Last night, in the freezing weather, a friend came to visit. She was wearing clothes that probably belonged in late fall or early spring. Acknowledging this, she said, “I knew I was just going across town from my house to yours.”
This reminded me of a time when I did the same thing. Except I was living in Siberia. I began to share that story with my friend.
I was a visiting lecturer, an American (a Miami, Florida native) living and teaching for two years at universities in Siberia. It was mid-winter and the temperature had dropped to minus 35 F.
I lived with a Russian family in an apartment building. That night I had visited a friend in his apartment building across town, where several of us gathered for dinner. Being a Miami girl, I couldn’t stand all the layers we had to wear in the Siberian winter weather. Since I knew I was just going across town, from my home to another, I dressed in what might suffice for a high-40s winter.
The dinner was wonderful, a great time with friends. The time seemed to pass quickly. It was late, so I headed home, flagging a car for a ride as was the local custom. The roads were nearly deserted.
The car dropped me off at my family’s apartment building. To my dismay, the gate was locked. It had never been locked, nor did I have a key. I looked around the building, trying to think of any way inside, but I came up with nothing. The minus 35 chill began to numb my hands and legs.
I thought about places where I might find some warmth. Utility service wasn’t a given in every building. Was there a hospital nearby, or a police station? I had no idea. Everything was so far apart in the outskirts of this city. Most people didn’t venture out at night, so there were no passing cars, no people I could ask for help.
Finally, I made the decision to go back to my friend’s apartment, if I could. I walked out to the main road and saw one pair of headlights in the distance. The style of car told me the driver might have been mafia, but I was willing to take the chance. My toes felt numb and my shivering was steady now.
The man drove me silently across town to my friend’s apartment building. After he dropped me off and I trudged through the snow to the front entrance, I realized it was locked as well. The first floor of homes was one flight up – way above my reach.
Maybe I can call my friend. I had never used a Russian payphone but was willing to try. As I trudged back to the sidewalk, shivering deep inside, I remembered someone telling me that the payphone system had changed that night. I would need to buy a phone card in a kiosk, all of which were, of course, deserted.
I will never forget standing on that icy sidewalk, not knowing what to do. Helpless doesn’t begin to describe the emotions. A news article from earlier in the day flashed through my mind. A woman had been found that morning, frozen to death in the university courtyard. Would I be on the front page when the sun came up?
I walked in circles, trying to keep moving. It was harder to think. My brain seemed sluggish, my movements even more so. I became confused. I just stood still, lost.
I heard some commotion farther down the sidewalk. Two teenagers, clearly drunk and staggering along the icy walkway, approached me.
“I need help.” I pointed to the building. “I can’t get inside.”
Motioning for me to follow, they stumbled through the snow mounds to the apartment building. I don’t know how, but one boy managed to climb onto his friend’s shoulders and stretch high enough to pound on a first-floor window. Shortly, the curtain parted. An elderly woman was pointing a gun.
“Hooligans!” she shouted. “Get out!”
Standing behind the boys, I waved my arms. “I need help. I got locked out. I’m an American. These boys are trying to help me.”
With a few more angry words at the boys, she disappeared. A few minutes later, my entire body shook with relief. She was opening the door.
As the boys stumbled away, she yelled at them some more. Then she turned her attention to me. “Foolish girl.”
She continued to chide me all the way inside.
I thanked her for letting me in. “I have a friend who lives upstairs.”
Still muttering, she returned to her apartment and closed the door.
I don’t remember how many flights I had to climb, but my friend lived on the top floor of that apartment building. The coldness of the stairwell was like a Caribbean summer.
My friend was from Minnesota, so he knew I needed to warm up slowly. He handed me a glass of cognac and said, “Just sit here. Don’t move. Sip this slowly. Give your body time to adjust.”
When I returned home the next morning, my Russian family was there, and worried about me. They knew the gate had been locked and didn’t know why.
When the mother of my family saw how I was dressed, and heard bits and pieces of my tale, she reprimanded me. “In Siberia, you don’t go out, no matter what, unless you are dressed appropriately. Always dress as if you will be stranded. You have no idea what can go wrong.”
From that point on, I wore so many layers I looked like a baked potato.
I know those boys were sent by God to help me. To this day, I am grateful – to them, and to Him. There were many teens like that, wandering the streets of Siberian cities at night. I know some women were afraid of them. I was too – until that night.