lease have seat here and warm up,” the Russian spa therapist told me.
I obeyed and entered a large sauna. There were three levels of deep steps you could choose to sit on. I wasn’t a sauna noob. I knew that the higher up you go, the hotter the air, so I plopped myself down on the middle stair and immediately started sweating from every pore on my body.
Shelby had given me this “Birch Treatment” at a Russian spa located in the affluent London neighborhood of Chelsea as my birthday present. I had no idea what to expect other than birch trees were likely to be involved.
At first, I was alone in the sauna, but a few minutes into my sit, when I was dripping sweat and could smell garlic from my dinner the night before emanating off my skin and into the sticky air, two women entered whispering to each other in Russian.
I glanced up and was surprised to see two girls who could have passed as supermodels. They were tall and slender, but while their bodies appeared natural in their spaghetti-string bikinis, their faces were covered with makeup and their lips were abnormally large. They lounged on the top step, using towels as pillows.
I rested my head in my hands, looking down at my beer belly hanging over the band of my swim trunks. The thermometer mounted on the unstained wooden wall read one-hundred and eighty degrees. Considering the fact that water boils at just over two-hundred degrees, and that I’m mostly made of water, I began to worry that maybe someone had accidentally over-heated the sauna. The Russian models didn’t seem concerned and their bodies were soon magestically glistening with sweat, so I took a deep breath and closed my eyes. Surely my therapist would return soon to begin my relaxing spa treatment.
As the minutes passed by, a sweat puddle accumulated underneath my feet. I checked the tiny, rectangular window on the sauna door often, hoping I’d see my therapist approaching. I began to wonder if he’d forgotten me and almost had myself convinced that I should leave the sauna to look for him. The Russian models wrapped their hair in towels and left just as delicately as they entered. I was alone again.
Finally, after what felt like an eternity, the blurry outline of a tall Russian man marched toward the sauna. Earlier, when he had greeted me at the front desk upon arrival, he was wearing a gray uniform with a nametag and leather shoes, but now he was barefoot and wore only a pair of swim trunks and a towel slung over his head, which draped down his back.
“That’s the hottest sauna I’ve ever been in,” I confessed to him, wiping sweat from my brow.
He chuckled. “Just wait until the treatment.”
I’ll admit that at this point I was a little worried, but I reassured myself that I was at a high-end spa—this was a place built for relaxation.
He led me into a back room that contained the sauna’s furnace. I followed his instructions and laid facedown on a damp wooden plank. I was already pretty hot before the guy stoked the furnace and dumped a bucket of water over the top the glowing rocks. The temperature in the room quickly surpassed that of the sauna.
My therapist covered his bare skin in towels until his shadow in the dark room looked like a yeti or some forest monster. He dumped bucket after bucket of water onto the hot stones, dipped branches of birch into the boiling water, then beat my back repeatedly with them. After a few minutes of twigs and leaves singeing my skin, he left and told me to stay still so the birch oil could seep into my skin, which he informed me was a mild narcotic and might make me high.
I’m not sure how long he was gone, but the next ten or so minutes were some of the most uncomfortable of my life. I felt like I was cooking alive. In the brief moments where I forgot about how pruned and hot my skin felt, my neck ached from laying facedown on a plank of wood with my head turned to the side.
I didn’t think the room could safely get any hotter, but when the therapist finally returned, he cranked the heat up even more, then had me turn onto my back. My neck muscles felt a little relief, but now it was my limbs’ turn to suffer. He alternated raising my hands and feet high above my body where the air was hotter. The first time he lifted my right hand up, my fingers instantly burned as if I’d dunked them into a pot of boiling water. I recoiled my arm into my chest, which he patronized me for.
“This is an important part of the treatment,” he told me, grabbing my wrist and yanking my hand back up into the air.
So I let him burn my fingers and toes, and after this sequence of torture was complete, he finally told me it I could leave. I was overjoyed. The suffering was over!
I felt dizzy from being so hot, so he held onto my arm and escorted me out of the room. Fresh air ran over my face as we exited, but it wasn’t enough to cool me off. My body felt like a blanched tomato ready to have it’s skin peeled off.
