Summers in Moscow

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The city of Moscow had a centralized heating system and hot water came into the apartment in pipes from the heating plant closest to you. Every summer these plants as well as the pipes needed maintenance so they turned off the hot water in different areas of the city at different times.

Really? When I first found out about it I didn’t believe it. I honestly didn’t believe it. I thought they were having me on. But, no. It was true. I lived in six different apartments in Moscow and every summer we went from three to eight weeks without hot water depending on where we lived. I would get up every day and turn on the hot water faucet and nothing would come out. After a while cold water might come out. The day hot water came out was a day to celebrate.

I had to heat the water in the electric kettle for a bath and for dishes. I would take a plastic bucket and fill it with the full kettle of boiling water and then put in some cold to the point where it was reasonable. Then I would take a cup and pour water over myself while standing in the bathtub. When I was growing up, we called it an Asian bath. We often took baths that way in Burma and in Mexico when we ran out of water. I washed the dishes in a similar bucket but I just rinsed them with cold water. I always washed the clothes in cold water so it made no difference there.

Many expats lived in renovated apartments equipped with their own hot water heaters so they were unaffected. We lived in one apartment that had a hot water heater attached to the shower but it heated the water just as it went through so you would have just a trickle of hot water coming out. It made for a long shower.

Luckily it was usually very hot in the summer so the cool water wasn’t always bad.

The heat was also centralized so in winter the closer you lived to the plant, the warmer your apartment was. We would often have to keep a window open in winter because it was the only way of regulating the heat.

I nicknamed our second apartment the “disaster” apartment. It was on the 14th floor and we had a nice closed in porch with a view of St Basil’s and the Kremlin off in the distance. One thing you could count on was if you came home at two in the morning after an evening of drinking, the elevator would not be working. It was always a joy to crawl up 14 flights of stairs.

The second day we were there I filled up the kitchen sink to do the dishes. When I was done I just pulled the plug and all the water went rushing down the drain and came pouring out all over my feet. They had put new pipes into the sink but when it reached the old pipes going into the wall they didn’t fit together so they just rested the new pipe into the old one. When water came pouring out all at once, it got backed up and overflowed. They didn’t finish the job correctly (no surprise there). We called the landlady and she said she would call a plumber and come over the next day. Well, I came home next evening and she had been here all right, and now there was a big rag neatly wrapped around the pipe. From then on I did the dishes Russian style. I just left the water running as I did them.

We came home one day and it was literally raining in the apartment. We got out the umbrellas while desperately trying to mop up the floor and cover the furniture. The people upstairs had left the water running and gone out for the day. We had to wait several hours in the rain before they finally got home and turned the water off.

One morning my husband was working at home and I left to go to work. I got into the lift and hit the button for the bottom floor. The lift moved in a jerky way. It felt like it went up. Then it stopped dead still. I was on the 14th floor. Panic. I hit the intercom button not expecting anything to happen. I hit it a couple of times. A woman answered. She wanted to know what my address was. I told her. I was screaming in a panic in really bad Russian. Somehow I managed to get her to understand me.

After a while I heard somebody come to the landing. I yelled at them and they could hear me. I told them to go get my husband and gave the apartment number. After a while, I heard my husband’s voice. He said, “I’ll be right back — I have to go get the video camera for this.” Lovely. Finally a woman showed up, crawled in on top of the car and managed to crank the door open. I was just below the landing and was able to crawl out. All caught on video.

I walked down the 14 flights that day.