Friday, May 19, 2006

Sure its about the gas, but really it’s about the money

The end of this week was pretty interesting. We finally got our potatoes into the ground and doing so was kind of an anti-climax. I suppose it is a bit like painting a room in that the preparation takes ten times the energy and time as does the doing. But on Tuesday when all was said and done we had gotten our potatoes into the ground well before 3:00 and so were on the first bus back to town. This is not to say that we weren’t tired; there is a lot to all of that bending and raking and plowing so even of we were only planting five or six “sotok” (hundred square meters) we were still a bit weary when we were done and that ride on the early bus felt good. And because we had finally gotten the potato planting behind us, we were enthused for Thursday, the day we intended to plant our corn, beans and melons.

I take some grief over this farm from people who do not understand. I mean I might not fully comprehend this myself, but for me, I am ok with all of this farm labor and I don’t really care that it is energy spent without monetary compensation. I know that my emotional ok-edness with this is NOT the same as natural born Belarusians who do their dacha farming out of fiscal necessity far more than any romantic notion. But then again, I am not sure that there isn’t some love for the land remaining in there as well. I think there would have to be really and also, I don’t see the sort of empty-faced resignation that would be evident if people really felt themselves to be slaves. Our village people live as they do and this is all there is to it.

But when we did get there on Thursday, our planting was interrupted by a green suited G-man who walked onto our land with his clip board and crew cut and asked in a quiet though thoroughly commanding way to speak to the Haizanka, the owner of the property. Tatyana came in from the field tired and sweaty from the hot sun and, after seeing the uniform, took on a dour expression on her face that said everything about how she felt about talking to the state.

Our representative told us that he was an official building inspector and that he was here to write up some building errors on our dacha house. Our baby faced Luko-bot told us that the metal chimney of the house was against the rules and was a fire hazard. And, as long as he was at it, the crack in the inch-thick steel stove top was also wrong as was the thickness of the stove itself. All of this would have to be changed and he then started to write a paper for a 100,000 ($50) ruble fine.

This two-room house by the way is about 60-years-old, is made completely of logs and has been without fire catastrophe for its entire existence.

“How can you fine us? This is your first trip here? We have never even heard of this rule?”

“This rule was not in the books last year.”

“Yes, but the house was here last year. In fact it has been here unharmed by fire for sixty years. Why must we pay a fine?”

“For non-compliance.”

“Where did we not comply? You just got here.” It went on like this for a while, but eventually he agreed to drop the fine to 30,000 ($15) if we agreed to pay the fine the next day. And we had ½ year to fix the stove and chimney.

By the time she got back out to the corn planting Tatyana was in tears. Our thinking was that the 100,000 was a scam to get the lower amount to feel like we got something, and this made it hurt even more.

After we finished and were heading back to the bus we talked about this with our neighbors. Almost all of them had been tagged with something and most had allowed for the money to be taken out of their pensions.

“It doesn’t matter whether you are right or wrong”, one neighbor said with a laugh, “If they want money they will come and take it. This guy hasn’t been here in a hundred years, they are probably just hungry for money.”

Of course this need for money might have something to do with the Russian Gazprom people putting the squeeze on Belarus to pay market prices for its natural gas. There were several bargains insinuated in the news over the last few weeks but in the end, Russia has waved them all off in favor of simply upping the fee. The loss is going to amount to about a billion dollars no matter how you cut it, and for a country like Belarus, this is an economic catastrophe.

“Well of course they are coming now for money. The elections are over!” Said another neighbor.

Coming home gave us another shot in the arm courtesy of the government. While we were away, one of the directors of Doma Provlenye came out to have a look at the fence I built last week. We were not here when it happened, but apparently she talked to several of our neighbors about the garden. Now, this was not Mss Molochko, but her boss. After complaints from almost everybody Mss. Malochko has I guess been told to leave our people alone. However, her boss during her meeting with our apartment house showed that she was of equal class when it came to dealing with the elderly.

“Why do you people come to bother us?” asked Stepan Ivanovich, our neighbor from across the hall. The director had pointed out that his fence needed to be painted. “I am old and tired and I have not so much energy; why can’t you leave is in peace?”

“Do you receive your pension?” Shot back the director, “Perhaps you receive too much. Or maybe you should be at home resting if all of this is too tiring for you.”

“Can you believe these Doma provlenya people?” screamed another neighbor. “He is 85 years-old! He worked all his life for this shitty $100 pension. And like all of us he worked when we worked for nothing. And now she comes to him like he is nothing, she threatens him as if she has the right to touch his tiny money and then tells him to go home and die!”

Distressing to be sure.

But nonetheless, Tatyana went to the bank to pay her fine this morning. She had to because if they take her to court, as the inspector pointed out to her would be the results of non-compliance, she would have to pay for that on top of the fine. But she was home in time for the arrival of the gas people.

The gas people.

