Tuesday, May 09, 2006

Victory Day

May 9th is Victory Day here in Belarus
Had an interesting ride back to town today. Actually I was happy to be on the bus at all. I had ridden the bike out to the farm for the first time this year earlier and had also made the ride over to the local KolHoz to see about a horse so by the end of the day, my old legs were rather tired and I was glad when the driver said I could bring my bike aboard.

I think that forever around here little things like letting a guy drag his bike onto a bus were never a big deal. I say that I think that this is so because I have always noticed these fine little points when they have happened since I have been here, but of course I did not live here back in the day so I can’t say for sure. I am speaking here of the bending of what would normally be the rules. I think everyone appreciates an accommodation and this was, back in the day, the norm around here. Of course all of that accommodating probably was the real reason for the eventual collapse of the USSR, but that thought is way too big for this essay.

However, the driver’s letting me onto the bus with the bike did not come without its commentary.

“Oh ho, it’s our American friend. What do you want with a bus when you have your fine and sporty bicycle?” This was when I had first addressed him at the door. I had two things in mind and the first and most important was to see if he would be willing to wait a minute while Tatyana and Anya made their way to the bus. We were a few minutes late as our planting session went a bit long. The second order of business was to see if the bike could come on. I hadn’t had the chance to talk as of yet, but the more banter, the more time Tanya had to get there, so why take offence?

“Here we have a man who comes all the way from America just to plant potatoes!” Everybody laughed. “All the way from America for potatoes. Tell the truth, there must be much more money to be had in America. Here there is nothing. What’s so special about our potatoes that you must come all the way here?”

“If there was money none of us would be here.” This was me countering as best as I could.

“No, this is a different question.” He responded, “We are not speaking of this. But really, certainly you could make so much more money in America than here. Why work here for nothing when you could work there fore something?”

“Not everyone works only for money. Sometimes we work for other things.” He grimaced at what I said. I think all of the people on the bus did. Maybe it is because my answer was garbage. I fight with the thought about whether or not it actually is nonsense all the time. But there is a difference when you are from here and your passport and economic situation does not allow for romantic fantasies like mine. In any case, I guess this must have hit as an insult, though I had not intended it to be so.

I asked him if he would be willing to wait for five minutes while Tatyana and Anya were coming and he smiled at the chance to be of service and said simply “We’ll wait.” I looked at the faces on the bus and not one of them showed even the smallest sign of complaint at being inconvenienced. This is definitely from here as is the absolute simplicity of the answer. You can BS all you want but when a direct question is asked, you get a straight answer.

I asked if I could to go see how far along they were and he said go and look. Luckily they were already at the corner. Equally as lucky was that there was another grandmother who came running so the extra few minutes allow two extra people to get on. I just smiled at him. I think everybody liked how it worked out as well.

“You want to bring on the bike?” He said this to me just after Tatyana got on with Anya, “Well you know, everything is possible for the right price.” He rubbed two fingers together, a universal gesture I imagine.

“Is this money necessary only because I am American? Or would you take money from anyone?” This wasn’t accusatory, it was just banter.

“Anything is possible if you have the money, right? You would have to agree with this certainly. This is the truth everywhere.” I hadn’t realized that he hadn’t even heard my last remark. All of this actually was just his way of being friendly but he really wanted me to agree about this money thing.

“Listen, how could I disagree? I am really tired and if I can take the bike on the bus, I don’t have to ride. And for this, at this moment, I will happily pay.” He looked confused at this. I don’t think he really wanted to get into an issue about paying, I think all he wanted was to make a bond together and to have an opportunity to do something for someone, to give a present.

So I understood that one way or another I was on the bus. He smiled and pulled the lever opening the back doors and gestured with his thumb that I should put it back there.

Most everybody was smiling at me as I dragged the bike onto the bus. They were happy that I should be getting something nice on this holiday. If I forgot to mention, it is the 9th of May which is Victory Day in Belarus and Russia. This is the celebration of the victory over fascism, as it is called here, the end of the Second World War. It is a really big holiday here and there is great parades and speeches and everyone wears their medals and such.

