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  1. Wealth
October 12, 2009

From Russia with Steam

By Spear's

The torture chamber chic really comes into its own when you have a platzka. A Russian comes in with a soapy bucket and branches of oak leaves…

Dick Wolf, the producer of Law & Order, once said the great thing about setting a TV show with plot lines “ripped from the headlines” in New York is that you could pick a story from anywhere in the world and find a New York neighborhood where you can set it.

Eclecticism has always been New York’s most alluring quality, even if we’re sometimes too set in our own routines to really explore it. So when a friend suggested we might spend the afternoon at a Russian bath in Alphabet City, I was intrigued enough to give it a whirl. 

Entering the brownstone on 10th Street, between 1st Avenue and Avenue A, is entering a parallel universe.

Straight away Moscow meets New York at the reception-cum-sandwich-shop that offers bagels and blinis. Behind the cash register is Boris, the owner, who hands you a little bank-style deposit box for your valuables, which he then locks into a wall behind him. Somehow, I had no doubt they’d be safe with Boris as their guardian.

After changing into my swimsuit, I descended into the hottest dungeon imaginable: all rock and granite heated by a giant furnace. To be able to withstand the heat, you have to dunk a white bucket into a sink and pour cold water over yourself.

When you overheat again, you go out and dip in a pool one degree above freezing: after 7 seconds, you begin to lose feeling in your legs. Then back into the Russian steam room.

But the dungeon’s torture chamber chic really comes into its own when you have a platzka. A Russian named Viktor comes in with a soapy bucket and branches of oak leaves with which he then proceeds to whip you. His only English: “Turn over.”

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Afterwards Viktor takes you outside and wraps you in towels and a cotton robe so you relax before going back in for another round of roasting and freezing, alongside a motley crew of fellow steamers: Russians, Germans, and American university athletes. 

All in all, I think I’ve discovered a new favorite Russian tradition, without even heading for an airport. It turns out New York really is the center of the world. 

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