At first, we walked in the direction of the changing rooms and I thought the treatment was over, but at the last minute, my therapist veered us down a hall. He shoved me into a shower and blasted the top of my head with cold water. My body instantly went into shock. I opened my mouth wide, gasping for air, but none entered. Chills crawled down my neck. Some parts of my body still felt like they were cooking while others were frozen.
My therapist grabbed my arm again and led me back out into the common area. “I feel a bit like I’m going to pass out,” I told him.
“This is normal,” he said dismissively.
I started to get the feeling this guy thought I was a pussy, which pissed me off. His doubt helped me discover a new-found resolution and courage to prove him wrong. I wasn’t going to wimp out and quit after surviving the sauna, the human boil chamber, and the arctic shower.
At this point, I was in so deep, I would have done just about anything he told me so I could finish the treatment. Besides, the Russian models might be watching me from a therapeutic waterboarding room. This luxurious spa treatment wasn’t going to make a fool of me. If he told me to dance and squeal like a pig, I would have jumped in circles screaming, “Rheee!!!!”
He walked me over to an ice bath and said, “Get in and dunk yourself to the top of your head three times.”
I stoically stepped in and plunged myself below the surface, making sure to hold my head underwater for a few seconds each time to show him I wasn’t some little American bitch.
When I stepped out of the bath, my body was vibrating. It felt like electricity was running down my arms and fingers. I saw stars in my field of vision as I stumbled back into the common area. My therapist slung a towel over my head like NFL players do when they’re injured and are being carted off the field. He escorted me into a sitting room lined with bookshelves, where he sat me down in a leather reclining chair and brought me a pot of black tea accompanied by a literal gravy boat full of honey.
And that’s the story of how I joined the KGB.
As I sat there recovering from my treatment and drinking honey watered down with a little tea, the thought crossed my mind: if this is what a Russian spa treatment looks like, what do they do when they want to tortue you?
Traveling from Vienna to London just after New Years was quite the adventure. As American citizens, we are allowed to stay within the EU Schengen region for 90 days out of any 180-day period. The game many nomads like us play is to hop between EU and non-Schengen countries—such as Ireland, the UK, and Croatia—every three months. In this way, you can live indefinitely in Europe without citizenship or a long-term visa.
Our original itinerary had us traveling overland from Vienna to London via the Euro Tunnel in France, where we’d hired a private taxi to take us through to the other side. We had planned a few buffer days into our itinerary before hitting our 90-day visa limit just incase we hit any snags.
The fiasco that consumed our lives in late December and early January was a dual clusterfluff caused by the Omicron Covid variant spreading rapidly throughout Europe and continued animosity between France and the UK over Brexit. The week before we were scheduled to travel to London, France unexpectedly prohibited travel between France and the UK in both directions. Their officially cited reason for this decision was that Omicron was spreading quickly in the UK where the government was not imposing new restrictions and instead trusting the efficacy of vaccines and immunity. Meanwhile, France was having an equally large outbreak and they didn’t close the border with any other countries in Europe during this outbreak or any of the previous outbreaks. Upon further research, we found out that the decision was politically motivated and done in retaliation over disputed fishing rights in the English Channel.
Regardless of why France made the decision they did, we were pretty screwed. Shelby was so mad at France, she swore off French wine and cheese. We didn’t want to put Skutull in the hold on an airplane, so after ruling out land and air travel, we were left with only one option: sea.
There are many ferry routes that go between Europe and the UK. The problem was that most of them require you to drive a car onboard in order to bring a pet with you. I still don’t understand why this rule exists. Once you’re on the boat, dogs are allowed to sleep in the the cabin with you, they don’t have to stay in the car.
In addition to this hurdle, many ferry routes were running on reduced schedules because of continued Covid disruptions. Of the passages that were running and allowed dogs to board as foot passengers, there was only one option—a route from Rotterdam, Netherlands to Hull, UK.
Mind you, uncovering this route took Shelby several full days of work, during which I was a nervous wreck. There was no announced reopening of the Euro Tunnel, and even with our new ferry booking, we were scheduled to leave the EU just a couple days before our visas expired. At the time, there was a lot of uncertainty around the Omicron variant and we didn’t know if in a week all the ferries would also be shut down. The news was making the outbreak out to be the worst wave of the pandemic. UK data modelers at their government health department issued a warning that their best case model had predicted hudreds of thousands of people dying and hospitals over capacity across the nation.
