Rule #1 Don’t throw the party in your own apartment.
I broke this rule, partly because I was taken by surprise. I had gone with several of my friends, including Sasha and Anya, to see the first showing of Return of the King, the last installment in the Lord of the Ringssaga in Irkutsk. We had all been interviewed by one of the local TV stations, the second time I’d been interviewed for TV since coming to this industrial city of 600,000 people almost halfway between Moscow and the Pacific Ocean along the Trans-Siberian railroad in south-central Russia.
But that’s not what the story is about. This story is about the bachelor’s party that nearly destroyed my apartment building. After the movie, Sasha had said, “Anya and I would like to tell you that we’re getting married a week from Saturday. Aren’t you going to congratulate us?” We were all too shocked to speak, not so much by the “getting married” part ― they’ve been dating for years ― but by the “week from Saturday” part.
I shouldn’t have been surprised when our mutual friend Dima called the next day asking to throw the bachelor’s party at my place. I was a little hesitant. Since arriving in Irkutsk to work at an environmental non-profit protecting Russia’s greatest environmental treasure, the nearby Lake Baikal, I’d already thrown one party in my apartment. Granted, the New Year’s bash had been a blast, but afterwards the whole place had been covered ankle deep in food crumbs and spilled vodka. The women at the party had insisted on cleaning everything up before they left, but obviously they would not be around for the bachelor’s party.
There was no other place to have the party, though. I’m the only one in my group of friends here in Russia who lives alone (e.g., not with my parents). So that Sunday, I agreed. The party was scheduled for Tuesday.
The beginning of the party went fine. By tradition, a Russian bachelor’s party always starts with a trip to the banya, a Russian bathhouse resembling a sauna.
What’s the difference between a banya and a sauna? The air in a banya is very, very humid, whereas a sauna is dry. A banya is also supplied with birch sticks, which you take turns hitting each other with. On the weekend, I usually see skiers returning from the forest ― skiing and hiking are the primary pastimes in Irkutsk ― with branches they’ve collected for the banya. Finally,banyas are without exception clothes-less affairs. Nonetheless, Irkutsk residents wear swimsuits to saunas.
When I had told my American girlfriend by phone of the bachelor party plans, she remarked that her conception of a bachelor’s party did not involve a bunch of naked men beating each other with tree branches.
In any case, those planning this party decided to go to a sauna instead. Just that week my neighbor Tatiana had been telling me that many of the banyas in town have closed because of competition from saunas.
I’ve never been to a sauna at home in the United States, so I can’t say how they differ. We rented the entire suite of five rooms for three hours. The suite included a main room with tables, benches and couches, where all the drinking was done (beer is also a traditional part of a trip to the banya — or to anywhere else in Russia, for that matter). There was the sauna itself — a hot wooden room — and another room with a swimming pool. The water was perhaps the greenest I have ever seen. Everyone swam. After enough time in a sauna, you’re ready to jump into anything, as long as it’s cool and wet. The last two rooms contained the shower and the bathroom.
Having the whole place to ourselves was great fun. I discovered why I always thought that Russians don’t swear. Russian males do not ever swear in front of Russian females. Left to themselves, though, they have a surprisingly broad vocabulary! Now I do as well. Other than swearing, drinking beer, and sweating in the sauna, the crowd attempted to perfect their back flips in the swimming pool, had water fights, and fulfilled the traditional duty of trying to talk Sasha out of getting married. He, on the other hand, tried to talk everyone into getting married (not part of the tradition).
So far, so good. At 9 p.m., the party moved to my place. We set to work cooking pelmyeni (Russian dumplings), making sandwiches and reheating roasted chicken. The reason Russians can pack away so much vodka and beer at a party is that they put away an equally impressive amount of food. In fact, the Russian language even has words for food you eat with beer and a different phrase for food you eat with vodka.
All might have been without incident, had I remembered Rule #2.
Rule #2 Do not combine alcohol with fire.
A Russian party is not a party without at least a few games. One guest, Nick, brought along a game he insisted we try. To try it at home (not recommended), what you need is a big bowl of water, several small bowls of rubbing alcohol and a lighter. Everyone sticks their fingers in the alcohol. Then one person lights their fingers on fire and touches the hand of the person next to him. As soon as that person is lit, the first can extinguish himself in the water.
I was still sober enough not to play. I photographed. It all went pretty well until somebody stuck their flaming hand into the alcohol instead of the water. Attempts to put out the resulting bonfire only spread it around the kitchen.
There are no photos of this. I was too busy watching my home go up in flames.
Luckily, the fire burned itself out, leaving behind as evidence only a few melted plastic plates and scorch-marks on my kitchen table.
Other than the fire — or maybe including the fire — the party was a typical Russian party. When I describe American parties, my Russian friends say: “You mean you just stand around and talk?”
Besides the sauna, the cooking, the eating, the drinking and the fire, this party also involved a lot of guitar playing and singing. Also, as is typical, it ran until around noon the next day. Somehow I had completely forgotten that parties here run through the next day (or two), and I had to wake up early to call and cancel my morning guitar lesson.
Right after the fire had burned out, my friends tried to reassure me that there was never any danger. Most of them are chemistry majors, they said, and had everything under control. However, a week later I was chatting with one of them about the party, saying that I had enjoyed it all, except the part where I thought I was going to have to find a new place to live. He said, “Yah, we were all pretty scared.”
If You Go
Irkutsk, the capital of a vast, under-populated region, seems very remote on a map. However, when many of the Decembrists — a young, energetic elite group that participated in a failed uprising — were exiled from St. Petersburg two centuries ago, many made their way here, transforming a gritty frontier town into a center of culture. The town still retains a more sophisticated feel than other Siberian cities, making it a comfortable, friendly place to live. What makes Irkutsk unique is Lake Baikal, a few hours to the east, one of the world’s most beautiful and pristine landmarks.
Russian National Tourist Office