So, there’s this pool. чайка. It is a heated, outdoor pool. So, when it’s 30 degrees or 15 degrees or below zero or snowing, people can swim. Let me repeat that: I can swim in the snow.Snow

My friend Sveta and I toured the pool a few weeks ago, and since Sveta speaks Russian, she asked both her questions and my questions. I asked if you could swim when it snowed or rained, and the lady responded in Russian: “Even when there is lightening. We don’t care.”

I went back two weeks ago on a Friday night and navigated my way through getting a membership using single Russian words and hand gestures.  I always forget that I don’t know my address until someone asks for it. I know that I need to learn my address; it’s the first thing a person learns in kindergarten. Luckily I had a business card with my work address. I paid. I bought a blue swim cap.

Then I had the medical exam, which is required for almost all gym-like memberships in Russia.

I told the doctor “Я немного говорю по России.” She typed my name into the computer, wrote it on a small sheet of paper, the kind on which we leave notes that aren’t meant to be saved, and sounded it out, using elongated vowels and a soft “g”: Kaara Marrii Bowlinjer. She asked questions slowly in Russian, questions I couldn’t understand. I thought I might not pass.

When she said them in English, they made little sense:

“Do you eat?”

“Yes.”

She put the stethoscope on my back and breathed heavily. I mimicked her.

“When?”

“When do I eat? In the mornings, at lunch, in the evenings.”

“Last time?”

“Oh, 3 pm,” I remembered that rule our moms tells us: wait thirty minutes after eating before going swimming.

“хорошо.”

IMG_2588We sat down again and she asked me more questions in Russian and then stared at me. I laughed, apologized, phoned a friend for a translation. The friend didn’t answer. She mentioned “три” and I thought she was reminding me again that I couldn’t swim 30 minutes after eating.

I said “да, I cannot eat and swim.”

“нет,” she replied and then wrote a date on the bottom of the receipt where she had stamped her medical approval. She read the date to me. It was three months from now. I finally nodded and said “да, да, да,” which is how I’ve come to respond if I think whatever I can’t understand isn’t all that important.  She handed me the stamped receipt and while rubbing her arms in a scrubbing motion said “Wash before pool.”

So, I can breathe. I eat. I wash before pool. I’m in good health. IMG_2542

To get into the pool, you have two options. Walk outside and hop in, which seems like a terrible idea, though lots of old men in speedos do this. Or, swim out from the locker room through this tunnel with a rubber flap that keeps the cold air out. You just swim under and there you are, swimming in lanes, staring at mounds of Russian snow outside the pool.

I strive to be invisible when out and about in Russia. I don’t want to look lost on the metro. I don’t want to look like a tourist in touristy areas.  I don’t want to be noticed by babushkas or predatory men. Normally, I succeed in this. Sometimes, though, I become pretty visible.

IMG_2579On my fifth visit to the pool, I forgot to wash off before getting into the pool. I wasn’t trying to contaminate the highly chlorinated, impossible-to-contaminate pool; I just forgot. As I stepped into the pool, a skinny, naked, sorta sunken-in looking lady yelled at me from her shower stall. I looked at her, squinted my face in confusion, and said that I only spoke a little Russian. She repeated herself. When I still didn’t understand, another woman gave me instructions in Russian and then rubbed her arms in a scrubbing motion. I remembered. I said “да да да спасибо” and washed off. Crisis averted.

Then, after swimming, I went into the sauna. The thing about чайка is that the ladies are all naked. All the time. They do everything naked. I am an awfully modest American, so I change quickly and sorta hide in my locker. Personally, I’m real proud of myself for not just hiding and changing in a bathroom stall like I did the first time I went.

So, the sauna is an especially naked place. Normally I wear my swimsuit and no one says anything, but on this particular night, the women were bossy. They spoke Russian and pointed at my bathing suit. I shook my head, I said I spoke very little Russian. And one woman looked up at me and said, not as a request but a command: “In Russian sauna, everyone undress.”

IMG_2560When my friend Irina came into the sauna, I explained to her what had happened, as if to justify my being topless. I laughed and said “I just didn’t know how to say ‘no.’ This just seemed easier.” Irina only responded with “Kara, you know how to say ‘no.'”

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