It is turning colder in Rīga and soon winter—and the need for heat—will settle in. (Photo by Andris Straumanis)
I had never thought much about heat before. Its presence indoors was so reliable that the seasons seemed to pass seamlessly from warm months to cold. Weather belonged outside. Then I moved to Rīga, Latvia.
After my arrival, in 2002, I spent the first few months sharing an apartment on a dusty, treeless stretch of Stabu iela near the edge of central Rīga. There was no lock on the entrance to the pre-war building, providing easy access for a revolving cast of middle-aged homeless couples with his and hers black eyes, who shuffled into dark corners of the stairwell to devour mushy gruel from containers made of plastic beer bottles, doled out at a nearby soup kitchen by local Hare Krishnas.
Our apartment, on the first floor, consisted of several large rooms connected by a series of French doors, so you could walk through them in a circle. I always imagined the parties that had taken place there back in the 1920s and 30s—an old upright piano in the corner, couples dancing from room to room across the squeaky parquet floors. But after the war, the Communists had deported the bourgeois owners to Siberia and crammed two or three hapless families into the flat, turning the place into one of the city’s countless communal apartments, where as many as a dozen tenants shared a single kitchen and bathroom.
Though the place was once again a private apartment, decades of communal living had left their mark on the interior. The hallway was covered with an ugly layer of orange linoleum, a scuffed trail blazed down the middle; the parquetry was brittle and broken, and felt like a floor of Lincoln Logs; the walls had been painted over countless times, in multiple shades of yellow and green; and the kitchen was dripping with greasy stalactites, left by a can of condensed milk that had been heated on the stove to make homemade candies and accidentally erupted, splattering its contents all over the ceiling.
One evening, I came home to find every surface in the apartment strewn with rancid herring bones laid out to dry on sheets of newspaper. One of my roommates, an artist, wanted to use them as invitations for her next show. The house stank of dead fish. My girlfriend and I decided it was time to find a place of our own.
When our future landlord led us up the four flights of stairs to show us our new apartment, a block over on Ģertrūdes iela, we were ecstatic. The door to the building had a mechanical lock that you could open with a code, punching in the numbers in sequence: C, 1, 5, 6, X, Y. The stairwell was free of stray cats and discarded tubs of mush. And the place would be ours alone—no more waking up to find the kitchen hazy with cigarette smoke, the table covered in candle wax, the pans encrusted with the charred remains of onions and cheese dumplings. No more roommates, no more rancid herring bones.
There was a catch, of course. No heat.
Back in the early 1990s, when our landlord bought the apartment, the entire building had central heating. Feeling flush, he had paid a local craftsman to dismantle the old wood stove in the middle of the living room and turn it into an open fireplace—an incredible luxury in those days. A few months later, the city shut off the supply of heat to the building. Our landlord was left with a fancy new fireplace but no steam in the radiators. And there wasn’t enough current to power more than a single tiny electric heater. Fortunately, he had made one good decision in those early days of feverish privatization: he had bought a spare bedroom from the next-door neighbor and attached it to his own apartment. This new space had half of an ancient white-tiled wood stove in one corner of the room; the other half jutted back into the neighbor’s living room. This divided stove was now the primary source of heat for two apartments. The only problem was, the stove had only one mouth, and it was on the neighbor’s side of the wall.
A deal was struck: the landlord would buy all the firewood each winter, and the neighbor, Juris, a middle-aged bachelor and semi-retired janitor who had lived in the building his entire life, would haul it up from the basement and light the stove every afternoon, providing heat for both of their apartments. This arrangement suited everyone just fine. Juris was happy to have his annual heating bill covered, he had more than enough time to tend to the wood and the fire, and the work kept him in shape. Our landlord didn’t have much of a choice.
Neither did we. In those days, finding a reasonably priced rental apartment in Rīga was nearly impossible, and after six months of creeping up the stairs each night, dreading who or what we might find on the landing, we were desperate for a change. Plus, it was hard to beat 75 lats in rent for a fully furnished, sunny two-bedroom apartment on the top floor of a pre-war building in a quiet courtyard in the center of town. And it was June. The air in Rīga was balmy and sweet and filled with the scent of blossoming linden trees. Winter was months away. We moved in the next day.
Our first contact with the neighbor came in July, when he left a note on our door, scrawled in a barely legible hand. From what we could decipher, the message outlined the different kinds of firewood, along with their respective prices by the truckload. Birch and oak were the best sources of heat, Juris wrote, as well as the most expensive. Alder was a mid-range firewood, low-cost and long-lasting. Pine was the cheapest—highly flammable and perfect as kindling, though it burned too quickly to provide any sustainable heat. Firewood was ideally ordered in late spring, so the logs could dry out in the basement over the summer and early autumn. If wood was bought too late in the season, you ran the risk of getting stuck with a product that had been chopped down only recently, and was therefore unfit for burning. Damp wood gave you nothing but smoke. At the end of the note, Juris recommended two truckloads of a mixed batch. We knocked on his door.
