Sunday, August 12, 2007

Soap Opera Sunday - I try to mail things in Soviet Russia

Soap Opera Sunday from Brillig and Kate - find the other participants on their posts today

Okay, so my life isn't that spicy, so I need a soap opera about a post office. This two-part tale took place in another reality - Krasnodar, RFSFR 1987:

I listened to the noises coming from behind the heavy oak door. Childlike twittering, that was the word for it. Pretty weird – these “children” would graduate shortly, and along with that graduation would come marriage, employment and full adult responsibility – unlike their American counterparts, who would spend several more years lost in the world of consumerism and perpetual adolescence.

“No, I am here to help Jennifer!”

“No, she asked for my help!”

“Well, I am stronger… I will be more help!”

The affection shown me, as the “American Teacher,” was truly touching, and I would certainly miss it when I left. They burst in with a flurry, almost knocking down the bust of Lenin that was placed prominently on a pedestal by the door.

“Who have you promised to let help you? Didn’t you promise me? Natasha says you invited her, and Alyosha insists he should carry everything because of his big muscles! Big muscles? Can you imagine? You’re such a silly boy, Alyoshka! Look at him, Jennifer, isn’t he just a twig?” Lena would have gone on forever, but she was cut off by Alyosha, who threw his arms around her, gave her a big bear hug and said, as she tried to squirm out of it, “Are these not strong arms? Want them any stronger, Lenochka?”

With that they both collapsed onto one of the oak, double desks, laughing. By this time a swarm of about seven students from 10C had entered my room, opening the bags by my desks, laughing at what they found, pestering me to ask if they could come, too.

“Alright, enough, enough!” I said, grabbing the various books and trying to shove them back into bags. “Tatiana Valentinovna will be here shortly and she will join us to go down to the post office, and yes, you may ALL go! Don’t you have better things to do with your afternoon than follow me to the post office? What an exciting trip! I have to admit, though, that Alyosha’s strong arms would come in handy…. Although maybe Lena’s look a bit stronger, honestly speaking.” Lena actually stuck her tongue out at Alyosha. Yup, these students were still children.

The trip was going to be a huge pain. Bags were everywhere; they seemed to cover the classroom floor. And each bag was filled with books - gifts which had been given to me by students, their families, strangers, teachers, folks from every institution I had visited in my official capacity as an exchange teacher, so that “American children will know that we want peace.” My Soviet friends and colleagues felt that if Americans saw these books, which featured gentle children’s stories and beautiful landscapes, that they would understand the beauty and warmth of the Soviet Union and be impressed by the sheer generosity of the gift givers. I estimated that I had 120 pounds of books to send home.

Finally, my friend Tanya – Tatiana Valentinovna to the students - came to the door and announced she was ready.

We wandered out of the white brick structure into the bright sunlight of a crisp, autumn day, no different from one I might have experienced if I were teaching that fall in Ann Arbor. Here, though, was the dust of dirt alleys next to paved boulevards, the smell of leaded gasoline and cabbage soup, and the chaos of multitudes of poorly-driven buses and private cars.

We walked to the corner and looked longingly at the trolley stop. Here we were carrying ten pound string bags in each hand. The strings cut into our fingers, making red lines of pressure and pain. The trolley would have been wonderful, but we all looked at each other and decided Nyet. With our bags, there was no possibility of shoving our bodies onto the sardine-like trolley. We would walk the two miles to the post office.

As we walked along Krasnaya Boulevard, past the manicured center areas filled with marigolds and roses, we worked out the lyrics of American pop songs and I tried to avoid translating phrases from Harold Robbins’ books, a special favorite of these teens. “What does ‘going down on someone’ mean?” asked one of my most sheltered students. As I coughed and tried to think of what to say, Alyosha piped up with “I can tell you, Dasha, but I really, really don’t think you want me to!” He laughed and glanced at me. He was probably my best student, as well as sort of being my favorite student, although I would never, ever have admitted having anything resembling a favorite. He was a brilliant disaster who felt school was beneath him and had put himself on his own “program” to learn English. He was kicked out of our elite school shortly after I left Krasnodar, and I wonder now if he only made it through that semester due to my presence and favoritism.

Finally, we arrived at the monolithic stone building that was Krasnodar’s Centralnaya Pochta. I pushed through the metal doors and almost knocked into the ubiquitous bust of Lenin. As I bumped my left arm into the pedestal, the pain of carrying my books shot through like fire.

The post office was a large, drafty room with thirty-foot ceilings and an attempt at grandeur that was ruined by the shabby way in which it had been maintained over the years. My students sauntered over to the long line, uncomplaining. I could see by their shifting and flexing that everyone’s arms were as sore as mine.

We goofed around while waiting, picking up particularly silly picture books and reading parts aloud. It took awhile, but the line actually moved forward, something that was not a given on many of the lines in Krasnodar.

