I live in an old Soviet apartment block in the center of town. Like all the soviet apartment blocs here, the steps are concrete, they are pockmarked and slightly uneven, but compared to others the ones here are good. When I walk into the building late at night, when its dark, I don’t have to worry about tripping – that’s not the case for the stairwells in other buildings. There’s actually a light in the hall on the fourth floor, which is always where I breathe a sigh of relief; I always have moments of fleeting panic in the dark stairwells, somehow the setting seems to lend itself towards engaging my worst and most irrational fears.
My place here is a fifth floor walk up with two bedrooms, a toilet and separate bath – as is standard here, a small kitchen – with a washing machine and a balcony that seems to be unsturdy at best. The apartment isn’t fancy, but it achieves that vintage, shabby-chic, that Urban Outfitters fails to offer. It’s cozy and familiar and sunny, its lived in – and it’s in the center of town.
The balcony overlooks the main walking boulevard in the center of the city, the place where couples and young people seem to parade or at least promenade, every evening. The balcony offers the ideal people watching venue, another larger bloc, whose blue and white painted outside is peeling across the way and as I hang laundry, I head music. Some days the music filling the air is from the accordion player at the corner, an old man, who seems to play mornings, or music from some festival or bar in the center, some celebration just beyond my line of sight and just once the music was from a Hare Krishna parade walking through the center, handing out texts in Russian and some type of cookie balls – I declined both.
The building’s back faces onto a lightly wooded area, with benches, a well and a small playground. This backyard area is where the neighbors congregate in their little groups. The mothers sit on the bench by the playground, watching the children play, talking languidly to each other, always in Russian. There is without fail at least one male drinking just about any time of day or night by the well – a middle aged, haggard man drinking a liter beer from a plastic bottle mid-day or several boys about my age drinking who knows what later on in the evening – either way I don’t glance that way.
Some mornings there’s an old man washing the concrete stairs in the building. He carries his bucket from the well, all the way to the top floor and begins wiping down the floors. It doesn’t seem to actually clean the floors, they always look impossibly dirty, but it does serve to make them slick, I have to be extra careful these mornings. There’s also animals, strays that are in the trash, by the buildings’ dumpsters in the mornings. Later in the days these animals scavenging the trash will be replaced by homeless looking through it.
My favorite neighbors are the Babas – there’s always a few on the bench outside my building; I walk by them, greeting them in Russian, sometimes they nod acknowledgment, sometimes they simply stare, but either way I just keep walking and smiling, letting their radio work away. There’s one Baba in particular, I think she’s their leader, I’m not sure how to explain how I came to this conclusion, but I decided it on my site visit. During my site visit I had my host mother teach me how to say the greetings in Russian and since then I’ve been using them on her everyday. After a few weeks, she started smiling and nodding acknowledgement, then one morning she said dobroye utro (Good Morning in Russian) back; I couldn’t stop smiling the rest of the day.