Saturday, 21 August 2010

Burning Down The House

So last Sunday (15th) was amusing. Actually, the previous Wednesday (11th) was genuinely entertaining, as I attended my friend Dima's wedding, which was an absolutely wonderful day and I'll write about it later. A couple of hundred pics are on flickr from the day.

But something happened on my way to Dima's wedding, which took place at the Дворец Бракосочетания (Dvor-ets Brak-oh-so-shey-tan-i-ya lit. Palace of Marriage) which is more or less the same as ЗАГС (Zags an acronym for what is essentially a Registry Office, but everyone says Zags for short). A few doors up from mine an apartment was on fire and the firemen (пожарники po-zhar-ni-key) were busily blasting it from a cherry picker.

"That's interesting," I thought, as the apartment itself was part of the same building I live in. Most apartment buildings in Moscow have multiple подъезды (pod-yez-dh lit. um... well, езд comes from a verb of motion, but it means entrance). I was in a rush to get to the other side of town where the registry office is at, but after seeing the burly Russians attacking the blaze I became plagued by the idea that I might not have an apartment to come back to after all the wedding fun times. My fears didn't manifest themselves, and my apartment was fine after I came back home at two in the morning.

That was, of course, until Sunday. Coming back at about three in the afternoon - I can't recall what I had been doing before then - I noticed the apartment stairwell stank of what could best be described as burnt plastic. Подъезды smell funny most of the time, usually of stale piss because tramps have a tendency to pass out on the stairs in the winter, but this time round it was especially pungeant.

One astute neighbour also noticed the stench, and was pacing up and down the stairs looking for the source. I became paranoid and started feeling the floors of my apartment wondering if any of the parquet had suddenly become especially hot (not easy to tell when your apartment is hot to begin with given the recent heatwave). And wouldn't you know it? The apartment directly below mine was actually on fire.

By the time I had realized it was probably the right moment to vacate the place, I heard a colossal banging from downstairs. Firemen were already there and were attempting to force their way in with a crowbar, hose at the ready (meaning I couldn't really get past, but I guess I could have jumped off my balcony, which is only about twenty-five feet from the ground). Then I got a phonecall from one of my Russian friends who lives nearby, inquiring, "Umm, Ben, there's smoke coming from one of the windows of your building, are you alright?"

At that point I noticed that some burly firemen on a crane were peering through my balcony window at me to see if I was alright and rudely hung up on my friend to chat with them.

Given the sturdiness of doors you find in some Russian apartment buildings like the one I'm in (where the ceiling is about three meters high), the crowbar wasn't sufficient, prompting the appearance of an enormous diesel-powered angle grinder to saw through the bolts, which made a hilarious amount of noise.

Obviously, no one was in the apartment at the time. In fact, I can't recall the last time I had seen someone entering or exiting the place in the past year, so I suspect it may have been an electrical fault. I'm vaguely sure I heard mentions of an electric blanket, which might have explained the initial stench.

Anyway, the fire was put out relatively quickly. No towering inferno, I regret to disappoint, just a stairwell full of smoke (ironic, given the fact that the thick amount of smog that had descended on Moscow over the past fortnight had finally lifted). A fireman came in to inspect my place afterward and found no smoke or soot damage, and merely said that I should just leave the window open for a while.

Oddly enough, my friend who called me earlier was still waiting down on the street, which was nice, but, because of his particularly unique character, I was wondering if he was less interested in seeing me safe and well and instead more excited by the prospect of me emerging from the подъезд half on fire. He simply grinned when I later made this observation.

Not wanting to enjoy the stench of burnt plastic, I left the building for a few hours to both get a drink and let the excitement die down.

A few days later, I encountered a couple of my immediate neighbours talking by the lift. Unfortunately for them, who weren't present on the day it happened, it turned out that the fire had kicked off underneath theirs, and that there was some sort of soot damage here and there in the apartment. Although most of the apartments are uniform, a lot of them used to be all one large thing, called a коммуналка (com-oo-nal-ka lit. a short form of communal apartment) in which several families would live. After the Soviet Union died, a lot of these apartments were split up.

The flat below me, however, hadn't been completely rearranged as the ones above, and covered the same area of the two apartments above i.e. mine and my neighbours'.

But anyway, no lives lost and mostly superficial damage. Here's to the next disaster. Perhaps something less dramatic, though, like the power outage in four of St. Petersburg's city districts last night.

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