APARTMENTS IN SIBERIA

Every night when I go to bed, I spend about an hour on YouTube, just aimlessly scrolling around. Like any other social media site, YouTube’s algorithm learns what things you like to watch, and then provides more of them. So nice of YouTube.

I love New York, and there is a young realtor named Cash Jordan who posts regular tours of Manhattan apartments, along with droll commentary. I enjoy his almost daily tours, and so I subscribed to his channel.

Suddenly, I began to get apartment tour videos from all over. Paris, Barcelona, Sao Paulo, Prague. These are fascinating and informative about what living in the real world is like. For instance, if you want to live in Paris, you need to be young or rich. The young career vloggers posting tours of their apartments show off how they store blankets and towels in their ovens, glory in the one window that they have in their 200 square foot studios, and apparently spend a lot of time in bed, because there is no room in these studios for a chair.

New Yorkers do the same, and they are also ingenious in the way they manage to carve out a “bedroom” and a “living room” out of teensy spaces. I have to admit that so many of these studios are adorable, but one tour guide was in his 60’s and had lived in his same one room for 35 years. I was flabbergasted to think that a person with a spouse could do this and not go insane. Before any global pandemics.

The most sobering tours, however, are the ones from Russia and especially the one tour posted by a young woman who lives in Siberia with her toddler and husband. They live in what she describes as a “typical post war” nine story apartment building, of which there are thousands all over what was formerly the USSR.

Her apartment tour starts outside her cement block building, which resembles a prison. The entrance and inner hallways bring to mind a horror movie. She trudges up six flights of dark and grimy stairs, lit by a single hanging bulb on each landing. This, according to her, is “typical of the residential rentals here in Siberia, but in most of them, the elevator does work. Not in my building, though.” She is smiling as she says this, as if the gloom and broken elevator are nothing of concern.

Her apartment, in contrast to the exterior halls, is an improvement, but that is comparatively speaking. It looks clean, with linoleum floors–dark brown flecked with gray. She gestures to the wallpaper, which looks at least forty years old. It, too, is brown, but more the color of weak tea, The pattern is sort of flowery, but that is hard to tell, because it is mostly faded and stained. She points to a tear in the corner and says that soon she hopes to “tape that back up.”

The furniture in her apartment looks to be vintage 1950s, the sort of dark mahogany bookcases and armoires that my grandmother might have favored. Some have mirrors, which the young woman likes, because “mirrors make our apartment look a bit bigger.” She calls this a three bedroom apartment, but what she means is that the apartment has a total of three rooms. One is used as a bedroom for her family. The other is a “living room,” and the third is a kitchen. There is a bathroom, which doesn’t count in with the three room total.

She points out the electric meter smack in the center of the living room. They don’t have hot water, but more lukewarm. They save that for bathing, and wash their clothes and dishes in cold. They have a “balcony,” which is enclosed with frosted windows, and which they use to store all the furniture that the apartment came with that they don’t like: a broken chair, a rug stained with ungodly whorls of mold, buckets, and what looks like piles of old lumber.

She gives us a tour of her kitchen, opening cupboard after cupboard that are empty, “because we don’t really have anything to put in them.” The stove has three out of four working burners, and the whole room is lit with a hanging ceiling light that casts a watery beam over the small table that they use “for family meals.” The sink is dented stainless steel with a dripping faucet. She is so proud that they have one electric outlet on the small counter, so she has “a new toaster!”

The whole thing is so heartbreaking. This young family feels fortunate to have found an apartment they can rent, since most apartments have owners, and not many owners are wealthy enough to have a spare apartment they can rent out while living in another one. And landlords like this are apparently wealthy. Yet they spend no money making repairs or modernizing their rentals, because they don’t have to–there are waiting lists of families who desperately want these “three bedroom” apartments.

Hoping that Siberia was just well, you know, Siberia, I clicked in my search bar for apartments in Moscow. More of the same. I shifted continents and tried Hong Kong. There was a tour there of one giant apartment building that held, this is not a typo, 2,243 apartments. Ten thousand people live in this building. You can Google it.

The majority of people on this planet live in what you and I could consider substandard. Squalor, stress, crowds, and lack of “amenities.” After watching these tours, I felt lucky that during this pandemic I had to stay here. Here, with running water both hot and cold. A washer and a dryer. Enough belongings to fill my cupboards.

If you feel a bit depressed about life here, with all of the political gamesmanship, the vaxxers and the anti vaxxers, the threat of global warming and the spectre of maybe another variant, take a tour of some apartments in Siberia. You will feel both better about your own home and your life, but you will also

Feel much worse.

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