Wednesday, March 23, 2005

This is just today’s Daily Post for the Being Had Blog.
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Tuesday, 22 March 2005

So I got to speaking about the dacha a lot in yesterday’s blog. I like being in the village actually. I find it quiet and nice. But you know, no place with people in is without its stress and our little spot on the map is no different.

But before I go into any details about last year’s soap operas, I want to talk a little about life in the villages. Generally, there are two kinds of folks out there: dacha folks and villagers. The dacha folks do the farm work on the weekends and work and live in town during the week. I am not going to talk about them today. I want to talk about the village people.
The first thing I should say is basically that all of the permanent residents in our village have one major thing in common: They are old. There are a few exceptions. There are two young families with several kids who keep a place on our street in the village. They like the life I guess. Either that or it is what they have because they got it from their families. In both cases the men generally are off finding work abroad most of the time and the women stay with the kids; for one family full time, and for the other, the woman works in town as well. And there are a couple of other teenagers scattered here and there who are living with their grandparents and a couple of men who still live there who are only in their forties or so, but generally speaking those guys are stone cold alcoholics. Chicken and egg theory I guess as to whether the village broke them or they broke and stranded themselves. But then come to think of it, they live with their grandmas too so I guess that is how it works out.
But for the most part everyone is old and there are real reasons for this situation. Well, reason: Money. There just isn’t anything to be made out there so nobody goes there anymore for a primary income. Now there was a time when the Kolhoz organizations had a lot of work and paid equal wages to work that could be found in town. So during the time of the USSR, if you were of a mind to or had a background for it, doing farm labor was as reasonable a way to do life as any other. And certainly there were more than ample opportunities to study agriculture in the universities so back in the day there were careers to be had. But those times are long gone and these days, working in the fields is simply no longer a young person’s aspiration. Probably true for everywhere in the world but it is especially true in our village.

So the population is old and the reason they stay, that they can cut it is because they receive pensions from the state, which they use to compensate what they can’t grow and sell or eat themselves.
The pension structure is here is interesting. In general, the amount of money people receive is about equal to money that can be received from working. In some cases more. And, a Belarussian man who has worked at his job during his adult life received the ability to retire on a pension at the age of 60 in Belarus. The women can retire at age 55. But before you start thinking that this sounds like a utopia, or if you are an economist and want to start arguing that no country could afford such a deal, let us remember that we are only taking about $100 or so and that is all. They may get 100% of salary but 100% of jack shit is still jack shit.
And having relatively young people going to pension does affect the state coffers anyway and it is one of the main reasons that there isn’t more money than there is. Yes, it is a socialistic state and sharing is sharing, but in the end, there are the same problems. In the US we have been hearing for more than two decades that Social Security is going broke and that there will not be enough when the boomers come of age. One of the answers we came up with was to ask our people to work for an extra five years until 70. I don’t recall too much argument about that because most people couldn’t afford to stop and were glad to have those extra years of income. Social Security in the states is of course quite close to poverty. They don’t do this here but compensate in another way: They die earlier. Poverty very much results in a relatively short life span. I think the mean age is something like 63 these days. Way off from the reported American 78 or so, and certainly way, way different from the propagandized 130-year-old yogurt eaters we used to hear about. Depression kills. A high fat, low fiber, low vitamin diet kills. Alcoholism kills. They don’t last long here.

So the villages have become sort of the retirement homes here in Belarus. And the folks that do live out in the quiet generally like to keep the Soviet Social club atmosphere. And why not? They lived that life and now, protected by their pensions, they are able to keep the ways of the old system alive in a way that the folks in town no longer have. So they tend to play games with one another and to allow those games to be the clocks and journals of their time. I got caught in a couple of these deals- folks milking the life out of situations that could have been ended in an hour. Like I said, just like the old days.
But mostly they are amazingly nice folks. Polite to the end of time, mostly. Knowledgeable, affable, funny, smart, self sufficient, seriously great drinkers- and they were always there to teach me about things whether or not I asked for the help.
And for the most part, every last one there, and this included some of the 80 and 90 year old grandmas (Babushkas) they are still the most terrific workers, universally taking great pride in doing what they do there to the nth degree possible. I don’t know how many times last year I got outworked by neighbors 30 and 40 years my senior. But I was out there again the next day and I think that guy was out for a week afterward. And I got blamed for that…

I’ll try and get into this more tomorrow. A lot of this talk has to do with making notes for the book. And a lot of it is just trying to avoid the trap I got into last time about regurgitating my Polish experience day after day. Or maybe somebody in the western world will think that an American working on a dacha is as interesting as my neighbors think it is.