Life in Russia was a lot like life in the US. The similarities between the way people spoke, what they said, how they dressed, what they liked to do for fun, was pretty much spot on. There were some "odd" differences that took way more time to get used to than I was happy about. One time, I went to the corner convenience market to grab some milk for cereal and tea... A relatively simple act? Normally, yes - however not in Russia. It turns out there are two kinds of milk, both widely available and usually located right next to each other in any beverage or dairy cooler. Both are called "milk" or Moloko. However, one is Nastolnoye and one is Tertoye. The bottles look pretty much the same, they even both come in "whole cream" or "1.5%". So I purchased some "milk" and poured it over my cereal one morning and took a bite. I was instantly greeted with the most sour, curdled, revolting sensation I've ever experienced... My eyes teared up, my nostrils flared and I had to rush to the sink to expel my breakfast before the floor (or my lap) could greet it first. Nastolnoye is "table milk" and that's what people in the US would put in tea or on their cereal. If only I had purchased that... I had bought Tertoye milk (tart) which is intentionally soured with additives such as vinegar. That's right, the Russians love a good sour milk to drink while on the go. The stuff is a little like sour cream, but liquid.
Another odd quirk, is that the younger generation does not stay put for very long. People in our building were constantly moving in, moving out. They'd find a better flat at a slightly better rate and they were gone. I guess no one ever bothered to calculate the costs associated with moving. I was well into my second year living in Vladivostok, things were going great. My girlfriend was finally moving into my apartment while we looked for something bigger that we could afford with our new combined income. Her place was a tiny studio near the factory district - so it wasn't really a candidate.
The strange "phantom" odor that seemed to plague the flat still cropped up from time to time, but we soon discovered that incense seemed to drive it away. It also masked the smell quite nicely. Directly next door to me lived an amazing couple who were in their early 30's and who spoke some English. We hung out quite a lot when I wasn't sleeping from my crazy hours. Practically every other night we'd go out as a group to the cinema, or shopping districts and spend hours together.
Two months after my girlfriend moved in, they moved OUT. It was more than a little devastating. They were the perfect neighbors and although they did shuffle around a lot at night, it was usually just some low, muffled bumping noises. Who knows how loud a new tenant would be!
We never got to find out. Shortly after they had completed the process of moving out, we began to notice strange sounds during the middle of the night. The same low, thumping, dragging noises could be heard through the wall from the apartment next door. At first, we thought they might be contractors, working to get the apartment rentable for new tenants, however the noises seemed to go on all night. I was usually gone until very late at night, and when I did get home, I was so exhausted no amount of thumping through a wall was going to keep me up. My girlfriend was another story however. She'd toss and turn all night... Eventually moving out to the living room to pass out, trying to get as far from the shared wall as she could. We eventually complained to the apartment manager, who took us immediately to the vacant flat. Of course, the place was completely deserted. My first thought was mice, or rats. After all, I'd been warned from my first day living there that "dog sized" rats were common in the building. Traps were set, and a small digital video camera was placed, the idea being that if a vagrant was breaking in at night the manager could show it to police.
Two or three nights passed, and as usual there were plenty of bumping and dragging noises coming from the apartment next door. Each day we would all enter the apartment and check the traps - nothing. We'd check the camera, and while it did seem to capture some of the noises, there was no indication of where they were coming from. After about a week we'd had enough and FINALLY convinced the apartment manager to give us a copy of the key. We planned to wait until the noises got to their loudest, and run into the apartment to confront whoever was banging around all night. We didn't have to wait long. The noises started at around 8:30pm and got steadily louder. At about 10:00pm we sneaked into the hallway and unlocked the door, turning the lock very slowly to avoid making too much noise. There was a fire escape and we were "sure" that if the occupant was alerted, they'd be gone before we could get there. We swung open the door and flipped on the overhead lights... Nothing. Not a thing. No noises, no movement, no activity at all except for the lone camera on a tripod to one corner of the room.
My girlfriend was looking a little ragged, and truth be told I wasn't in great shape either. The lack of sleep was putting incredible pressure on her and, in turn, on me. We actually ended up renting a hotel room for a weekend just to get away, and give my poor girlfriend a chance to sleep through the night. Before going home, we made arrangements to meet up with our friends, the former tenants of the apartment which was causing us so much trouble. We met up at a cafe and went over the entire story from start to finish. By the end, our friends had a look of shock and a little fear in their faces. I still remember exactly what they said next, it was freaky enough to make us pack up that night and go back to the hotel for good...
"Those sounds you heard... We know them well." My friend Petra said. "But, they were not coming from our apartment. They came from yours." "We heard them every night, it kept us awake and that is why we moved, the walls were too thin."