Thursday, March 6, 2008

Russian Affair, Part 4

Almost three years later, in November 1996, I found myself back in Russia under cover of snow. This time it was with Observer-Reporter publisher Tom Northrop on a mission to meet the staff of our sister newspaper in Siberia. Arriving in Novosibirsk before dawn, we met Rita, with whom I had corresponded for more than a year, waiting for us on the tarmac, bundled in a hooded coat, buffeted by the blizzard, marching in time to keep warm in the sub-zero temperature.

Eight hours later, our car reached Novokuznetsk. We ascended to Rita's 9th-floor apartment in an elevator the size of a phone booth. She unlocked and swung open a huge steel plate covering her door. There were thieves everywhere, she explained.

Rita and her husband, Vladimir, had moved out of their apartment so that Tom and I could live there for a couple of weeks. She would come every morning to fix our breakfast, she said, and at night to make our supper. We had been traveling for 40 hours. Tom took the bedroom, I the couch in the other room. I woke frequently, bothered by the sound of the water running ceaselessly in the toilet tank. I thought about getting up to fix it, but didn't. (I stayed in this apartment frequently over the years, and six years later, despite my fiddling, the toilet was still running.)
Rita had heard that Americans are hearty eaters and consume huge breakfasts. We sleepily sat down to a tiny kitchen table covered in platters of baked chicken, boiled potatoes, pickles, tomatoes, cheese, bread and fruit. "What to drink? Beer?" she asked.

We pleaded with her to just let us have a little coffee or tea and a piece of toast for breakfast and no more, but she refused. We were just being overly polite, she thought.

In Russia, the heat is turned on in everyone's apartment in October and is turned off in April, regardless of the weather. The hot water comes from a central heating plant somewhere across the city. When the lines break or are shut down for repair, there is no hot water. When the heat is turned on, it stays on, and when the apartment gets too hot, you open the windows. Opening our window, I could see the waves of heat-distorted air rising from the many open windows of apartment houses across the street and beyond.

At night, we would return to the apartment, often walking up the nine flights because the elevator was not working, after having been guests of honor at huge and lavish meals, comparable to Thanksgiving dinners, that simultaneously seemed to be vodka-drinking contests. Rita would be waiting for us, with yet another meal. "Please, don't murder us with all this food," we pleaded, but she ignored us. She seemed to survive on cigarettes and tiny cups of strong coffee, boiled in a copper pot atop the miniature stove. The only way to make her stop feeding us was to clean our plates and then protectively cover them with our forearms, and threaten to leave immediately and go back to America if we were forced to eat any more.

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