Friday, September 27, 2013

The domovenok

I bet you didn't know this, but there are actually 4 of us living together here in this apartment in Ukraine.

And Domovenok.

Yes, a real domovenok (Russian: Домовёнок), a mischievous little house elf that gets up to some trouble every now and then.* I always knew he existed because sometimes I'd walk through the kitchen and think: whoa, there's seriously no way that 2 people could create that many dirty dishes!! But dirty dishes aside, he's usually a pretty decent sort, kind of like a guardian spirit, a keeper of home and hearth.

There are things, though, that can set him off: a lack of respect, a lack of snacks, or a disregard for traditions.

The first time he showed his displeasure was via a torrent of scalding water that geysered across the kitchen on a cold November night. Then, the following spring, he tried to incite a war between us and our downstairs neighbor. He followed us to the next apartment where, bearing an understandable grudge against the miserly landlady, he single-handedly took out the entire building's heating for 3 winter months.

I didn't know that a domovenok likes to travel in boots or I might have checked my winter shoes more carefully before moving to our new apartment. He must have stowed away in a boot for the trip across town, but he didn't wait long before hopping back out and getting upset about something. This was his first "housewarming" effort:
Remember a (brief) mention that the new apartment came with a new flat screen TV? Well, we thought that it would be awesome to connect the laptop and the TV to be able to watch things on the bigger screen. The result of this was not so much a convenient viewing experience as an unexpectedly powerful explosion that instantaneously destroyed both laptop and TV.

Then things were quiet. Who knows, maybe domovenok took a late summer vacation. But now he's back and he's making up for lost time. Thursday morning 3 things were accidentally dropped on the floor: a glass storage jar (which shattered into jagged edges and fine glass dust), a bag of yogurt, and some jam. At 1 AM that night, as we prepared for bed, the neighbors came knocking angrily. And now we've got a kitchen that looks like this:
In a story that is awfully familiar to the barely-avoided-war story, the downstairs neighbors discovered water leaking through the ceiling and down their wallpaper. At first we couldn't find any leak in our kitchen but after several trips between the apartments, D managed to pull the entire L-shaped kitchen counter away from the wall and the water that had been corralled away surged out.

It wasn't like anyone was in danger of drowning, but there was definitely a steady trickle that refused to stop. Okay, not such a big deal, right?

Except it's 2 AM. I had no idea who you could call at 2 AM on a Friday morning in Ukraine. I'm not sure there are even 24 vet clinics here, let alone plumbers.

This is where the overlooked hero stepped in to save the day: Petr Alekseyevich, one of the vakhtas that works downstairs. A vakhta is a retired individual, usually a woman, who basically acts as house mom to the building: goes through your mail, spreads gossip, mops, gives people the evil eye. Sometimes rental ads will try to get all fancy and label a vakhta as "security" or "concierge" but I don't think a concierge is supposed to scold you for not dressing warmly. Here's a picture from elsewhere on the internet showing the rarest species of all- the smiling vakhta. I've only seen a few of these individuals in my life.
There were 3 vakhtas at our last building. Some of you may remember Lydia, our vakhta friend that passed away in June. Anyways, the vakhtas at that building would head home at 7 PM and I'm thanking my lucky stars that the vakhtas in this new building work an overnight shift! After the results of a Google search for emergency plumbing turned up nothing (really? in a city of 1.5 million?), Petr Alekseyevich magically appeared and took control.

By then it was about 3 AM and already 6 people were involved in the situation. The downstairs neighbor turned out to be an energetic, middle-aged Vietnamese man who didn't speak Russian that well, so his 16-year-old son and 22 year-old-daughter were in tow to help translate. As usually happens when men and women get together, we soon split into 2 groups: the men stomped off to poke around on maintenance floors and be manly. The daughter and I remained awkwardly in the kitchen. Or rather I awkwardly stood against the wall while she refused to let go of her death grip on the mop. Every time I broke in and said "Hey, you rest, let me mop" she shook her head and waved me off. We talked briefly about her field of study at university and whether she wanted a cup of tea or not. I should add, I had taken a sleeping pill at midnight and this whole situation felt so surreal. Was there really a Vietnamese student of aeronautics mopping my kitchen floor at 3 AM? What?

Eventually a plumber was coerced into driving over through the pouring rain. He looked, decided the kitchen wall would need to be knocked down, and turned off the pipe that supplied water to that part of the building. While it's true he didn't have a website for middle-of-the-night emergencies, he also didn't charge anything for this house call.

There was a meeting of the minds today: D (after four hours of sleep), the landlords, and the plumber. The plumber tore down part of the wall and confirmed the leak. The landlady offered him 30 uah (about $4) for this. He complained that it was too little. D offered him 50 uah and slipped him another 50 uah later "to expedite the process". The next step is for the plumber to call a welder to come out and weld the leaky pipe and thus save our poor neighbors' ceiling.

So we're sitting here now with a kitchen in disarray, waiting for a call from the welder in the next day or two. While the cold water was able to be turned back on, the hot is still off building-wide. It's not that big a deal though, since the hot water goes off all the time and many people have their own boilers because of this.

All I can think is that it must have been quite a serious grievance that set off the Domovenok's temper this time. I'd better starting leaving out a plate of cookies for him!

*Yeah, all these domestic misfortunes could be thought of as simply that: a corroded faucet, a broken pipe, an out-of-order radiator, and so on. But really- which is a cooler idea: simple wear-and-tear or a goblin? My vote's for the goblin!  

The idea of this creature has been around for ages. While I use the diminutive form of the word (domovenok, implying cute or little), the actual term is domovoi. I don't like that word though- check out the Wikipedia images. A domovoi is majorly creepy-looking. Who could sleep with one of those around the house?


  1. Last year was the first time I ever lived in an apartment with a door-lady and she was super friendly. That's definitely not the general experience though.

    And last year we had a similar drippy pipe problem. Oh the joys of Soviet living!

    1. That's good that you had a super friendly one. In our building there are two sweet ones, one standoffish one, and one absolute harpy :p

  2. Sorry about your plumbing problems. I can't believe it's been two years since you 'moved' to Ukraine! I know you love it.

  3. Personally, I think all those things are related to 'Keet'. He is your domovenok.

  4. This must’ve been a frustrating night for all of you, with all the troubles you had to go through. Thankfully, there was a plumber available that time who could do the repairs at 3 in the morning. Also, a lot of your neighbors helped you while the plumber wasn’t around, so that's something to be thankful for! Anyhow, I hope you had a wonderful stay at your apartment right after the leak and other problems had been solved!

    Lovella Cushman @ Perfection Plumbing