Déjà Vu All Over Again

Former U.S. Consulate, Leningrad

We had a mini-emergency a few days ago in our senior community/mobile home park in Santa Rosa, California. In the dead of night, the pump that supplies our homes with well water tripped a circuit breaker. In order to be on time to a 7 o’clock meeting the next morning, I got out of bed before 6. A couple of minutes later, when I flushed the toilet, I failed to hear the sound of water rushing back into the tank, ready for the next flush.

Sandra came to the rescue with a couple of gallon jugs of drinking water she’d just purchased in order to keep our bodies (not our toilets, which we hadn’t considered) hydrated in the event of a prolonged water shutoff. We refilled the tank.

Actually, we’d been anticipating a power outage (and accompanying loss of water) as a distinct possibility in light of a forecast of hot, windy weather that had much of Sonoma County anticipating a day or two without electricity. Two years ago, during a similar spell of hot, dry, late-summer weather, a wind-driven firestorm — apparently triggered by electrical sparks — had devastated local communities. Now, PG&E, our local power company, was preparing to avert another such event by alerting residents to the possibility of precautionary power cuts.

As it turned out, PG&E never did cut power to more than a few areas, and our neighborhood’s pump-triggered water shutoff proved short-lived. However, when we turned on the tap, the water was, initially, a distinct muddy brown. It immediately brought to mind a few water adventures I’d experienced four decades earlier in Leningrad (today’s St. Petersburg), when I served at the U.S. consulate there.

Yes, back in the 1970s, at least, all of that city’s tap water was brown. All the time. To give the Leningrad water agency the credit it was due, the brownish hue was not as distinct as that of the newly restored water in our mobile home park. No. The water that came out of the tap in Leningrad looked clear. However, when you ran it into the bathtub, it was unmistakably brown. Perhaps from rusty pipes.

I’ll never forget the kids’ first bath in our Leningrad apartment. “Look, kids,” called my wife. “The bathwater’s brown!” Fortunately, the kids thought that was cool. Bubble baths remained an occasional treat, not a means of masking the strange (to us) color of the water.

We lived on the fourth floor of this building, 7 Nakhimov Street

Sometimes, Leningrad’s water was not only brown. It was literally cool — as in frigid. That’s because each year the water agency turned off the hot water to the entire city “to clean the pipes.” Huh?! The entire city?! Yes. In Leningrad and, I believe, most other cities in the USSR, hot water came not from boilers in each building, but from centrally located plants that supplied hot water to entire neighborhoods. Presumably this was an energy-efficiency measure. But whatever the rationale, it meant that if the system shut down, you’d have to endure cold water for two or three weeks. And they shut it down every year. When, you might ask, would they do this? In mid-summer perhaps, to minimize the inconvenience? Of course not. The shutdown took place, like clockwork, in March, with outside temperatures still hovering, if you were lucky, in the 30s and 40s.

To make bathing tolerable, we’d boil two or three pots of water on the stove, pour it all into the tub, then add enough cold water to create a two- to three-inch-deep, lukewarm bath. Not just for the kids, but for us too. The alternative would have been a cold shower. Very cold.

Showering in Leningrad brings one more memory to mind. When we first moved into our apartment there, we found the bathroom lacked a critical amenity — a curtain rod. Preferring, as a rule, to shower rather than immerse ourselves in the tub, we found ourselves unable to keep the water from splashing onto the tile floor.

This was not an easily remedied situation. Leningrad — a Los Angeles-size city with just one automobile dealership and one gas station anywhere near city center — had nothing resembling a Home Depot or any kind of retail hardware emporium. To get a shower curtain rod installed we had to rely on an obscure corner of the Soviet bureaucracy, UPIP.* And to get UPIP to act, my friend Don Hays, the consulate’s administrative officer, had to bug them repeatedly. Weeks went by with nothing but a wet floor to show for our frequent entreaties.

Finally, I stepped into the bathroom one morning and, to my astonishment, found — poking up from the poorly grouted spaces between floor tiles — a forest of newly sprouted mushrooms.

When I reported this to Don, he passed it on, pronto, to UPIP. This apparently triggered more shame than even Soviet bureaucrats could endure. UPIP responded within a day or two and voilà … we got our long-awaited curtain rod!

We never did sauté those mushrooms.


* UPIP (oo-PEEP) was the Soviet agency whose job it was to provide services of every kind to all the consulates in Leningrad. UPIP stands for Upravlenie Po obsluzhivaniyu Inostrannikh Predstavitel’stv, which translates as Administration for the Servicing of Foreign Representations. Because UPIP was not always terribly helpful, to my American colleagues I used to call it Upravlenie Po prepriyatstviyu Inostrannikh Predstavitel’stv, Administration for the Hindrance of Foreign Representations.

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