That One Time I Accidentally Tried to Break Into an Apartment and Made a Best Friend
How I Met Ruthie
Once upon a time, I moved to Denmark. For love? To find myself amidst ancient Nordic forests, medieval castles, and brilliantly tall and beautiful Danes? Sadly, no. ‘Twas only for work.
So, one bitterly cold fall day, I found myself with three very large and very heavy suitcases in front of an apartment building with no elevator. I eyed my suitcases warily, sizing them up. But I had no time for mulling over poor packing choices. There was a task at hand and stairs to climb. Four floors worth of stairs in fact and 150 pounds of stuff to drag up after me. And trust me, ‘drag’ is the correct word here.
I’m not very strong, so let’s just say this wasn’t a very easy task. In fact, it was quite the ordeal. One of those red in the face — Oh good God I can’t breathe please I want to stop, Oh shit the bag’s tipping backward-and now it’s fallen a few steps, I’ve banged my shin again for the umpteenth time- ordeals.
But you know as with all things, eventually, it was over. My bags and I were safely on the fourth floor and like you may at the end of a very long and grueling race, I peered down the stair railing back at the bottom floor to admire just how far I’d come. And I smiled.
Then, directing my attention to my future apartment, I noticed a few things. There were little potted plants arranged nicely around the door. There was also an umbrella stand. Nice decorative touches added by the management company. But then there were also rain boots — with mud still on them. And there was a name on the door. Unusual, I thought but then allowed my thoughts to go no further. Surely not. I knocked on the door hesitantly. No answer. Then, a little louder. Still no answer. Relief.
So I tried the key. There were four locks on the door. It was a very old door in a very old building. I believe the management company said it was built in the 1800s. There was one newish looking keyhole so I tried that first. It didn’t work. So I tried the others. They all didn’t work. So I tried them again and again and again, all of them. I turned the key in different directions, leaned my weight into the door, tried the handle while turning the key. Finally, I tried the new looking keyhole again and gave the door an almighty shove thinking that maybe it was just stuck.
And then Good Lord, something inside shoved back.
Right after I shoved, there was a loud thud from the other side of the door. I stepped back in shock.
I gripped the handle of one of my suitcases and took deep breaths. Calm down now. It’s fine. But at that very moment, I was imagining a big angry man, bald perhaps, in a wife beater who at any moment was going to fling open the door and hurl shoes and obscenities at me. And where was my apartment? This was the address and the apartment number and I just didn’t understand.
Not knowing what to do and not wanting to move my suitcases but also not wanting to abandon them, I sat on the stairs and didn’t think. I just sat.
Eventually, I started to look up the phone number of the management company. While scrolling through my emails looking for a contact number, the door to the apartment opened. And standing in the doorway was not the angry wife beater man but an old lady in her underwear looking awfully confused.
It turns out she lived there, so clearly this was not my apartment. I had terrified her by trying to break in. She had heard me trying the different keyholes and she had pushed as hard as she could into the door to scare me off. But then, watching me from the safety of her peephole, I suppose she decided I looked pathetic and unintimidating enough for her to venture out.
I called her Ruthie (I wasn’t very good at pronouncing her actual name). Her English was pretty awful so we supplemented our conversations with many smiles, gestures, and nods. For example, once she understood why I was there she nodded sympathetically and expressed how my situation “wasn’t very funny.” She was kind and invited me inside. Her apartment was dark and cluttered. Sheets were draped over the windows. Hundreds, perhaps thousands of knick-knacks, figurines, and little teacups adorned her shelves, coffee tables, TV stand and basically all flat surfaces. She liked sunflowers. There were sunflowers in vases and sunflowers in pictures and sunflower decorated plates.
She was 86 years old, lived alone and was unable to leave the apartment because she could no longer go up and down the stairs. A friend would come and bring her food and what she needed from time to time. She could hardly see anymore. She used a large magnifying glass when she had to read anything.
She made me coffee and gave me an apple and played me Pavarotti YouTube videos on her iPad while I waited for the management company to contact me back.
We eventually found out lo and behold that I was at the wrong apartment. My apartment was in the same building but I had gone through the wrong door from the street. Our apartments actually shared a back stairway so thankfully I didn’t have to lug the suitcases back down and then up but simply had to shuffle them through the back stairwell from her apartment into mine. And she became my neighbor as well as my friend — my very first friend in Denmark. After work, I would often hear a knock on the wall of my kitchen and she would be standing there in the stairwell, smiling and gesturing me into her apartment for food and to watch TV.
When I got my heart broken or was homesick, I would knock on her wall and be welcomed inside. She became the grandmother next door, the only family I had in a foreign country and I was so grateful that I found her that fateful day.