Tuesday, November 2, 2010

Music enables a comparison of apartments and cultures

It’s nowhere near the first of September, the first day of school for Russian children, and I’m in Ulsan, Korea miles away from Moscow. Yet, from somewhere outside, there is music emanating into my apartment, dredging up memories of those early days in September 2009 when I awoke to children’s speeches and patriotic Russian hymns.

At the beginning of the school year, Russian schools hold ceremonies to welcome the students back. The music at these first of September events usually was performed live by children, but the music in this case feels like it’s coming from a record being proudly played into the streets. While I have no idea what they are singing about, and wouldn’t even if it was in English, because it is not quite that clear, the orchestral background to the singing makes me think of patriotic anthems.

It’s early morning, the sun is shining in my window, and while it’s two months later and 10 degrees colder, the memory-pulling this music is causing is a bit unreal.

Suddenly, I can remember very clearly my dingy little apartment in a rundown part of Moscow, where the vacuum cleaner put more dust on the floor than it picked up, and where my room was basically a small partitioned off part of my roommate’s giant room – an afterthought. While we had separate entrances, the wall separating our rooms was paper thin. The entire apartment smelt old and very well used. The floor in the kitchen hadn’t been cleaned for years, so any attempt left the water dingy and the floor still dirty with caked on grim.

Because I lived in this apartment for nearly six months but never had people over because of my embarrassment, it is relegated to a different memory box, which isn’t negative, but is deemed as a “cultural” experience. It was a true, Soviet style apartment. It had not undergone any European remodel or facelift but was probably exactly the way it had been nearly 40 years before I lived there. The electric wiring had issues. The security to get into the apartment was insane. A key code on the outside of the building, which seems fairly standard around the world, a giant double steel plate door with a skeleton key to get into our hallway, and finally a double door into our apartment. The itty-bitty kitchen held our washer, refrigerator, stove, and a dining room table which barely constituted a table. It was a rickety, makeshift thing about a meter squared, covered in a nappy, old, plastic tablecloth and two wobbly stools. Because I lived there, I made feeble attempts to clean or make the apartment not feel as grungy and worn out, but many things, like the worn-out porcelain in the bathtub which absorbed the strange color of the water, were just old. It was a true, post-Stalin era, Soviet apartment building and felt like it was going to collapse.

It’s difficult to even compare the apartment I am currently sitting in with this older apartment, and the two cultures which created them are two entirely different beasts. The Soviet era apartment was rough, old, ragged, but served its purpose. Like the attitudes in Moscow, it did not mince words or attempt to sugar coat the reality of it. It was what it was, a small little abode on the top floor of a rundown building in a rundown section of Moscow. My Korean apartment is brand new, streamlined and efficient with niceties I never would have dreamed of at my old apartment in Moscow, heated floors, control of the hot water temperature, but it’s in an industrial section of the city, with no green space. Like my first encounters with Korean people, first impressions of my apartment were wonderful. It’s only when the weather gets colder and wear starts to show that the bugs are forced out, but even then, they remain shy and elusive.

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