That time I feared for my life in Lutsk, Ukraine

It started with a knock at the door.

I wasn't expecting visitors. In each city I've lived in in Ukraine, my landlord usually says only answer the door if you know who it is, which makes sense. I admit, there have been times I've broken this rule, like that time a couple weeks back someone banged and yelled "HEAT. HEAT." Not exactly knowing what they wanted, I opened the door, and they checked some kind of gauge by the door.

But I figured it was a bit late for any city workers to be coming by. It was about 7 p.m. on a Wednesday. I ignored the door, and began to carry on with my night. I was going to quickly make something to eat before going to a cafe to do some work.

Then I heard another knock, more aggressive this time.

I went to my roommate's room. "There's someone knocking at the door, but I don't know who it is so I'm not going to answer it." She agreed that it's best to just leave it, let the people figure out we aren't home or at least that we don't feel like attempting to communicate with them. (My Ukrainian language skills are ever so slowly developing.)

Why didn't I just look through the peephole in the door, you wonder. You see, the peephole is kind of broken in that when I look through it from the inside, you can see me from the outside. And I didn't want anyone seeing me.

I was confident whoever was knocking at the door would leave soon enough.

But they didn't.

Then my mind started wandering. When I entered the building half an hour before, I turned on the hallway light near my door so I could see the keyhole. Is this why someone was trying to get my attention? To tell me I should have turned off the lights? Ukrainians are passionate about having lights on only when they are absolutely necessary. It's why attendants follow you around in a museum turning lights on then off as you enter then exit a room. It's also why we dance in near darkness on gloomy days at the studio, which has large windows along the front, letting in natural light.

The knocking became more persistent. Maybe my light theory was off. Or someone was really mad about the lights. I texted a few of my friends. I was supposed to meet up with them, but my desire to leave my home — my supposed safe haven — was diminishing.

Maybe I dropped my wallet or keys and someone was trying to return them. I checked my jacket pockets and backpack. Everything was still there.

Then came the knocks at the window. My roommate came into my room, surprised that someone made the effort to reach up to her window to tap tap tap away at it.

I texted my landlord. Our hot water wasn't working, so even if our unexpected guests left before she got there, she could still help with the water. Also, our apartment seemed to be especially cold today. Our landlord doesn't know much English, and I don't know much Ukrainian, so texting is the best way to communicate since I have time to translate her message and craft a response back. But she wasn't responding. So I put on my best Ukrainian-speaking cap and called her. She told me to text her, I told her I did, she hung up. OK, so that didn't go as well as planned.

Not knowing if she was receiving and understanding my texts, I messaged someone from the tour company arranging my year here. Then I remembered the entire staff was away on a retreat, so I messaged a group I have with multiple staff members. I told them the situation.

Knocking, lots of knocking. On our door. Now on our window. "Are they still there?" Well, it's been a few minutes of silence, but I'm not hopefu...oh there we have it — another knock. OK, now they are banging.

There were a couple minutes of silence, then someone knocked on my bedroom window. Actually, there's a porch between my bedroom window and the outside window, so I knew they forcefully knocked seeing as it was so loud and clear.

The tour company workers told me they got in touch with my landlord and she was on the way.

Thank goodness. Soon there would be an end to this, and I could go on with my evening.

By this point, my roommate was sitting on the couch in my room. I was sitting on the floor, scared that someone could see me if I stood up. I shivered. Gosh, it's cold. Or maybe I'm just frightened. I look up at my roommate. She's shaking, too. OK, we needed to solve this situation fast because we're becoming two nervous messes.

The friends I texted said they were nearby, and they said they would come near my place to see if they could see who was at my door. They stood across the street near a convenience store, a safe distance away.

They saw a man walk into the building. Then out of the building. There was another man staring into my roommate's bedroom window. Just standing and staring.

This world gifted me with a big imagination, which means I think of possibilities for the worst possible outcome of any situation quickly. This night my brain did not let me down.

Did someone follow me home? Has someone been watching me for days now?


It sounded like they were about to bust down the door.

Up to this point, I was playing it pretty cool, thinking everything would pass soon enough. But then I got scared. For real. I told my friends. I didn't trust my locks. I didn't trust my door.