Juris looked like an exiled officer from some Russian novel, fallen badly into disrepair. His long tangled hair spilled out from under a greasy fur hat that he apparently wore all year round. He had only a couple teeth left in his mouth, which emitted a putrid stench laced with garlic and sausage. And on his feet, jutting out from under a ratty brown overcoat, was a pair of pink bedroom slippers with embossed golden letters which, when placed together, spelled out the words “TOO SEXY.”
Juris’s apartment—much smaller than ours—had the equivalent of perhaps 400 square feet of living space. But less than half of that area was navigable. The rest of the apartment was piled high with stockpiled junk—old shoes and clothes, potato sacks for hauling firewood, boxes of tinder, broken electronic equipment, splintered pieces of discarded furniture, empty bottles and jars, and stacks of yellowing newspaper. A narrow path wound through the sea of hoarded bounty, from the door to the wood stove to a nest on the couch, where Juris apparently slept. Another snaked over to the kitchen, where barely enough daylight crept in through the filthy windows to illuminate the shards of kindling on the floor beside another, smaller wood stove, which Juris had installed after dismantling the gas range. Thick black cords hung from the ceiling in the corner of each room. (We realized later, with convulsive twitches of horror, that these were spider webs caked with years of soot.) And everywhere you looked, on the walls, in the sideboard, on the couch and in the pantry, were dozens of clocks of different shapes and sizes: digital clocks, alarm clocks, cuckoo clocks, grandfather clocks, pendulum clocks and clock radios, all whirring and rattling away at odd speeds and intervals. Coupled with the parched, stifling air and the naked high-wattage bulb throbbing in the corner, it was enough to make your brain buzz with delirium. In the midst of this circus stood Juris, holding forth on the different types of firewood, his favorite topic of conversation. Juris worshipped wood and fire and smoke. He loved to burn things even more than he loved to scavenge. We told him to order what he saw fit and slithered out the door.
Two days later, at 6 a.m. on a rainy Saturday, a man called to say our wood would be arriving in half an hour. When I knocked on Juris’s door, he was already wide awake and dressed in a fur hat, woodsman’s jersey, canvas pants, woolen socks and heavy black boots. We went downstairs—he bounding, I shuffling—and stood in the drizzling rain, waiting for the truck. Half an hour later the wood arrived on the cargo bed of a belching Soviet-era GAZ diesel truck, which we helped guide through the gateway into our courtyard. The driver stuck his head out the window and shouted back at us, a cigarette dangling from his lips, cursing when he couldn’t hear our directions and was forced to stamp on the brakes to avoid a haphazardly parked car. Soon half our neighbors were watching at their windows, fuming with groggy rage. When the truck had weaved its way back to the building, it squealed to a sudden halt. The driver hopped out, undid a latch and flipped a switch to raise the cargo bed. The wood came tumbling out of the truck with a thundering crescendo. But the noise instantly ceased, as if on a conductor’s cue; heavy pieces of wood don’t scatter very far once they hit the ground. At our feet lay an enormous pile of split birch, pine and aspen logs, ostensibly enough fuel to heat two apartments for an entire Baltic winter. I handed the driver his payment; he flicked his butt at a nearby car, jumped back up onto his seat and drove off. Juris smiled and rubbed his palms together, eager to get his hands on this fresh batch of fuel. We got to work, tossing the logs down a pit to the basement, where we stacked them up in neat rows, like bottles of wine in a cellar. And like a great vintner, Juris carefully examined each piece of wood, remarking on its size, shape and weight, caressing it with his long, calloused fingers. He was a lord of the stove, a steward of fire, a master of heat, a guardian of the flame.
Most apartments in Rīga have central heating, provided by the city. The building administration uses a formula to calculate when to turn on the heat: If the average temperature drops to 8 degrees Celsius for three days in a row, the heat goes on; in the spring, when the temperatures reaches 10 degrees for more than three consecutive days, the steam is promptly shut off. Unfortunately, the sum of this equation falls far below the comfort level, so most residents of the city spend the first couple weeks of October and April shivering under several layers of blankets, clutching mugs of steaming herbal tea. But if you live outside this network of central heating, and have your own wood stove or autonomous supply of gas heat, you can choose when to start warming your own apartment. We had Juris. The first chilly morning in late September, we knocked on his door again. He opened it immediately, as if he had been waiting for us. “It’s time,” he said, his eyes shining with excitement. “Let’s light the stove.”
When the old white-tiled contraption finally crackled to life, we thought it was going to explode. The sputtering and snapping erupting inside the ceramic squares was accompanied by the biting stench of soot and smoke. But after airing out the apartment, we settled in to enjoy the heat, chuckling about our friends freezing in their centrally heated apartments.