I handed the bus driver a 10,000 note ($5) and told him to give me back three. I could have given him the whole ten, and in fact I wish I could have, but we needed what was left over. I think he understood about this and instead of just handing me back my change, he looked at his baggage chart to find the actual price of dragging a bike on a bus. It turned out to be about the price of a ticket, which is about what I figured but it turned out to be a little less than I would have given him.

“It’s not much.” He said handing me the money. The change was about four thousand rubles playing it straight and even if he did stuff the money in his pocket, this is what he was pointing out; it didn’t amount to a whole hell of a lot.

“Here,” I said and handed him 2000 rubles, “You are a really good guy and you work really hard driving this bus. Please accept this gift from me. I guess it is enough for a bottle if wine to drink on the holiday.” And I slapped him on the shoulder.

The folks on the bus smiled at me for having done this. I got the feeling that they thought I had handled it Ok.

So I camped out at the back of the bus with Tanya and Anya. We ate some of the bread that was left and washed it down with a local brand of pineapple soda. It felt good to be sitting on the bus rather than riding. A friend got on and we talked cabbage and potatoes. And then a rather drunk fellow got on the bus and made his way to the back and sat with us on the back bench. After a moment he started in speaking to me like the driver had. I used to get this “celebrity” crap a lot more than I do now and for the most part I think people have sort of gotten over my being here. And believe me; I am grateful for the peace. But this guy was plastered and started in right away with the old standard questions: Where are you from, how long have you been here. And I of course gave back my practiced lines: I am coming from the village; I live in Town, all of this for the comedy. I throw in a couple of Russian phrases as well and we go back and forth for a while, all for the amusement of our fellow bus passengers. .

But for some reason, even after the repartee became tired, this guy simply would not stop. And me, what can I do? I am under the same sorts of social restrictions as everyone else and I also do not wish to spoil the party. Why this drunk believes in his heart of hearts that I and my being here is an available and endless source of humor I don’t know. I mean, I understand that on the surface this stuff is there, it’s unusual for an American to be in Belarus. But for some reason that second thought, that normalizing ponder about how there might just be some reality to my situation or that this might be old news or even that I simply just might not get off on this sort of thing never seemed to click on with this guy.

But again there is that social thing and it is a party here, so trying to keep good humor about things I played it for laughs for a while. Why not? There was nothing better to do. So I played. But after a while the humor in this one stupid joke really and truly ran out and people started to become a little uncomfortable with the banter. Maybe he kept it going out of a sense of self abuse; this being connected to his being drunk and probably depressed. Or maybe he thought that that initial rush would somehow come back. But then again they probably have not listen to too much Eric Clapton out here so those sorts of realities might never have struck. But in any case, no matter how I either hinted or straight out spoke of my general disinterest, he kept at it.

So in a fit of logic I decided to play rough with him. I don’t know why I did, I could have just relaxed and let him talk himself out, but I did. I guess I was really just tired from my days planting. Or maybe I thought that he actually did know better and was being a little malicious himself. In any case I started in:

“Ok, I agree, we are friends.” I guess it was a bit startling when I started in on this line because for sure he didn’t know what to say for a second. I went on: “In fact we are great friends, the best of friends. We’ll go all over town together. We’ll be like Batman and Robin, like Lenin and Trotsky, like fish and beer, like Putin and Lukashenka.” This last one sent a shiver through the bus. “In fact, as long as we are going to be friends, I think we need to do some business together.”

He turned his head at the word and yet another wave went through the bus. What had I said?

“Yes, business. Obviously there has to be something to how interesting I am, and really BECAUSE I AM AN AMERICAN, THIS WOULD HAVE TO BE ABOUT MONEY, RIGHT?” Everybody got very quiet at this. “I’ll tell you what, I’ll back you in any deal you can think of; simply from friendship. You give me a good idea and we’ll go for it.” This hit the bus hard and we got a little buzz over all of this. I am sure that my drunk was not enjoying the game having turned in this way, but regardless, he was in it.