Now the deal in our house, as it is for a significant portion of Belarus, is that we run our stoves on propane from big red tanks which sit in our kitchens. There are those who have city gas, but we are not amongst them. City gas people by the way have always paid about 25% of what tank people pay for their gas. The balloons, as the tanks are called cost about $10 a month and are an amazingly uncomfortable deal all around. The tanks come without gauges and no amount of begging or bribing will get you one so you never know how much gas you have left to work with. And of course the tank will go empty when you are using it and because most probably this means suppertime, it means you are a full day without gas waiting for the truck to come- and of course you have a broken supper once a month. .

But we got really lucky yesterday and when the tank went dry in the middle of boiling some gorgeous fresh goat’s milk chowder. We made the call on time and got a promise that the gas guys would be here the next morning.

So we put aside a 20,000 note for when the guys came and left it on the refrigerator. Now, I have taken it upon myself to tip the guys from the gas truck. The reason I am doing this most un-Belarusian thing is to prevent them from lying to us about the price and trying to steal the extra 1000 or so, which was always the problem. I know you are thinking that in the end my tipping them works out to be the same as their stealing, but to me, this is exactly the same as growing the vegetables ourselves; I just like things to be a bit cleaner if I can help it. And besides, tipping always makes for good will and as you can tell from the morning delivery, maybe it works.

However, when the gas guys showed up, there were two of them, one fellow taking the money and the other carrying the tank on his shoulder, the money guy for some reason this morning asked for 2000 less than the price we were told over the phone. Now Tanya is a stickler when it comes to money and is most afraid of governmental problems, so when faced with a discrepancy she had no desire to play with the money. But gas guy was really hard headed about it and almost bullied her that she should accept the lower payment. Tanya had to tell him some five times to take the extra money already and that she was sure she was right. By about the third time around, I was asking her to just accept what the man was saying already and keep the money or, at the least, just give him the whole 20,000 and let him keep whatever the cost is. Eventually, and with a touch of anger at the blow to our having questioned his professional position, he skulked downstairs to the truck to check his papers. After a minute he came back upstairs, put the 20,000 note we had given him on the sewing table, gave Tatyana the correct change of only 500 rubles (this rather than the 2000 he had originally offered) and started to leave. At this moment, I asked him to wait and gave him the 500 back and another 1000. This was my tip.

“Here’ I said, “this is because you work hard and because you were fare with us.” He looked at the money and thought for a minute and then went to shake my hand and take the money at the same time. I don’t know why he tried to make this gesture. I realize that taking money in a hand shake is the tradition method of receiving “left” money, but we were in the house AND I offered it to him with my left hand. So the results were sort of a back handed clasp, and I had to switch hands to actually get the money to him.

But just after he left, Tanya yelled for me to come to the kitchen. She pointed to the 20,000 note which was still on the sewing table.

“Take this down to him.”


“What do you mean, why? It’s his money.”

“How do you know?”

“Of course I know! It was the only money that was in the kitchen. This was the 20,000 we left for him last night.”

“Yes, but maybe this was a different 20,000…”

“Just take the money down to him!” I looked out the window. It was raining pretty hard.

“Look, he’ll come back up himself to get it.”

“Adam, they’ll make him pay for the loss.”


“Do you know what it is like to have to pay for your mistakes? We do not have so much money in Belarus. Take him his money.”

“Look, he is a professional remember. He told us as much when he was trying to give you 2000 rubles. We tipped him. If he wants to give us a free tank of gas, let him. Who are you to argue?”

“Hurry before he goes away.” So I went down into the rain and chased around the corner and caught the truck just as it was trying to back out into the street.

“Hey, did you forget your money?” I showed him the 20,000 note.

“I got your money.” This was the money guy. A real Einstein this one.

“No, didn’t you leave 20,000 behind?”

“You gave me 1500.”

“I know I gave you 1500 but I am talking about the money for the tank. I think you forgot it.”

“You were right; it was 19,500 like you said.”

“I KNOW THAT, but did you forget to take your money?”

“You gave me money.” This guy had to be either drunk or had been sucking gas straight from the tank.

“Look, just check ok? Count the money and see.”

“You paid ok?”

“It’s your $10! Count the money!” The guy that was with him started to get mad too.

“Listen you stupid bitch,” He yelled at his partner, “count the money already!”

“Who’s the bitch, you bitch? Don’t tell me what to do!” We both yelled at him to just count the money already. Anyway, with great resignation he pulled out a calculator and counted the money from his to-do sheet. He then broke into the money pouch and started to count. I was standing on the running board watching this slow-witted gas guy count his money. At one point he pulled out a 20,000 and separated it from the rest, and then counted on. Eventually he looked up and said that he was indeed 20,000 short. I don’t know if he had actually counted or had just decided that if I was stupid enough to pay twice, he should be smart enough to take the money.

The other guy though was grateful. He understood that they would have had to pay and gave me a “Bolshoi spacebo”. A big thank you. I waved him off and answered with a “Nye za shto”, which means it’s nothing and looked at our money guy and offered him a smile. He waved me off with his own “Nye za shto”, which was as good a punch line as I could have hoped for.

So really, sometimes it is about the money and sometimes, people are just really stupid.

More soon…