Monday, July 16, 2012

Ukrainian housing

An average apartment building in Kharkov. Imagine rows and rows of similar buildings and you'll see why the premise of this famous Soviet movie is entirely believable!
 The fantastic article How To Decorate Like A Russian inspired me to jot down what I've noticed about Ukrainian apartments. Oh, and we're also (fingers crossed) moving soon or as I like to think, moving up!
  • A one-bedroom apartment is not a studio nor is it exactly a western one-bedroom. A one-bedroom in Ukraine means one sleeping/living/everything room plus a separate kitchen and corridor. People expect to open the front door and step into a corridor, never directly into a living space. 
  • Most apartments here are smaller than US apartments... and sometimes contain more people living in them (parents, grandparents, children). But to balance that situation out, nearly everyone has a дача (dacha, a summer house in the countryside) and people frequently escape to their dachas for fresh air on the weekends.
    • Built-in closets are rare; a stand-alone wardrobe or gigantic wall unit is the standard. On a related note, I remember helping resettle a Ukrainian family with 2 teenage daughters in an apartment in Alaska. When the girls saw the (regular old) closet in their room they started crying, saying they had always dreamed of having a closet like that. I didn't really get it until moving here. Now I dream of a built-in closet too. The gigantic and looming wall unit that takes up 1/3 of our room drives me nuts! But D says he remembers his family proudly getting one in the 1990s so I try to remember that it's just a part of the culture. (Check out the decorating article for a picture of said wall unit...and yes, there's always a tea set on display in there!)
    Behold, the wall unit. (Filled with the landlady's stuff.)
    • Wallpaper, wallpaper, wallpaper. Maybe paint was not available back in the day? But the things people can do with wallpaper in Ukraine...let me tell you! The old Soviet pre-remodel wallpaper = not so great (plus there's usually a big Persian carpet on at least one wall.) The remodeled apartments, though, tend to have really cool fancy wallpaper: textures and elegant designs even.  
    • Though you may see a big rug on the floor or on the wall, people don't have wall-to-wall carpeting. Паркет is popular instead of carpeting. Don't know what parquet is? It's flooring composed of wooden blocks arranged in a geometric pattern.
    •  Lace curtains, lace curtains, lace curtains. I still don't get it.
    • ALL BUILDINGS ARE BUILT OUT OF BRICK. As mentioned before, this often leads to locals asking you why your country uses inferior building materials ("Tsk tsk, it's no wonder hurricanes are always blowing down your houses!")
    So, be careful of crumbling and falling bricks... you'll see protective fencing like this to protect people's heads from dangerous debris.