To make matters more stressful, our original route through the EuroTunnel would have only required us to do a Covid test upon arrival in the UK and quarantine if it was positive, but the ferry required us to show a negative test just to board. We embarked from Vienna on three full days of travel via public transit to Rotterdam, during which the trains were packed with holiday travelers, many of whom were coughing and not wearing masks. The risk that we’d contract Covid and test positive in Rotterdam seemed possible, if not likely, given how contagious the Omicron variant was.
And if that happened, we wouldn’t be able to board our ferry and we’d overstay our EU visas. We’d heard stories from friends that if you overstay your visa, they can stamp your passport as “deported,” which makes it nearly impossible to reenter the EU for a very long time. And who knows what would have happened with Skutull in that scenario.
In the end, we made it on the ship in Rotterdam, crossed the choppy sea on an overnight ferry, and arrived in London via train from Hull. Everything worked out, but those two weeks we spent frantically rearranging our itinerary and traveling to London were some of the most harrowing experiences of my life. Many risks felt very real, and while I know my life and experiences were cushy compared to the challenges that many people around the world face, I gained a newfound perspective on what it’s like to live as a refugee in a country where you have no home and limited rights. The best way I can describe what the experience felt like is: all consuming. I can’t imagine what it’d be like to be a real refugee.
Over the course of the two months we lived in London, we did so much, and yet, we didn’t visit any of the normal tourist attractions since we’ve spent a considerable amount of time in London previously. Shelby’s uncle lives there and we have some good friends whom we also met up with.
Shelby, Skutull, and I all took a liking to pub culture in the UK. Even in posh neighborhoods like Kensington and Chelsea, tables at pubs aren’t waited on. You go up to the bar and order. Everyone is encouraged to come as they are. You can wear what you want, kids and dogs are welcome, and there is generally a relaxed and cozy atmosphere. Our favorite tradition was to meet friends and family for Sunday Lunch, which is a special meal served in between lunch and dinner on Sundays at pubs across the UK. The food reminded me of American Thanksgiving—roast meat, goose-fat roasted potatoes, gravy, and sticky toffee pudding for dessert. Our favorite Sunday Lunch was at Angel on the Water in Henley.
We lived at a friend’s spare apartment in Kensington during the month of January, which was a real treat. My favorite Indian food restaurant (Dishoom) had a location within a short walk, which we indulged in several times. Skutull liked living on Hyde Park, though he usually came back muddy. We were paranoid about Alabama Rot, which is a bacteria that lives in mud across the UK and can cause pretty swift death in dogs without any treatment options. The only way to prevent it is to rinse mud off of your dog when you get home. This meant we gave Skutull 2-3 rinsings in the bathtub per day, which was not fun for us or him.
Like most big cities, there was abundant night activities to be explored. We saw 2001: A Space Odyssey in 5mm film. We went to a comedy club with our friends for my birthday. One of my favorite nights we spent playing board games with two of our friends and eating Nando’s chicken. They also announced to us that they were pregnant that night, so that was a fun surprise!
I golfed a few times. The first time was with Shelby’s uncle at a common grounds course near London. I had never heard of a common grounds course, so I’ll explain it. Essentially, the course is built inside of a park. All golfers have to wear a red shirt and pedestrians on the course have the right of way. There were literally people walking across the fairways and throwing balls for their dogs on the greens. It was bizarre, but also kinda fun. I liked how casual it felt. Golf in the US can be so stuffy and high-class. It was refreshing to play somewhere so approachable and affordable.
The second time I golfed was at a course called Cleeve Hill in the Cotswolds, which is the region of the UK where Tolkien supposedly found inspiration for The Shire. We spent a few nights nearby, eating locally grown farm food and pretending to be hobbits. Skutull walked the course with me, which he thought was pretty cool. He caught on quickly that we followed my ball from shot to shot. After I’d hit my drives, he’d trot down the fairway in front of me, zigzagging with his nose down. He’d wag his tail and stand over my ball when he found it. The only time he had any instinct to chase the ball was when I chipped, he didn’t mind full swing shots. He also knew after I finished a hole that we had to find the next tee box and he got very good at that task by the end of the round.
