My apartment building is a drab tan, that when overcast takes on a gray and ominous
feel. The stairwell is also frightening on first impression and has a lingering smell of something rotten. A coffin sized elevator exists, but the groaning sounds it produces keeps me walking. I live on the fourth level, distinguished by its solitary working hall light and wood-paneled doorway.
Stepping through the outer door you enter into a shared space that contains a shoe rack for our apartment and the neighbors. I am assaulted by a rotten odor (not dissimilar to the downstairs one) emanating – so I’m told – from long forgotten garbage left in said neighbors apartment. I’ve since begun to suspect the smell is the neighbor. I can’t remember ever hearing someone entering or leaving that place. At this point, things seem depressing, but fear not!
Closing the door to our apartment you look to the left and a bright kitchen welcomes you. It contains all the necessary ingredients: teapot, honey, and hearty bread. Here is the heart of our home. And it is always pulling us back into its warmth with the allure of warm drinks and dried fruit.
The rest of the house radiates past it, a jumble of rooms along a hallway. They hold normal things like beds and wardrobes. Shelves and drawers. But they are rooms we pass through, never settling in them too long, always making our way back…
The apartment is warm - borderline hot - which is perfect by Russian standards as I understand. Heat is supplied by radiators and we don’t decide when they run or how hotly. There is a company that sends us a monthly bill, which I can’t help but compare (as an American) to a heating commissar collecting membership dues. To regulate the temperature we open windows, those curios European types with their ability to open both vertically and horizontally. The creaking wooden floor keeps the cold from seeping through the concrete. Our home is perfect in all its imperfections.
I know little of my neighbors. In the morning doors bang and echo throughout the stairwell in frenzied departures. In the evenings the electric whine of the elevator motor reaches its crescendo as tenants return from school and work. And I’ve ascertained from the laughing, crying, running and banging there lives above us a spirited child and likely, very exhausted parents.
When I leave the apartment the sidewalks, still covered by a thick layer of snow and ice, are treacherous for me despite all the practice I’ve had. I’m continually amazed at the steadiness of women walking along in their high heels and dresses here – perhaps they have replaced their stilettos with ice picks. And it is a testament to the hardiness of Russian women to see the babushkas making their way with canes and headscarf, to underground pedestrian passages, to hawk fruit and vegetables. In the summer they have the best berries and I have been reminded to always buy from them.
The click-clacking and rumble from the tram starts in the early morning and is soon drowned out by the sloshing sounds of traffic over wet roads. Beyond those traffic sounds there is a lack of conversation in the streets. Perpetually cloudy skies and having to focus on your every step is a conversation killer. Yet on the weekends you’ll see fathers pushing children in small sleds and groups of teenagers making their way through the many parks scattered around. And if the sun comes out? All bets are off.
I live in Ufa, Russia. It is different from what I know and while some parts were frightening at first pass, I have become accustomed to them. The weirdness of this new place is fading. It is starting to feel like home.