    • If you live in an apartment, as most do, you can rent?/own? a nearby garage (aka large metal shed). Sometimes on sunny afternoons I'll see men sitting in front of an open garage, just chilling in a lawn chair. I think they go there to get away from their wives :p
    Ukrainian garages next to a typical apartment building
    another use for the laundry lines!
    • Bathrooms. It's popular for bathrooms to be divided into two rooms: the shower/sink and the toilet. (This is not as glamorous as it sounds!) If it's not a 2-room bathroom it's likely either very old or very new. If you have a bathtub then the shower head is not attached to the wall- it's probably lying across the tap instead. In our case there's a jury-rigged nail & loop solution (that is not actually a solution as the shower head will instead twist back and forth and spray everything.) Btw, yes, apartment plumbing is usually good and toilet paper can be flushed.
    • Everyone has a washing machine. 70% of washing machines are in the kitchen, 30% are in the bathroom. No one has a dryer. Drying clothes is done by hanging them on an independent drying rack, in the bathroom, or out on your balcony. There are some pretty cool balcony drying racks that extend out into space, billowing socks and sheets on sunny afternoons.
    • Speaking of balconies, what is this- the Middle Ages? Stop throwing stuff off your balconies, people! All day long I see housewives dumping dustpans onto the heads of pedestrians or beating dirt out of rugs 6 stories over the sidewalk. Sometimes when I'm looking out my own balcony I'll suddenly see a glowing cigarette butt speed by on its way to the earth.  
    • And one more balcony observation: there is a strong industry here devoted to двери, окна, и балконы- doors, windows, and balconies. It is physically impossible to go an entire day without someone offering you such a service. It's usually a young man or woman standing outside the metro with a clipboard or little flyers. двери, окна, и балконы, двери, окна, и балконы, they yell out, just like they're peddling tomatoes!
    This is not at all your average balcony- most are filled with drying laundry and/or junk... but one can always dream, right?
    • Remodeling (ремонт) = a way of life. There is no beginning, there is no end, there is just always ремонт.
    • Be prepared for your water to randomly be shut off, possibly for extended periods. Squirrel away some tap water for these occasions. But don't ever drink the tap water! (We do use it to brush teeth though.)
    • A dishwasher? What is that? One of those fancy new-fangled contraptions? Never heard of it. 
    •  No more popcorn ceilings! Hooray, I hate those things! Ceiling here are smooth and beautiful.
    • Every apartment has a домофон, an intercom. People can buzz you from downstairs to be let in. Sometimes a person will forget where they're going and will just dial a random number instead. And they may get me, and we may have a long awkward conversation while I try unsuccessfully to open the door from my apartment on the seventh floor until they finally hang up in disgust. Just sayin' :p Actually, our домофон stopped working several months ago so there haven't been any repeats of this.
    • Most apartment buildings look the same: square, squat, old. The maintenance issue is always interesting. There's no single person who owns or cares for the building (a superintendent, landlord, manager, corporation, etc). Instead people each own- or lease- an apartment. The communal areas (hallways, elevator, etc) are either maintained by a zealous resident or left dirty and cleaned by no one. Hmm...kind of like most of my college apartments.
      This is a nice entrance.
      Miraculously the gardens in front of our building were tended one night by little gnomes and now they appear surprisingly looked-after.  
    • Despite the rundown look of the outside, once you get in an apartment you may be surprised at how clean, modern, and well-maintained it is. Even the most luxurious apartments are usually disguised behind these tired bricks and graffiti-ed doors. (Or you could find an equally dubious apartment, it just depends on the owner!)
    • The babushki (grandmother) brigade sit on the park benches in front of buildings all day long. They may look old but watch out, they monitor you like a hawk! The other day we walked past one who called out "Hey, foreigners! You're not even going to greet me?!" She's been trying to get us to come up to her apartment for a couple months now, as she has an old English dictionary that she wants to give us. I really do want to visit her, just haven't had the time...
    • You'll see signs like this one posted around in apartment buildings. They are notices from the utility companies, reminding people to pay their bills. In this picture, the notice informed residents of my building that we owed 9,427 uah and 59 kopeks as of November 1st, 2011. In an apartment building in Yevpatoria I saw another kind of notice- one that listed individual apartments and how much each apartment owed. D said this was meant to shame people into paying the bill. According to the sums on that notice, it didn't look like it was working!
    • Tiny elevators. It's a bit of an awkward squeeze, but the one in my building fits 3 skinny people (plus sometimes a small dog). And I'd consider this one a regular size elevator...they can definitely get a lot smaller!

    • When lighting goes out in a common area, sometimes it can take a while to be replaced. Does some resident finally break down and buy a new light bulb? It cracks me up when teachers from my school complain about a light bulb burning out in their apartment and expect the landlord to come replace it. Seriously? Seriously?? As the landlord is probably engaged in a stand-off with his own neighbor over who is going to replace the dead light bulb on his own landing, you need to just suck it up and buy yourself a light bulb.
    • Also, building materials used to be in short supply in the USSR and post-Soviet days, and people would steal whatever they could carry away. I don't know if this is still a common practice, but some of the iron railings on the staircase have been cut away and D pointed out this theft-proof light bulb cage in the hallway.

    • Heating: the city turns this on and off every year. In 2011 it was turned on in October. Also, the hot water gets turned off during the summer so that repairs can be done.
    • My favorite part of Ukrainian apartments? The люстра, or chandelier. It's practically a sin to have regular lighting- you need chandeliers! Fancy, simple, geometric, colorful, you'll see them all. And the lighting stores here are like a dream come true. If only we could all live in a world where chandeliers were the norm! This is one habit I definitely want to take home with me.

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