Sunday, August 19, 2007

Soap Opera Sunday - I try to mail things in Soviet Russia - pt. 2

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

For part one of this story, go here

We set off at a quick trot back up to Krasnaya Boulevard. We no sooner made it to the corner than one of my students screamed at the top of her lungs, “Daaaaaadddddeeeeeeee!!!!”

A current model Peugeot roared to a stop, almost causing six cars behind it to have a huge pile up. I saw a window roll down and a short, mustached man lean over. “Natashka, whatever is the matter?”

Natasha gave the famous pout that had already caused at least two fist fights that year. “Oh, Daddy it is too terrible. They are not treating Jennifer with any respect, and we Soviet children are not being given a chance to show that we want peace and they were actually mean to Jennifer and we have talked to so many of these women,” here Natasha wrinkled her nose, “and no one will listen to Jennifer and it is such a simple thing, really….” Natasha went on and on and finally slowed down enough to explain what had happened.

“Well, Natasha, of course we need to fix this! Jennifer, a pleasure to meet you! I am Sergei Davidovich!” Natash’s father flashed me a charm-filled smile that rivaled his daughter’s. “Jennifer, you will get into my car and we will go together to this Inna Evgenievna of yours. Children, put the books…. Yes, all the books, into the back seat, and then go back to the pochta and wait for Jennifer to return. Tanya Valentinovna, you please get in the back seat with the books in case you’re needed. Poyekhali! Fast! Fast!”

We all did as we had been ordered. Moments later I found myself zipping through heavy rush hour traffic at a speed I didn’t want to think about. We screeched to a stop in front of the Interior Ministries building, another seedy, shabby monolith. We were parked in a conspicuously illegal spot. Sergei Davidovich tore open the passenger side door, grabbed my hand to help me out of the car and then virtually dragged me along until we ended up in front of Inna Evgenievna’s door. The door was locked. My heart sank.

“No matter, no matter…. I will go see Stepanka,” Sergei Davidovich muttered, dragging me down yet more corridors. We stopped in front of an office labeled simply “Minister of Education.” I gulped. I wasn’t at all sure this was a good idea.

“I must see Stepan Ivanovich… now!” Sergei Davidovich barked at the well-coifed woman sitting behind a heavy oak desk.

“Stepan Ivanovich sees no one,” she began, “He is in a very important…”

Before she could finish, Sergei Davidovich had burst through the carved oaken door that was obviously the way to the regional Minister’s office. We saw a man with his feet up on a massive heavy, oaken desk, staring out the window and obviously lost in thought.

“Styopa!” Sergei Davidovich crossed behind the desk and gave Stepan Ivanovich a bear hug. “How ARE you? And is this the way you are spending your time these days? Planning what next to put in your garden? Why don’t you work a bit, like the rest of us!” Sergei Davidovich smiled affectionately at the short, balding man who was looking completely perplexed.

“Seryozha! What brings you here on this cold afternoon? I was just thinking of our upcoming hunting trip and was planning to call you,” he stopped abruptly, noticing I was also in the room. “And who is this? A foreigner? A familiar one from somewhere….”

“Styopa, come, come! This is our famous American teacher, Jennifer! You know, the one on the exchange!” Sergei Davidovich gave his friend a stern smile.

“Oh, yes, Miss Shikes! Come in, sit down, what can I do for you? I wish Masha had let me know you were coming…. Er, did we have an appointment?” Stepan Ivanovich was clearly perturbed.

“Styopa, er, Stepan Ivanovich, I insisted on bringing Jennifer myself… she has been delivered a grave injustice by members of our Soviet postal system,” Sergei Davidovich flashed me another smile.

“Ah! I see!” began Stepan Ivanovich, “Wait…. No, I don’t… er, what can I help with? I am not the postal authorities… what has happened? What could possibly have happened?” Stepan Ivanovich frowned.

“Now, now, Styopa, you worry too much!” Sergei Davidovich slapped Stepan Ivanovich on the back so hard that I thought the little man would be knocked across his massive desk. “The problem, so to speak, is a simple one, and one I know you’ll be able to help her with. Isn’t she a charming lady?”

I tried to smile in my most charming manner.

Stepan Ivanovich coughed. “Alright, explain, please.”

Sergei Davidovich explained, elaborating and exaggerating every detail until we left Stepan Ivanovich’s office 5 minutes later, permission slip in hand. When I read the paper it stated that “Soviet educational materials are to be exported to the United States to promote peace, as per instructions of Stepan Ivanovich Rustov, Minister of Education for the Krasnodar Region.”
I looked at my watch. 4:31. “We must RUN,” I called, dragging Sergei Davidovich down the corridors of the monolith.

At 4:39 we were at the side door of the post office again, students, books, and a weary-looking Tanya in hand. Sergei Davidovich held the door open for me, then raced off to his last appointment of the day. I felt as though I exploded to that top floor and I tore into Rita Sergeievna’s office. “Here is the paper!” I started to wave it in front of her face, and stopped, realizing a different, stone-faced woman had taken her place.

“May I help you with something?” Stone Face asked. “I was just closing up for the day.”