Eventually I made it to the head of the line, walked to the next available worker, and gestured to the students and Tanya to come and join me. I explained what we wanted to do in terms of shipping the books and that I had been told to bring the unwrapped books to the post office and that I understood that the books would be inspected and sent from there. The woman behind the counter looked me over very carefully. She looked at the bags filled with books. She looked at each of my students, taking in the details of each uniform, each variation in apron or material or pin (while dressed “alike” the older students had a bit of choice in some of the accessories of their uniforms). She took a particularly long time looking over Tanya, apparently deciding whether or not to approve of Tanya’s choice in clothing. “Nyet,” was what she finally said.

“What do you mean, nyet? What nyet?” I was puzzled.

Nyet, this isn’t the right station. I don’t work with these things. I am not even sure who works with these things, but you must go to Sophia Stepanovna,” she pointed to an incredibly large, incredibly grouchy-looking woman who was standing behind a huge set of antiquated scales. The students hadn’t particularly been paying attention to any of this, having been absorbed in some choice piece of gossip. I waved them over and explained that we needed to cross the office to the weigh station. The caravan of books followed me to Sophia Stepanovna.

“Good afternoon,” I began, “I would like to send these books to the U.S. The woman over there felt that you would know how to do this.”

Sophia Stepanovna studied me carefully. She looked at Tanya carefully. She glanced at the students, but dismissed them quickly. She gestured to one of the bags with a “give me” swipe of her hands. I lifted one of the bags onto the table. She turned it upside down, scattering books everywhere. She looked at each book, sorting some into one pile, some into a second pile and placing a tourist book in a third. She stood back with her hands on her hips, considering the books. She looked at all the other bags. She gave a low whistle through her teeth. “Who are you?” she snapped.

“I am Jennifer Shikes, an American teacher, on an exchange. I teach at Spetzshkola #23. This is my translator for the exchange, Tanya Valentinovna Baumova, another English teacher at Spetzshkola #23. And these are my students from 10C.”

“You know you can’t send these books?” she smiled at me pleasantly.

“Um…. They are children’s books, and some tourist books, surely I can send them to Americans? These books were given to me by students and families so I that I can show Americans how generous and kind Soviets are and how much Soviets want peace. Soviets DO want peace. Surely this is permitted?” I smiled pleasantly back.

“Forbidden,” she shifted her weight and looked at me somewhat gleefully.

“Forbidden? Why on earth would this be forbidden? It’s not like I am smuggling Solzhenitsyn out of the country!” I was exhausted, not only from this particular bureaucrat, but from countless situations like this one since arriving in the U.S.S.R. Tanya drew a deep breath…. Invoking Solzhenitsyn was probably not my swiftest move. Now the stupid woman might think I actually was up to something. Her eyes narrowed. “Forbidden. Now move on…. I have work to do!” with that she turned on her heels and retreated to the back of her cubicle, shuffling papers over and over since it was obvious she had nothing else to do.

“Please? Sophia Stepanovna?” Tanya was at her most obsequious. “We don’t want to intrude on any more of your work time, but isn’t there someone from whom we could obtain permission? Or at least apply for it?”

Sophia Stepanovna clomped back to the front of the cubicle and smiled a bit at Tanya. I tried to put on an obsequious expression as well, but I just am not good at that. I think it is something genetic with Soviet citizens, and something that is missing from the American gene pool.

She looked Tanya up and down once more as if gauging whether or not she wanted Tanya's dress in exchange for the permission. Okay, I was not going to get into the weirdness of this. “Alright. There may be something you can do. Perhaps.”

Tanya just beamed. “I knew you might solve this for us."

Sophia warmed to her subject. “Alright. Go out of the building and walk to the side of the building on Pochta Street. You will see a small entrance. Go in that entrance, walk up to the 6th floor, and see Natalia Grigorievna. Bring ALL the books, so she can approve each one.” She smiled with triumph, certain that we would not even attempt such a task.

I sighed.

Tanya sighed.

We turned to face the students. “Alright ribyata (kids), listen up! They are telling me I must go to the side of the building and up many flights of stairs to have each book approved individually. Should we forget it? I can maybe get a taxi back to the motel and will try to figure something else out. What do you all think?”

“Jennifer, for you I will carry all these books myself!” Alyosha looked at me and winked. The others rolled their eyes at his grandstanding, but agreed:

“What are a few stairs?”

“You think we have all kinds of exciting things to do on a Tuesday afternoon?”

“You think Alyoshka’s the only one with strong arms? Bah!”

“Alright then,” I massaged my arms and got ready to pick up the bags once more. “Poyekhali! (we’ve gone!)”

We left the building and rounded the corner. We found the doorway. A dour “guard” stood there looking seedy and ashen, and eyed me suspiciously. It seemed that everyone in Russia seemed to know instantly that I “wasn’t from around these parts.”

After climbing the six flights of stairs, we crammed ourselves into a nine-by-nine foot office with two oak desks and stacks of letters and packages everywhere. All of these pieces had been “held” for inspection. “It’s a wonder any postage moves anywhere in this country,” I thought to myself. “Natalia Grigorievna, pozhalosta (please)?” I asked, trying to mimic Tanya’s obsequious smile.

A woman with brassy red hair and too much makeup looked up sourly from her desk. When she saw me, her eyes widened.