We stopped by Clarkson’s farm in the Cotswolds. The parking lot was still a mud pit, but he was at least selling more than just potatoes and cow juice. We almost bought a candle with a label that read, “This smells like my bollocks,” but opted intead for a handpie and a block of cheese.
We spent our second month in London living in an outer borough called Twickenham. If you’ve seen the TV show Ted Lasso, Twickenham is right next to Richmond, which is the soccer team Ted is the head coach of. Most of the show is filmed in the area.
One day I walked into a hair salon to get an appointment and they said they’d have room for me in 10-15 minutes. I had a pretty strong urge to pee, but the salon was small and I could tell there wasn’t a bathroom, so I asked if there was anywhere I could go closeby. One of the stylists told me to go to the pub across the path. I followed his instructions and had a weird feeling of deja vu when I walked inside. The space felt uncannily familiar, complete with a wooden bar and dartboards. That’s when I realized it was the pub from Ted Lasso! It’s called the Prince’s Head in real life. When I got my haircut, I asked the stylist if he ever saw them filming.
“Ya, pretty often,” he told me, “They pay us to close down for the day.”
I asked when they’d be filming next and he told me March 4-7, which was just a couple days after we were scheduled to leave! It would have been cool to watch.
We ended up meeting Shelby’s uncle at the Prince’s Head for Sunday Lunch our last weekend in London. There was a rugby match on and the pub was packed with fans, just like it is in the show.
I learned a hard lesson about door locks in the UK. They don’t function the same as they do in the US where you have to insert the key and turn to both lock and unlock the door. By default, the deadbolt on a UK lock is always in the locked position and only unlocks when you either insert the key and turn or pull on a latch on the inside of the door.
In some ways, this design is nice. You can never forget to lock your door. Practically speaking, this also means that if you were to, say, walk out of your house, close the door, and then realize you’ve left your key inside, you’d find yourself in quite the predicament.
One sunny afternoon while Shelby was on a run with Skutull in Hyde Park, I stepped out of our flat to walk down the street for lunch. Just as the door swung shut, I realized I had forgotten the key.
My stomach sank. I bent down and pushed the flap of the letter box in to get a look inside. I could see the key sitting on a table a few feet away. I peered both ways down the street to make sure nobody was approaching, then stuck my arm inside the mail slot and tried grab the key, but it was too far away. Next, I reached up through the mail slot and tried unlock the door manually by pulling on the latch, but that was also too far.
I wasn’t overly worried at this point. I sent a message to the property manager asking if she could come let us in, put on a podcast, and walked down the street to a french bakery for lunch.
The property manager messaged back with information I didn’t expect. First, there was only one key to the apartment in the UK and it was the one locked inside. Second, the owner had the nicest locks money can buy installed and they are nearly impossible for even an experienced locksmith to pick.
On my way home, I stopped by the grocery store and bought an extendable duster, because for some reason that seemed like the best tool for the job. When I returned to our front door, I had Shelby cover me as I stuck the duster through the mail slot and attempted to use it to pull the latch and unlock the door. On several occasions, I managed to slide the duster behind the latch, but when I applied force, the duster would slide off—it was too slippery and flimsy for the task.
I pulled my arm from the mail slot and looked at the scrapes and bruises forming on my forearms. The sun was beginning to set, and mind you, this was February in London, so it was not warm. Shelby and I were both getting cold as we originally left the house around lunch and only planned to be outside for half an hour.
I called a few locksmiths. Two didn’t answer. A third did answer, but he said they didn’t service the neighborhood we were living in. I found a Google Maps location for one of the locksmiths that didn’t answer and it was only a thirty minute walk away, so I trekked across town only to discover the entrance to an apartment where I expected the locksmith shop to be. I tried buzzing, but nobody answered. Then I noticed a magnet strip with writing on it stuck next to the buzzer. It had the phone number of a locksmith written on it. I cross referenced the number and name with that of the business I was trying to find and they did not match.
I called the number anyway. I figured maybe they had recently changed locations. A man answered and started asking questions very quickly.
“What’s your address?”
“Can you pay in cash?”
I got a bad feeling, so I hung up. Then he started messaging me on WhatsApp. For almost an hour, the messages kept pouring in.
“I can be there in 10 minutes, what’s your address?”
“Are you there? I just left my house. Tell me where to go.”