The first couple of weeks were cozy and warm, and we celebrated our good fortune by cooking sausages, campfire-style, in our fireplace. The apartment seemed perfect. The living room was filled with sunlight all day long, and, just outside the window, birds sang from the branches of an enormous chestnut tree. The second bedroom was big enough to fit my desk, all our extra stuff and a bed for friends visiting from abroad. The large kitchen looked down on a leafy playground next to a school for deaf-mute children, who filled the basketball court every afternoon for recess, playing in complete silence save for the sound of bouncing basketballs and sneakers pounding on asphalt. Across the street, right above a cafeteria that sold cheese pancakes, pork dumplings and cold beet soup, was a two-story pool hall with a full bar, open 24 hours a day. If we ran out of beer at a party, we went across the street and ordered some to go; the bartender would uncork the bottles and then snap the caps back on, dexterously avoiding the law prohibiting the sale of closed containers of alcohol after 10 p.m. But most of all, we appreciated the cheap rent and the central location. Most of our friends were paying twice as much as we were, for tiny apartments in crumbling Soviet-era buildings far from the center of town.
But when October turned into November, and the temperature dropped below freezing, the weather outside crept in. The apartment beyond the heated bedroom, where we slept beside our half of the wood stove, and the small space in front of the fireplace, where we spent the rest of our time, was basically uninhabitable. In the kitchen, soup left out overnight turned to slush. Sitting in the bathroom, you could see your own breath. And the guestroom, at the far end of the apartment, had been turned into a giant freezer. By morning, the windows in the apartment were covered on the inside with a thick layer of frost, the vapor from our bodies having frozen on the glass.
But we learned to cope with the difficulties, as you always do. The advantages of our new apartment—the view, the price, the location, the all-night bar and billiards across the street—seemed to outweigh the lack of heat, which we tried to think of as a minor inconvenience for just a few months of the year. We unplugged the refrigerator, which slashed our electrical bill in half; set up an elaborate system of candles, to defrost the windows; and bought a tiny electric heater (the only kind our weak fuse box could handle) to warm up the bathroom, giving us an excuse to hop back in bed in the morning and wait for the room to thaw out. We even had a complex system for synching up the heater with our appliances, to avoid blowing the fuses. The extra room became a storage area for apples and vegetables from our summer cottage, though it was increasingly filled with wood and wood briquettes for the fireplace. On weekends I chopped wood at the cottage, packed the logs into potato sacks and piled them into the trunk of our car to transport back to the city. Then I’d haul the sacks up the four flights of stairs to our apartment, often meeting Juris on the landing, lugging his own bag up the steps. We’d stop to chat about wood and fire. Later, huddled in front of the fireplace eating dinner, I would lovingly turn over each piece of maple and aspen—like Juris had that morning down in the cellar—and recall the summer afternoon when I had sawed down its trunk, or the autumn morning when I had split the log and brought it home. Driving in the country, I would eye a grove of trees and think, What’s the street value of that birch? I was gradually turning into my neighbor. Our apartment was beginning to look like his sooty den.
Our lives eventually came to be defined by wood, fire, smoke and ash. Whenever our room began to fill up with more smoke than usual, we called our local chimney sweep, who arrived on his bicycle, dressed in a black coat with shiny buttons that Latvians touch for good luck. Once, he gave us a large bucket of clay, which we used to fill the cracks in the tile on our half of the stove. Living amidst the smoke, the ash and now the clay, we began to feel as if we had returned to more primitive times, when man lived face-to-face with the elements. Most of our conversations concerned heat and how to maximize it. Was the place getting too smoky? Was the wood dry enough? Should we chop more kindling? Should we pile up some loose bricks around the fireplace to trap the heat? Could we burn this stack of moldy New Yorkers? Our waking hours revolved around the open flames of the fire, where we ate, drank, sang, talked, read and entertained guests. Wood, fire, heat, smoke, ash. What myths would they beget?
One was the belief that we couldn’t leave. Whenever we thought it was getting too cold or too smoky, whenever the sacks of wood seemed too heavy or the task of worrying about the fuses too cumbersome, we’d stare out the windows at the chestnut tree, which announced the passing of seasons by sprouting its elongated buds in June, blossoming in July, hardening into spiky green shells in August and shedding onto the cars below in October. Or we’d watch the deaf-mute schoolchildren doing laps on cross-country skis in the playground out back, laughing and shouting, silently. Or we’d head across the street at 5 a.m. for a round of billiards and beer. Or we’d stoke the fire early on a Saturday morning and toast pieces of bread for our omelet. We’d think of all the money we were saving and think, We can’t leave. We’ll never find a better place. Ever.
And then one day we did. After four years of living in the perfect, unheated apartment, next door to Juris, we heard that a friend of a friend was moving abroad and needed to rent out her place, an airy one bedroom with parquet floors and high ceilings, overlooking a bustling pedestrian street in the Old City. The rent was triple what we were paying, but still cheap for such a beautiful apartment, especially one with a view of the rooftops and church towers of the medieval section of Rīga. It was time for a change. We were tired of freezing, tired of thawing out the windows, tired of cooking dinner in scarves and mittens, tired of hauling wood up four flights of stairs, tired of all the kindling and ash, the smoke and the soot and the clay. Most of all, we were tired of thinking about heat all the time. We moved out in October, right before the first frost. Now, every autumn, when the radiators clatter to life, we celebrate—not that we have heat but precisely that we don’t. It’s not ours to supply and stack and carry and stoke and clean. We don’t have to think about it anymore. It’s just there.
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