“And what do you want?” she asked.

“Sophia Stepanovna sent us,” I began. “We have a rather difficult diplomatic matter.” I smiled so broadly I was sure my molars were showing.

She frowned. I guessed the smile was the wrong tactic for this situation.

“Diplomatic? With these…..” she looked at my students, “…. Children?”

“Well, actually, yes. You see, Natalia Grigorievna,” I began.

“I am not she,” the redhead looked at me as if I were a large cockroach who had emerged from her dinner plate.

“Oh, well, we don’t want to waste your time, but perhaps if you could possibly let us know where we might find Natalia Grigorievna?” I tried the Tanya smile once again.

“I am not she, but perhaps I might help?” she said this with a tone of voice that indicated that the likelihood of this event was slim to none.

“Alright, well, as I said… a diplomatic matter. Um, I am the first exchange teacher from the U.S. to Krasnodar. I teach at Spetzshkola #23 and additionally I go to speak and learn at many other educational institutions in Krasnodar. As I have been here during the past two months, many generous Soviet citizens have given me these children’s and tourist books to bring back to the U.S. to distribute to libraries to show that Soviet citizens want peace. I am only allowed to bring back 140 pounds of weight on my return flight and am only halfway through my exchange and receive more of these materials each day. There are close to 120 pounds here. I have the rubles to send them…. I am planning to use much of my exchange salary to do so. Surely this isn’t a problem?” I even cast my voice to a higher pitch, which I had learned to do from another of my friends, Rimma, when she was in difficult bureaucratic settings.

She took a very long, drawn out breath. “Alright, well…. This may be possible. I assume you have your required permission voucher from your exchange administrators at the Department of Education?”

“Er…. No. I had no idea I would need such a thing.”

She laughed. “There is always permission needed, our American exchange teacher. Always… If you learn nothing else here, this is what you must learn.” She chuckled again. “Alright, so it is very simple. You go to your exchange administrator and if she gives the proper papers to you, I will give the proper papers to Sophia Stepanovna. Fair enough?”

I felt like my face would crack from trying to hold expressions foreign to me. “Alright, I will go and speak with Inna Evgenievna. And to whom am I speaking now?” I smiled at her once more.

“I am Rita Sergeievna. I work with Natalia Grigorievna, who is out for her lunch.”

I looked that the clock. It was 4:12. The ministry would close at 5, as would the pochta. The ministry was 10 blocks away.

“Very well,” I said to her, “May I please leave the books here? The children are getting tired.”

“Oh, I wouldn’t,” she said dryly. “I imagine that Inna Evgenievna might well want to see exactly what it is you are sending.”

“Well…. Very, well… Thank you,” I said through my teeth.

On the way downstairs I muttered something in English that I didn’t expect to be understood by anyone else. Tanya’s and Alyosha’s heads came up sharply – Tanya looked at me in wide-eyed shock and Alyosha laughed, looking at me with newfound appreciation. I colored scarlet, and gave him the warning sign that this was NOT to be translated for his friends. He chuckled some more. When we got outside I said “Alright, ribyata, you heard what the nice lady said. If we are going to make it to the ministry and back, as tired as we all are…. We must RUN! Are you all up for this, or do you want to do this another day?”

“We are Soviet children…. We can do anything!” they replied, both ironically and seriously.

To be continued...


Fourier Analyst said...

What a fascinating adventure. I am dying to here how you finally made your way through the Soviet bureaucracy! And this was just the post office!! I cannot imagine the other adventures you must have had. Makes you appreciate the good ole' US of A! Looking forward to next week!

anno said...

Oh man -- and I thought E. German bureaucracy was bad! Now I'm beginning to understand the length of Russian novels.... looking forward to next week's installment!

Kateastrophe said...

This is so fascinating! I can't wiat to hear more!! Who knew a trip to the post office could be so exhausting!

Anonymous said...

Wow, they sure gave you the run around. Can't wait to hear more!

Goofball said...

I don't think I would have lasted very long under Sovjet bureaucracy! Wow, congratulations with our patience and perseverence. What a great experience it must have been to teach there. I love learning about other cultures! Thank you for your story. i'll be back next week!

Luisa Perkins said...

What a terrific story! I look forward to next week.

Dedee said...

This is awesome. I can't wait for next week. Thanks for stopping by!

Jen said...

FA - Yes, it wasn't just a job, it was definitely an adventure!

Anno - yup... that would explain the length, huh? Because this was Russian bureaucracy on top of Communist bureaucracy. I think the Russians invented civil servants... or the Romans. No, the Romans, but you get the idea.

Kate - let me put this way... I'm only halfway through the story, lol.

Summer - thanks for stopping by!

Goofball - ditto for me on learning about other cultures. I hope to learn more about life in Belgium from reading your blog ;-)

Thanks for stopping by, Luisa and Dedee!

anno said...

Hmmm... and here I thought the Russians invented the Romanovs!

Anonymous said...

Captivating story! What an amazing adventure. And you are a fabulous writer, Jen. I can't wait to hear more!