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Sunday, November 18, 2007

Burning in the Russian Winter

From the Vladivostok News:

In Russia I have never suffered from cold but paradoxically from the heat – a dry, arid, enervating, irritating heat. It is an atmosphere of unbearable summer nights which every time reminds me of hot summer days in the south of France during my childhood or the furnaces beneath the tents in the mountains all of the world, when the sunrays start to pierce immediately after the fresh dawn and awake us in sweat. When I was a child I swore a hundred times that I preferred the polar ice to the burning puffs of July and dark clouds to all these cloudless skies of a desiccated blue, almost faded by the sun.

It is at first sight perhaps too poetic for such a futile detail, but do nights not represent a third of our life? But since being in Russia, in Siberia or the Far East, I wake up again with my throat on fire, my body covered in sweat from nightmares of the fires of hell.

Russian apartments in winter are worse than what I had to accustom myself to in all my travels, on the sweltering plains of the south of India, in the dampness of Paraguay or beneath the roofs of the un-air-conditioned pagodas of Thailand.

It begins in November when they start supply heating to the apartments. I always hear my Russian colleagues praise God for this miracle which they no longer await, wrapped in their shawls and cursing the first snows. For my part I know that an extended battle will begin against my radiator, which I cannot regulate because the building has central heating. The windows must be opened, basins of water must be placed throughout the apartment, every endeavor must be made to humidify and cool the air to prevent me from seeing the white winter from an African shanty.

I remember having elsewhere found a companion in misfortune in the person of an African who served for a German trader at the end of the 19th century, who had traveled with him in Russia as far as the frontier of Siberia and who recounted in his memoirs his misfortunes. The poor black man had suffered from Russian baths, scorching teas and overheated living rooms to the point that he confessed in his text that even an African could not withstand the heat of the Russian winter. Perhaps he had also been warmed by vodka!

The matter does not seem to bother the Russians, but it disturbs the sleep of many of their guests. How many times I believed I would die coming out of a half-hour at the banya, re-hydrated by scorching soup and tea – how do Russians manage to have drinks at such temperatures? – and ultimately in a sweat before a frosted window and icy night! And they give you even more blankets!

I pass the Russian winter nights beneath a bed sheet and armed with a bottle of water, and I open the window from time to time in order to let in a little of that icy fluid which haunts the streets.

The problem is all the more complicated in Vladivostok, where cold weather can unload very well for three days but decide finally to settle in much later. And you find yourself with these horrible radiators on a sunny and pleasant day, all windows open, awaiting the winter.

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