I hear a bit of mumbling at the door. A man. A woman. Maybe another man, too. They seemed to be talking to each other, not to me. Was a neighbour telling them to go away?

It had been about an hour since the first knock. There was a bit of a break, and then ...

knock knock

It was quieter this time. I call my landlord to see if it was her. Usually she says her name when she knocks, but at the door there was silence.

It wasn't her. I understood some but not all of our phone conversation. Something about someone coming, something about Lesya* (who's Lesya?), then she hung up.

Is the person at the door Lesya? I texted my landlord to tell her to tell Lesya to say her name when she arrives. The knocking stopped.

My friends watching from across the street said they saw a woman leave the building and walk away. Must not have been Lesya.

A worker from the tour company called me.


Come on, not again. At least someone else could hear how aggressive the knocking was.

He assured me they are trying to figure out what's going on and that someone (Lesya, perhaps) would be over shortly. Jokingly, he asked if I had knives nearby. In the calmest, coolest, and most collected tone I could muster up, I said I was too scared to go to the kitchen, which was five steps away.

He hung up and told me to hang in there. He would call me again soon.

Soon. Everything is supposed to happen soon. Why can't it happen now.

And then it all became clear. Just like that.

He called me back.

"There's a problem with the gas in your building, and the controls for the entire apartment building is in your apartment. Lesya is at the door now with the workers."

So that's why it was so cold. And why we didn't have hot water. And why people were knocking on all entrances and exits of our apartment.

As I continued talking with him, my roommate opened the infamous door of the evening. Three or so men carrying toolboxes walked in. I looked up (I was still sitting on the floor) but was too embarrassed to look them in the eyes. They walked into the kitchen, saying "Добрий вечір" (Good evening), as if they weren't just banging on my door for the past hour and a half scaring the life out of me, and I replied "Добрий вечір," as if I didn't think I was about to die for the past hour and a half.

I was still on the phone, and the tour guy explained to me that the gas workers would have taken the door right off if the situation was serious enough. He also said to be on standby because if the situation was bad, then we would have to evacuate.

After getting of the phone with him, I talked to Lesya. I was still a little confused as to who she was, but I knew my landlord knew her so that made me feel better. I said sorry to Lesya. She said sorry to us. It was all just a big misunderstanding. A big, nerve-racking — and now funny — misunderstanding.

The men did whatever they had to do then left. Lesya said they'd be back the next day.

All night long, I couldn't help but burst into laughter. There I was, thinking someone was out to get me, whereas in reality they were just trying to help. The man staring at my roommate's window? Probably someone from the building trying to get our attention. The hushed talking in the hallway? Probably someone else trying to figure out how to make us feel safe enough to open the door (banging on it as hard as you possibly can isn't a great method, by the way).

It took a couple more phone calls and house visitors for me to figure out what was actually going on. For one, the gas wasn't working, so they needed access to our apartment to fix it. Second of all, there was an issue with the cupboards in my kitchen because they partially blocked access to the gas line, so people had to come in and take the cupboards out then put them back in.

Perhaps I should have just answered the door from the start, but you know what, living in a country where you don't know all the rules and regulations and the language can be intimidating, so sometimes waiting things out seems like the best option.

The following few days were inconvenient but necessary and understandable. I had to resort to microwave-only meals, since we couldn't use our gas stove, and I had to rock greasy hair because we didn't have hot water (and it was too cold inside the apartment to also have a cold shower).

There are no hard feelings anywhere, but I do have a few suggestions for landlords/gas line workers everywhere:

1) Tell your tenants if they have a super important apartment that workers may need access to on short notice. 2) When knocking on a door, say what you are there for. 3) When knocking on a door, DO NOT hit it as hard as you possibly can. 4a) Gas line workers, make sure you have the landlord's number, and 4b) if no one is answering the door, then maybe call the landlord.

This story started with a knock at the door, a door that held up to more beating than you could ever imagine. When my parents and oldest sister visited me in Lutsk this week, what was one of the first things my dad said when he saw my apartment? "Now that's a nice door."

Dad, you have no idea.

*names changed