I put on a Tanya smile. “Yes, please! I was here earlier and spoke to Rita Sergeievna and she said I could export these materials if I got permission from my exchange officer, but she wasn’t there so I have this!” I waved the paper again, “and it’s from the Minister himself and I am sure that must be good enough and…” I stopped, looking at the incomprehension on her face, “Didn’t Rita Sergeievna tell you? She promised me she would!” I realized I was starting to whine at this point, which is never a good idea when dealing with Soviet officials, but I was becoming increasingly desperate.

“I am sorry, but Rita Sergeievna and I didn’t overlap. She had to leave early and I came in just a few minutes ago,” the woman looked at me calmly and coldly over the top of her glasses. I knew she must be the actual person in charge here, as she was attractive, calm and utterly without personality, typical of Soviet women put in charge of large, bureaucratic structures. “Now what is it that you need?”

I explained. She asked to see all the books. Again. I explained we’d need to do all this before 5:00 because I had students with me and I didn’t want to inconvenience them again by bringing all these books downtown a second time. She asked to see the books again. I showed her the paper I had. She explained that she wasn’t under the authority of the Ministry of Education and while the paper would help, ultimately it was her decision. I ran down the stairs skipping three and four at a time and gathered the students and marched them, no, shoved them, up the six flights and paraded them in front of who I now knew was Natalia Grigorievna. She looked through each of the bags thoughtfully. I dared not look at my watch. Finally, she put the last book in the last bag.

“Alright, everything is in order. You are all set. I will give you a voucher to take to Sophia Stepanovna, and she will allow you to send these books of yours,” her lips turned up in what might have been a smile, but I was too tired to care. It was 4:52.
“Thank you, thank you Natalia Grigorievna!” I clutched the paper to my chest and gestured to the students to follow me, quickly. We all zipped down the stairs, around the corner, up the carved stone steps, started to open the doors and found them…. locked.

I couldn’t believe it.

A couple of students giggled nervously, others just looked exhausted. Without realizing it, I gave them all an impromptu lesson in American vernacular. I raced back around the corner to run back up to Natalia Grigorievna’s office, just to see her chatting with the seedy guard, who was locking the outside street door. “Natalia Grigorievna,” I panted, “We cannot get in! What must we do?”

“Oh, well, we are closed, of course!” she gave me a disingenuous smile.

“But…. It is before five o’clock!” I started.

“Yes? It is nothing, just come back another day,” she smiled at me more broadly now. “I hope you enjoy your evening.” With that, she buttoned two more buttons on her coat, and walked up the street, teetering on heels that were obviously uncomfortable.

I walked back to my loyal troupe. Much to my astonishment, nobody else was in the least surprised. “Now, dear Jennifer,” Alyosha smirked, “we give you a cultural lesson!” The others giggled. I was famous for my “cultural lessons” as part of their language program.

“Well, what can you do?” I thought to myself. The students didn’t seem upset; they offered to take home their individual bags and try again the following afternoon. They dispersed, rushing off like shooting stars in the cold, autumn night.

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anno said...

Aargghhhh!!!! Like Kafka. What's really scary is how people just accept these bureaucratic nightmares as a matter of course...

Anonymous said...

Sheesh, I can't believe they closed up early after giving you such a run around and...argh. How frustrating!

Kateastrophe said...

GAH! How frustrating but such a fun story!

Madam Crunchypants said...

You've really captured how frustrating the bureaucracy must have been. Loving this story, and I can't wait to read more!

Luisa Perkins said...

You MUST turn this into a book. It's terrific.

Heather said...

Man! How could it possibly be so frustrating to mail some books!


And you are an amazing writer, BTW.

I especially loved this part. It made me giggle:

Without realizing it, I gave them all an impromptu lesson in American vernacular.

Goofball said...

you keep having unexpected twists. I would have killed someone by that time!

Dedee said...

Yikes. Can't wait to see how this one ends.

Rebecca said...

wow - the frustration of dealing with such a bureacracy. you should definitely get into writing some fiction, Jennifer!! Did this really all happen in english or do you speak Russian???

Rebecca said...

wow - the frustration of dealing with such a bureacracy. you should definitely get into writing some fiction, Jennifer!! Did this really all happen in english or do you speak Russian???

Rebecca said...

ooops - sorry - I double-clicked impatiently. my computer is being very slow.

Anonymous said...

Oh, how frustrating! It's just awful when you scramble and the place is closed. Early! I'm loving your story.

Fourier Analyst said...

What an adventure! Great writing and you know how to keep us in suspense! Looking forward to next week. YAY SOS!!

Jen said...

Thanks so much, everyone, for stopping by! The story actually IS finished. LOL, I guess I didn't make that clear. We were able to mail the things the next day, but as it turned out, out of the six packages that were sent, I only received four. Pretty typical.

Dedee said...

You know, I read your story and I've been thinking how funny it would actually be in a Soap Opera. Just twist things a little so there is a love triangle involved and viola!

Jen said...

I'll tell you, Dedee - living there WAS like being in a soap opera. Maybe I'll do some more of these set in Russia...