“In fact I’ll offer you $50,000 for any idea that you can come up with.” There was a beat and then “That is to say, any idea you can come up with in the next minute.” Perhaps half of the people on the bus turned around and looked to see what his reaction would be. This little bit of repartee had become a game of hardball and no matter how many bad things you want to say about Belarus, you have to know that they like a game of hardball as much as anybody.

“No, listen,” He started, “I just want to invite you to my house for a drink.” He really, really, REALLY wanted to get back to trying to laugh at me.

“50 seconds…” A lot of eyes got wide. A couple of people laughed but mostly their attention was glued on the drunk for his reaction. For sure they were enjoying his getting thumped but also, I think they were also rooting for him. They wanted this guy to somehow show that Belarus could handle itself with anybody; that regardless of the brain drain and economic catastrophes and the 89 percent disagreement with Milinkevich’s European deal, push come to shove Belarus was still the best- even drunk. What they wanted now was for Belarus to beat the USA at this stupid game.

“45 seconds…”

He babbled something stupid so to cover up for him, I decided to make a statement.

“This is America folks. This is what we are like. We don’t live calmly and we don’t make a steady diet of bullshit.” All eyes seemed to understand. “We are not nice. 30 seconds…”

When he opened his mouth, I think there was a split second when there was still hope. But instead of coming up with that one great idea, and really, anything serious would have garnered a round of applause for sure, my man started to explain that all he was doing was innocently babbling, and he had meant no offence. Babbling stupidly is actually easy to do and is normally inoffensive and all of this being hard was not what he had in mind.

And everyone got it. But then again, there is something to his point of there being a certain righteousness to babbling on like a fool. Being unserious is a good way to keep the peace and confrontation only leads to discord. In fact, on May 9th, you could also say that all of this was fairly nostalgic of the old days. I mean, he was just asking for love after all. I felt a little guilty for having gone off. I still have a temper and I really don’t like being pushed. These are all Zaremba situations to me; when pushed, I push back and no amount of anger management theory ever changes my mind. I just refuse to understand why I must learn to eat shit with a smile. I simply have never heard any even reasonable excuse for that… other than for money, Right? But in any case, I followed through to the end, just as he did:

“Time!” The drunk looked at me with some real coherence. He had his chance and missed it. Maybe the real lesson is that you just shouldn’t play with people simply because it is dangerous.

I am not a nice man, am I?

Basically folks I work. I don’t know why I am the way I am. Maybe it came from when I hurt my back. Or maybe it was Poland. Or maybe it was something else, but basically I really just don’t play any more and haven’t for years.

But on the other hand, in that brief period of time before I asked it to stop, it was nice being back in the Soviet Union for a little while. I guess I could have just hung in there for the sake of the 9th of May. Victory Day is a really big party here and most people take it for what it is: A chance to celebrate the day that the world’s communist’s won a victory over the fascists. It’s supposed to be a day of togetherness and graciousness. I think there was room for what I did as well. Or maybe I simply showed how far from here I really am.

Or maybe all it did was show how much I am a part of things after all…

(Note: Next Monday, the 15th of May is the fourth anniversary of Zaremba’s hitting me with his car. I understand that I am well off the subject of Poland, of police corruption, of the American’s abandoning me and of my potential retributions. I hope I have kept things at least interesting even if I have strayed somewhat from the original purpose.

But on the 15th I am going to try and speak about that episode one more time. And hopefully there will be this time some action. Yes, I still want my day in court and I want those awful people who screwed me over to pay. And of course I am speaking of Zaremba, Wiesniakowski, Borus and all of those two-faced sons-of-bitches who played me like a fool four years ago. I have never stopped trying to expose them for being the corrupt abusers of office they are. Maybe this time, it’ll take. Hope to see you there.)

More soon…