Tuesday, February 21, 2006

The Queue at the Bank

The Etiquette of the Queue

I joined the queue at the bank and congratulated myself for being third in line. It was sure to go fast. Normally we would be using the ATM on the street, but it freezes up in the winter and so we were using a window inside. After 15 minutes, however, we were no closer to the teller and the line was even longer.

Two young men in line behind me seemed to know each other.

"Let's go have a smoke," one said.

When they returned, the guys wanted back their places in line. But first they had to persuade the blond in the cream coat to let them in. After some fussing, she complied but she began a campaign of complaining about the slow service.

The two guys were talking louder now and aiming their remarks at the lady who was first in line. She was wrapped in mink from hat to hemline and had buddied up with lady #2, clad in a cotton coat, scarf knotted under her chin. Lady Mink stayed cool despite the on-going comments from the line and kept signing the long slips of paper that the teller pushed to her through the sliding tray.

"All this waiting for ten rubles, her whole pension," quipped one guy loud enough for all to hear. Her check would be pocket change is what he was saying.

Mrs. Mink didn't look up; she just kept signing her papers.

This wasn't the first time I had observed issues of the queue. Two summers ago, I was 6th or 7th in line, in this very line. As we inched forward, a couple of babyshkas, Russian grandmothers, charged up to the head of the line.

"We're next," they announced. "We've been waiting and we're next."

Actually, they had been resting in chairs along the wall. It's not uncommon here to step out of line to rest or to run another errand. Someone might be in line at the bank, at least in theory, while they are actually at the post office. When they return to the bank 10-15 minutes later, they want their spot back. Those waiting usually accommodate the multi-tasker with a sigh of resignation. But for me, the situation calls for more than a sigh. Perhaps it's all those years of teaching school and monitoring lunch lines, perhaps it's my fondness for etiquette or perhaps it's a reflection of my own culture where one waits in line or loses the spot. So, although I'm learning to be diplomatic about it, I do tend to verbalize displeasure at being pushed back in line. Rarely do I hear anyone else expressing annoyance about this or anything else for that matter.

That summer's day, however, I saw the Russian queue in a new light. The young people in spots 2, 3 and 4 weren't in the mood to be pushed back and they weren't budging. They were standing tight and close.

When the babyshkas got louder, the young security guard came over to investigate. He was blond, boyish and hesitant to get involved. He understood that Russian babyshkas are not timid souls. Chances are he had dealt with a babyshka of his own.

So he tried using persuasion. "Please, people. Please let these grandmothers get in line."

No one moved.

"You've got to let me in line. I'm a hero of the Great Patriotic War!" cried one. With that, she was playing her trump card. Being a war hero has its privileges, which include going to the head of a line and getting a seat on the bus. In theory, at least.

The young woman in spot #2 wasn't impressed.

"Check her documents," she countered. "She's probably just saying that."

Lady #3 had stories of her own. "Well, I've suffered too. My father perished in the war and I was orphaned. Besides that, I had a heart attack last week."

I was rather enjoying the conversation around me. For once I was not involved in upgrading the behavior of the queue.

Another babyshka shuffled into the bank and joined me at the end of the line. She smiled shyly.

"Won't you please allow me ahead of you? I won't take long. And my health isn't so good."

"With pleasure," I said, surprising myself at what a softy I had become.

The security guard overheard our little chat and recognized it as fodder a persuasive speech. He headed back to the front of the line where things were quieter although no one had given in just yet.

"Ladies, there's a foreigner here who was kind enough to let one of our babyshkas in front of her. Let's follow example of this foreigner and be kind to our own elderly."

Oddly enough, I don't remember how things turned out that day at the bank. But I do know that the etiquette of the queue continutes to challenge me as I adjust to Russian life. It's a culture which itself is in transition as younger people are more willing to be assertive and nudge public interaction to a higher level.

So, think you're next in line? You might be. Then again, if you happen to be in this neighborhood, don't bank on it.

Sunday, February 12, 2006

Officer on the Job

Officer, Are You For Real?

A traffic cop waved his black-and-white baton signaling the car behind us to pull over. I was in a taxi heading toward the outskirts of the city. Snow piled high along our route was aglow in the late afternoon sun.

