Kyiv First 100 Days: Our Place

Our first 100 days are long over, but I had some drafts of things that I wanted to record, so I'm going to go with them. They are more like "then and now" reflections, because I have adjusted a little more and have some newer things to observe.

I struggled a lot with settling in to our apartment. I was so conflicted - on the one hand it's spacious and clean and safe, so what's my problem? Mostly, I'm a brat. But on the other hand, it's cavernous and echoes and has NO storage whatsoever and the quirks of floor plan and decorating, in my first couple of weeks especially, drove me nuts. It was strange - I was expecting odd and incovenient but what I was expecting was different from the odd and inconvenient that we got. Ours is odd and inconvenient disguised as big and glam - in fact, most "new" apartments and buildings here are more or less whited sepulchres. Everything is facade, and any time you see underneath (which is more often than one would like, because things underneath are the things that rot and break more often than anything), it's a bit frightening. And I didn't like the unsettling feeling that underneath, things are quite possibly crumbling, leaking, seeping, cracking...

After a while of everything staying together and feeling like maybe I was wrong to worry about plumbing, electric, gas, support walls, and so forth, I felt like I could safely tell all about our apartment and some memories of other apartments I've lived in here in Ukraine just for comparison and commentary. After describing our spacious, newly remodeled and generally non-Sovietesque apartment, I was going to blithely mention that at least we probably won't experience any of the memorable and quirky non-OSHA compliant repairs or remodels while we live in this place - it seemed so modern and normal, for the most part.

Then one afternoon the director of our apartment building came to the door and said that they had ascertained that the heat won't work in the building because of a clog in the pipes (what?! how?! No one ever knows.), namely in the pipes in the wall of our master bedroom. He asked if they could open the wall and see what it needed and so forth.

So we had this lovely hole for over a week while they continued to see what the problem with the pipes was. There was a smaller but corresponding hole in the (public) stairwell outside our bedroom. For reference, the pipe is about three inches around and the hole was over two feet long. And I'm still not sure how whatever they did to the pipe made the heat work. Or if it did, since the city hasn't really turned heat on this winter. But oh well....

Then two women came over a period of three or four days and they patched the wall with a little door (right over the other little door that you can see was already there). We have lots of little such doors in our place. I like to imagine that if I could shrink myself, I could fit through them and go to magical and interesting places. Maybe I will write the next series of fantasy books, ala Chronicles of Narnia? That would help me forget that some of these unsecured doors have glass beer bottles with cigarette butts stored in them. And others have meters and knobs that the baby likes to turn.

Some of the other features of our place?

Very fancy chandeliers. I'm not really a chandelier type, but if you're a Ukrainian landlord trying to appeal to Nouveau Riche (mafia) Ukrainians and/or "rich" Americans, chandeliers are a must. Ours are beauties. Great dust collectors. And don't provide much light, really, because they are up on the fourteen foot ceilings. But it's the thought that counts. These are my favorite:

Furniture that is not ours. This is something that I really wasn't planning on feeling as lonely as it did for a while. We brought none of our own furniture with us except the boys' beds. So it felt hotel-like and not really to our taste. High quality, but more formal than our life lends itself to. Never fear, though - with three little boys in the house, everything is getting pleasantly distressed at this point. And by the time we leave, perhaps we will have to own a lot of the furniture in the place. In the meantime, I rearrange furniture regularly to try and make it feel better.

The "knobs" on the cabinets in the kitchen. They were more like wooden tassels held on by cheap burnished bronze. Charlie pulled three of them off within as many hours, I think, which made it difficult to open any of the doors. One of the first improvements I made was to order new knobs from a discount knob vendor online (you can find anything in this world online!). They arrived, I went crazy with the screwdriver, and voila! I could cope with the kitchen cabinets again.

Balconies. Two Juliet type off the front side and a balcony that runs the entire length of the apartment on the back side. They are all one of the most disappointing things about our place - many apartments in Ukraine have awesome enclosed balconies that serve as storage, sunrooms, drying racks, whatever. I was hoping for at least one like that - they are quintessential Ukraine. Alas, ours are not functional at all, not even enclosed, and actually feel like they might fall off the building at any moment. The boys wanted to play out on them constantly when we first moved in, but the railings are unstable and the slant of the cement "floors" - truly disconcerting. I do have plans for a container garden, though, because the big balcony is on the sunny side. Tomatoes? Watermelon? Peas? Herbs? I'm doing a little research...

