03 November 2007

In from the Cold

It feels like ages since I've written! I guess that's partly because I've been writing fairly regularly for the last few months, and partly because this was emotionally a pretty long week. Bad news from home, continued gross weather, and a very stressful Halloween party combined to make me pretty miserable for several days, but things perked up immensely toward the end of the week, and I'm feeling not just not-bad-anymore, but actually really good now.

So. The windows in most Soviet apartment buildings, quite frankly, suck. They're old and made of wood, which means they're warped and usually don't shut all the way anymore. The paint on the casements is thick, uneven, chipping, and probably lead-based. Also, there was apparently a shortage of painter's tape in Soviet times, because the window glass is always streaked with paint and the locks have big spatters – sometimes so big that they prevent the lock from working properly – on them. The paint is mostly an aesthetic issue, but the warping is definitely structurally problematic, especially in windy seaside cities like Vladivostok and Taganrog.

So when cold weather comes, people deal with their leaky windows in one of two ways. The lucky ones can afford to renovate their apartment with "plastic windows." (When I first heard this term, I thought it meant the glass was plastic, but it actually refers to the casements.) Plastic windows are ALL the rage in Russia right now, often the first thing home renovators splurge on. They seal. They lock. They don't require paint. "Do you have plastic windows?" is one of the first questions that comes up when the conversation turns to apartments; an answer of yes, it is understood, translates to a warm, happy home, while an answer of no translates to freezing your butt off.

Or it would translate to freezing your butt off, if the crafty Russians hadn't come up with a draft-stopping solution. (Of course they came up with a draft-stopping solution. They believe that living in a drafty apartment is tantamount to suicide.) Starting in September, folks around here started making noises about taping their windows shut for the winter. At first I was confused, but never fear! I didn't have to wait long for them to start warning me to tape my own windows for the winter and explaining exactly how to do it. Some recommended regular clear tape; others swear by masking tape; still others advised getting my hands on some special insulated window-taping tape.

I missed all this last year because I spent the fall and winter in a nice, renovated dorm. But this year, I live in a real Soviet apartment, and my windows are the crappiest of the crappy. The ones in the kitchen have half-inch gaps even when you close them as tightly as you can, and the locks don't work. (Don't worry, I live on the ninth floor.) By last weekend, despite fairly warm outdoor temperatures, my apartment was unlivably cold. Too lazy/busy to tape, I tolerated it by wearing my hooded sweatshirt on top of a wool sweater, but when I had a student over for tea on Saturday and she nearly froze to death, I decided something had to be done.

This meant a trip to my favorite men's-only hardware store, where I got foam padding and two-inch wide masking tape (I made this difficult choice based on the fact that it was the first kind of tape I found). I cut the padding into strips, taped them into the cracks in my windows for heavy-duty draft blockage, got maybe a little overzealous and caulked the hinges of the leakiest window (the padding wouldn't go in), and presto! raised the temperature in my kitchen at least ten degrees Fahrenheit in thirty short minutes. My landlord came by the next day to empty the air out of my radiators (this is a continuing saga, because everyone else's air apparently rises into my radiators, preventing the hot water from reaching me and heating my apartment) and praised my work. Gold star for me!

The next day, to solve the non-functioning heater problem, I bought a little electric oil-filled radiator, and gave my advisor nervous fits by carrying it home by myself. (I still don't see what the problem with that is.) And now, finally, my apartment is toasty warm. Except that now that the door to my balcony, which was at least as leaky as the windows, is sealed off, the electric heater is shut in my bathroom with my wet laundry, making the bathroom toasty warm so the clothes dry faster. Not very energy-efficient, but then, the other option is waiting a week for my clothes to dry every time I do laundry.

Next cold-related task: convincing my advisor, who shamed me into switching my fall polarfleece jacket for my winter coat this past week, that said winter coat is thick enough to see me through the Taganrog winter alive. I've survived both Ohio and Connecticut winters in it, plus a very, very cold few days in Petersburg last January, so somehow I think it'll be ok. But she thinks I'm out of my mind. And so the battle of the cultural attitudes toward cold continues.


Rosa said...

I wonder if I could secretly tape my dorm room windows closed. My roommate has different temperature preferences than I do and likes to open them, even now, when the college heat has been turned on. I hate waking up in a freezing cold room.

But at least now you don't have to!

Dan said...

Hey, I did that back in Calhoun! Lots of people did it because you couldn't control the radiator and the cold leaked right out. They rennovated the windows right after we graduated, so I guess they realized it was a problem. The old Calhoun windows don't sound quite as bad as yours since they weren't warped. They always looked completely closed, but the mysterious 67-year old sealant didn't really seal by that point. Also, they were double-pane, but many of the outside panes were broken. For what it's worth, I always used duct tape, but it sounds like what you did is much more thorough. Nice!

Also, I'm amused that I used to joke that the Walter Gropius-designed Bauhaus landmark dorm I lived in my first year of law school looked like it had Soviet architecture, but it's the Yale dorm that apparently had a similar problem!


Alexandra said...

I, too, am living with real soviet windows for the first (winter)time in Russia, and was wondering whether I ought to tape them shut. I was wondering, though... do you seal up the fortochka too?

Leslie said...

I was told that you aren't supposed to do the fortochka, because that's what you open once you find out that your soviet heater works so well that it's 90 degrees in your apartment. I had to do mine, though, because that's exactly the part of the window that doesn't close properly and was letting all the cold in.