"Ooh-rah! So glad we didn't get pulled over!" I exclaimed in Russian.

The driver glanced at me in his rearview mirror and nodded. "All they want is money."

I'd heard that before but I wasn't going to be the first to bring it up.

"How much do they want?" I probed.

"Oh, around 500 rubles for a documents violation and maybe 150 for something minor." The driver's brown eyes glanced toward me in the mirror.

"That's outragous! If police in the States did that, it would be a major scandal!"

"Well, this way the fine is lower and the driver can pay it then and there. Whereas with an official ticket, the driver would have to stand in several long lines to pay it and the fine would be higher. Plus this way, the officer makes some money too."

"Well our system is different. We just write out a check and mail it in with the ticket. It's quick and easy. But it's not cheap. " (Or so I've heard. Ha-ha!)

"Well, here in Russia we have to pay in cash and in person."

Not all Russian traffic cops can be bribed, I've learned. Although I get around on public transport as do most folks. If I did have a car, I imagine that I might do exactly what some other drivers have done when they have neared a cop with baton pointed at them: Pull over immediately, gather documents and wallet and approach the officer with trepidation. Only to discover that he is a life-size, plastic mock-up, a law enforcement decoy. Such an Officer Plastic comes with a two-dimensional police car, a speed gun and the standard black-and-white baton. Although he's plastic, he's no dummy. He manages to bring traffic to a crawl.

Sunday, February 05, 2006

Theatre Square Under a Blanket of Fresh Snow

Mary Kay: You'll Find Her Everywhere

(Note: The following I wrote in response to a writing prompt to “describe a recent dream and interpret it.”)

“Steve, what a gorgeous jacket!”
I recognize perfect fit and exquisite tailoring when I see it.

I was taking the elevator to the hotel lobby when Steve got on wearing a pink jacket. On him it looked fabulous not feminine. He was tanned, newly svelte and smiled without explanation.

We were in France at our annual missions confab, the Pan European Lectureship. Steve is a psychologist and participates in our meetings.

Steve exited the elevator and another missionary explained.
“Steve has started doing Mary Kay and is doing quite well with it”.

That explained the pastel pink jacket and the spring in his step. But why did he show up at our missionary conference in his Mary Kay get-up?

Later that evening, the enthusiasm of a Mary Kay pep rally emanated from the hotel ballroom throughout the entire building.

Lucky for Steve, it just happened that his two conferences that summer were scheduled for the same week, in the same city and the same hotel. Now that's taking multi-tasking to a new level.


Saturday morning before dawn, I shuffled along a snowy sidewalk to the natatorium for a swim. I had the entire pool to myself for 20 minutes. Eventually another swimmer dived in and I envied her skill and speed. We swam parallel for a half hour without even making eye contact.

“Oh whoopee,” I thought. “We’ll end up being in the shower and dressing room at the same time – without an iota of privacy – and anybody whose front crawl is that good is probably a snob and won’t talk.”

But I was showered and into my warm thermals with my hair dried by the time Ms. SuperSwimmer made it into the dressing area. I decided to initiate conversation.

“Kak hor-o-SHO vi PLAV-ai-yete!” (How well you swim!).
She jumped right in.

“Spa-SEE-bo!” (Thank you!) “I gave birth two years ago and I’m trying to get back in shape.”

Our conversation was off and running. We were dressing near the warmth of paint-encrusted radiators that run under tall windows. By now the predawn sunlight was filtering through the opaque glass.

“I sell Mary Kay,” she offered.

“I’m from Dallas and I know a lot about Mary Kay!” I exclaimed. “And once I even saw Mary Kay and her family at a cafeteria.”

We had lots to talk about.

“Here, try some of this cream. I use it on my baby’s bottom as well.” She squeezed a dab of pink lotion onto my hand.

She gave me a business card and we discovered that we live on the same street, both in Communist-era high-rise buildings.

That evening, I had Mary Kay on my mind as well as our upcoming missionary conference in Strasburg, France and the likely attendees, including Steve. Somehow all that got woven together in a new situation. I don’t anticipate asking Steve to bring me any Mary Kay products. I’ve got my own consultant locally and maybe even a new friend who will give me points on doing the front crawl.