I’m only just now translating the first four words you said! And by that time, it was off to another sentence.

It’s not that it was really that much different from the end of last semester. By then, we were having discussions in Russian. Our oral exams were done entirely in Russian. And just a few weeks ago, I was complaining about having Russian conversations in my head at night while I tried to sleep.

But the initial shock was terrifying. Like jumping into a pool of freezing cold water. There was the submersion – that heart-stopping moment of dissonance in my brain, when I wondered if I’d ever be able to come back up for air. Or if I would remember to breathe again when I got there. I was drowning, in language, and funny noises and strange sounds.

And then, much like the hearts of the Russian banya masochists (and I say that with the greatest respect, being a bit of a masochist myself) everything started working again. It was like flipping a switch, when after the initial shock, words started to form themselves from the disconnected Russian sounds, and then the words came together into somewhat logical sentences.

Much to my surprise, I found the language on the tip of my on tongue, dying to come out. Most of it probably wrong and riddled with errors – but the basics there. And it dawned on me that we really were communicating and making meaningful exchanges. Maybe it isn’t exactly international peace treaty material, but it’s a start.

It’s like the banya. Last semester, I entered into a room with twenty other people, all having the same goal. I worked. I beat every ounce of effort I could muster out of my self, pouring blood, sweat, and tears into my desire to learn this language. I took a few emotional lashes every time I made a mistake – I demanded as close to perfection as I could get. I worked with others, and we poked and prodded and beat each other with theoretical bundles of Russian-Language Sticks.

Today, I ran out of the banya and jumped into the freezing water – the culmination of my hard work. I wasn’t sure if I was ready, but I jumped in anyway. And when I came up for air, I understood a little better why the Russians would subject themselves to the polar bear plunge.

That first breath of air or understood sentence – that first moment of comprehension, when you know that you’ve done it – it’s incredible.

Так, ладно. Вы хотите меня говорить только по-русски? Я думаю, что я могу.

(But only in class. Elsewhere, people tend to get annoyed.)

*Бобс (Bobs)

One Comment to “Taking the Polar Bear Plunge (DUDE, Where’s My English?)”

  1. I would totally do that … jump in the cold snow after a banya … not the whole learning Russian thing.

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