Our "neighborhood." We have a prime location for David to walk to work, but our building is the only residence on the block. I miss the feeling of neighborhood when you walk out of a stairwell and there are familiar grandmas sitting on the bench outside the door, and there's a rug-beating post in the middle of the area for spring cleaning, and a little play equipment and lots of moms with strollers and children running around and hanging out. We just have a busy, double-parked street. But we were grateful, the first few weeks before our stuff arrived, to have the half burned-out building behind us for entertainment. I can't even believe how much time we spent at the window watching men tear it down...that's another post.

A fireplace that smokes. (I think of Sense and Sensibility every time I think of our fireplace.) We're not allowed to use the fireplace because of hazards, but that doesn't stop our upstairs neighbors from using theirs. Our living room would fill up with at least the smell of smoke every night for a while. So we asked for someone to check into the situation. No one investigated the flue or the chimney areas or anything. They just came in with a piece of particle board painted light blue (there's not another light blue thing in the place), cut it to fit the opening of the fireplace exactly, and sealed the edges with silicon caulk. It's really quite a masterpiece.

The boys are still a little bothered that the smoke shield also effectively eliminated their one cozy spot in all the house. (P.S. See the paper hanging out above Charlie's head? That was the first "solution" - here before we moved in - for the smoke coming down the chimney. Yeah. Less effective, and, I might add, flammable.)

Window treatments. Ukrainians are big on "shears." We have a beautiful set in every room. I can deal with all of them, because I've learned to see "pretty" from their perspective. Except for the ones in the kitchen. They just didn't "go" with the way we use a kitchen. And they blocked the one good view.

So within the first week of living here, I found a little store that sells ribbon, bought some (they didn't have the right color of green, but in my neurosis I didn't care), and redecorated a bit. I couldn't take the shears dragging on the floor in the kitchen or the boys running in and out of them, often right after eating. So, up and away. Not too bad.

A functioning elevator. This is a big deal. Many places have lifts, but they regularly break down and often double as urinals for homeless. Not ours. It's clean, has only broken once since we've been here, and, thanks to the other perk of having security people in the basement, random people aren't allowed in the building. An added bonus is that they have been improving the elevator every week since we moved in - they added "granite" cornices, new buttons, a new floor...The boys are always thrilled to notice something new on the elevator. Our neighbors upstairs (who are doing a scarey "European" - that's all the rage among the elite - renovation) actually have a remote control for the button to their floor, so no one else can make the elevator go to their level. Ooh la la, eh? The one "funny" thing is that the elevator is up two flights of stairs from the garage and one flight of stairs from the street. So coming in with bags of groceries or a stroller full of two sleeping children...not so fun. But oh well. You can't expect them to think of everything.

In general, our place is large and tall. We still kinda rattle around in it. It feels sometimes like I'm squatting in someone else's palace. Strange to be uncomfortable in a place that is really quite nice, especially by Kiev standards. When people like my Russian tutor (who's lived in the same three room - not three bedroom, three room - apartment since she was seven, in 1950-something) come over and say things like, "Americans all have big places, they are just used to living in really big places," I feel really sheepish but don't know how or where to begin to explain. In truth, even lower middle Americans are used to a certain level of luxury unheard of here (washing machines or laundromats, even). I feel like a poser - government employees living like crazy Ukrainian oligarchs replicating the American dream (of 1989).

Things have gotten progressively more comfortable here now. It's not as bad as my first 100 days grumbling would have you believe. Still odd and inconvenient in some respects, but I do have the kitchen set up and we have heaters to make things feel less like a cold castle, and the boys are snug in their rooms. We feel safe and things are good.

And we do have a guest bed or two. Come on over.


Sir Nottaguy-Imadad said...

What a great post.
When you said that there was a hole in your bedroom, and a hole in the public stairwell, could people see in your room? Creepy.

I think I would have painted a cozy fire burning on the light blue panel they placed in your fireplace.But then, that's just my crazy sense of humor.

Perhaps if your container garden is successful enough, you can set up a kiosk outside your apartment and sell what you don't need.

Janelle said...

Thanks for sharing, it's all so interesting. We've never been overseas, but would love to some day. Until then I can just live through you while still controlling my own heat-that is just so odd to me!

Christine said...

I like the details. I'm with you on living in an actual neighborhood. Are you allowed to move to another location in the city?

Anonymous said...

Blogger ate my comment.

Gist of it:
Balcony description scared the crap out of me. Thanks for that.

Curtains, LOVE. You are masterful.

Boys in fireplace, to die for. So cute.

Blue wood pretty funny too though.

Loved reading this.

Mad at blogger.