At this point, we began to make backup plans. Shelby’s uncle lived across the park and we were minutes away from giving up for the night and walking to his place.
Then I got a call from the locksmith I had originally intended to call. The one who’s apartment I showed up at.
“Hello?” I answered, suspicious it was the same guy harassing me on WhatsApp.
“You called and said you’re locked out?”
“Yes, did I just talk with someone else from your company?”
“It’s just me, so I don’t think so.”
“There was a sign near your door with a number on it. I called and the guy that answered made me feel uncomfortable so I hung up.”
“Was he a Middle Eastern guy?”
“I think so.”
“If he messages you again, you tell him I said I’ll see him in court! My brother and I are sueing him. He’s a scam artist and he keeps putting those signs up.”
Now I got to thinking, maybe this was part of the scam. They could get me thinking I had discovered them, but really, they were just reeling me in. What was I going to do, though? I was desperate. So I gave the guy our address and told him I’d meet him there with cash to pay.
The guy pulled up in an old van. He was maybe sixty and overweight with gray hair. His van was overflowing with fast food wrappers, plastic cups, and tools. I’d describe his demeanor as a bit crotchety, but he was the kind of crotchety old guy you can make fast friends with.
When he took a look at the door, he confirmed my worst fear. “These locks are nearly impossible to pick.”
I dropped my head.
“Don’t worry, I have a trick,” he told me. “Hey, you don’t mind if we drill a hole in the door?”
“Will it be noticeable?” I asked.
“Nah, we can color it with a pen to match the paint.”
“Doesn’t seem like I have another option?”
“Not unless you want to break the door down.”
He came back with a drill and an unfurled metal clothes hanger. The drillbit was thin. He used his thumb to measure a distance to the left of the lock, then drilled a small hole through the door.
“Do you have faith in me?” he asked.
“Sure,” I replied.
He shoved the end of the hanger through the hole and within about five seconds, was able to make it catch on the latch that I had unsuccessfully swatted at with the duster and unlock the door. I couldn’t believe it. The nicest locks money can buy and this guy just broke in in under thirty seconds with a drill and a hanger. I started wondering what the point of locking doors at all was.
I asked the guy if he has to break into peoples’ houses like that often.
“What do you think I’m up to all day? There’s one lady with a bad memory I help every few months.”
I grabbed the key and went straight to the office supply store, where I bought neon orange paper. I wrote, “DON’T FORGET KEY!!!” on a piece, then taped it to the inside of the door at eye level.
Near the end of our stay in London, our lives started to hit a few rough patches. I was becoming more homesick and finding working from a different timezone to be both challenging and unsustainable.
Then a couple weeks before we were supposed to sail across the Irish Sea to Dublin, Shelby noticed a red bump on one of Skutull’s toes. We were already paranoid about Alabama Rot, which first presents itself as sores on the skin, so we took him into the vet a few times. The vet assuredus that he thought it was a cyst, but as the bump continued to rapidly enlarge, he capitulated and offered that we could surgically remove whatever it was. We booked a procedure a few days into the future.
By the time the operation took place, the bump was quite large. The vet had to take out all the webbing of his foot and barely had enough skin to stitch things back together. It turns out it was a cyst caused by ingrown hairs that had become infected. If it would have gotten any larger, we might have had to amputate his toe!
We were lucky to get the procedure done before hitting the road again. The vet told us Skutull would be back to normal in 5-7 days, which seemed fast. I’ll cover this more in the next chapter, but as a preview, his wound did not heal nearly as quickly as the vet said. We traveled a lot over the next few weeks and began to feel like our nomadic lifestyle was impeding us from giving Skutull the care that he needed to recover and be happy.
Oh ya, Russia also invaded Ukraine. There was a Ukrainian cafe on my walk to the gym in Twickeham and it was surreal seeing it morph into a refugee supply center overnight. I don’t know where that conflict is heading, but living that close to it, the risk of war across Europe felt very real and we began questioning how ethical it was for us to be tourists, especially given that we were scheduled to head to Scandanavia in the summer, where Russia had expressed it’s explicit interests in expanding its territory and Sweden and Finland were rebelling by taking preliminary steps to join NATO.
With all of this weighing on us, we made the tough decision to start planning our route home. And so, we began the long process of unwinding the nomadic lifestyle we’d spent the previous two years building…