Tuesday, September 25, 2007

Hopefully it will be better the second time around…

They have just finished painting our house... again.

Two years ago, in honor of the 60th anniversary of the Great Patriotic War, our house, along with many, many others in Pinsk got its first face lift in probably twenty years. Maybe thirty. All houses in Pinsk, private or state are still basically under the control of the housing authority know here as Doma Provlenye. Yes, these are the same Doma Provlenye people who come after us like Nazis every spring, threatening us to take our garden space away unless we invest some money into upkeep. The reason why things were let go for so long was that before two years ago there was never enough money to do something such as painting houses. Before two or three years ago in fact, there was not enough money to turn on street lights at night, fix potholes in the roads and for sure, to pay people adequate wages. It had been like this since 1991 when the Soviet Union went out of business and it had been even worse, if this is possible, since 1998 when the Russian ruble collapsed taking all connected economies down along with it. So there was never any money to fix anything and the houses sat and aged. The paint pealed, the plaster cracked. The wood in the windows rotted; the floor boards creaked and the mildew spread. And this is how it was.

But two years ago there was that party and the president ordered that no cost be spared in making the place at least look livable again. Machines were bought which filled in the potholes, working crews were equipped with modern machines, the streetlights turned on when it was dark and the old houses were given fresh coats of paint. Ours was one of these and for the first time since I have been here, I actually understood that our house was in fact yellow.

So why, you might be thinking, are they painting the house again? Well, this is a very good question. The surface answer is that they needed to redo the job because all of the paint that they put on the walls two years ago fell off. Well, it didn’t all fall off. Great big chunks of it did; peeling away piece by piece in strong winds, the grey undercoating showing like a run in an old woman's stockings.

There is a word in Russian: Stidna. Stidna basically means embarrassment or shameful. Kak te nye stidna? is a familiar Russian phrase (how are you not an embarrassment?), and this is what both our house and the people who painted our house have been for more than a year now, since their original paint job began to fail. Stidna. Certainly the reason for the peeling was that either too little or no undercoating was used or that vastly inferior materials were purchased. And this would absolutely be par for the course out here. But from my perspective there is always another question to be asked when one sees something terribly amiss: Were the people who screwed up guilty or just plain stupid? This was the question I asked quite often by the way during the early parts of my stay in Poland; in the case of the cop the answer was probably a little bit of both. But when you ask this question about the failed paint job on our house, we get an interesting answer.

First of all, let's look at the people who actually did the job. Would you actually tell me that a professional painting crew would paint a house without putting a coat of primer (gruntovka in Russian) on first? Well, to answer this, we have to ask whether or not the crew that did the job were actually painting professionals. There were two women who did the painting job last time (maybe it was three, I forget) and they did the entire job themselves over the course of perhaps three weeks. These women though were not private contractors but rather state paid employees working for daily wages. Because they were not a private company, they had no control over which materials to use or even, I suppose, how to go about doing the job at hand. They were very friendly women though and they made a great fuss over our Anya, but other than flat out forgetting to put any primer on (didn't they notice those other buckets?), which is very doubtful, it appears as though someone either neglected to give them any or told them that this job was to be made without.

So this brings us to the bosses. Again, this job was paid for out of the budget of the Doma Provlenye. DP though is not a private entity, they are an organ of the state and specifically, they are the organ that is responsible for things such as painting houses. Obviously DP would know how many square meters of paint would be needed to cover a house as well as all of the other details such as how many man hours would need to be paid and what materials would actually be needed to do the job successfully. You see what I am saying? This is exactly their job and I am sure they have meetings with their superiors in which they have to be accountable for exactly these types of details. And what is more, the responsibility for those jobs falls entirely on the DP because unlike the west, Belarus does not call for estimates from painters. Here, because the state is the monopoly, when it needs something done the work is paid for using a state pricing system. This is exactly the same as it is for selling agricultural products and food stuffs at he markets. Basically this all means that they know.

So, as this is how the system works and because the DP was fully responsible for both work and the materials, our next question is how that painting crew came to do the paint job on our house without actually putting any primer on?

I have three answers to this and the first two come under the heading of stupid or guilty.

The stupid answer is that they simply didn't know how to do their job. This is quite possible because again, they had no practice for at least 15 years- probably even the painting crews were getting a little cobwebby as well and so simply not knowing is not such impossibility, even with all of those meetings. And if this is true, well, they say that experience is the best teacher. However, if this was the case I seriously hope they learned something because though nobody knows what a lesson in life is supposed to cost, if you don't learn it the first time, YOU WILL have to pay for it again.

The guilty answer is that Doma Provlenya put the money for the primer in their pockets. They did this either specifically by not buying the materials they had been budgeted for, by simply not using it and then selling to another contractor or by purchasing cheaper and inferior materials than were budgeted for. They also could have cheated by thinning out the paint and/or using less of it, but this is not how the damage looked.

I also have a third possible answer though and it is a bit more forgiving. Giving DP the benefit of the doubt, we could also say that they were simply doing the best they could with what they had to work with. They had gotten some money to do work for the big party but they really didn't have enough to do the job well and so what they decided to do was to make the place look as nice as possible under the circumstances even though they knew that it would only last a short time. This decision of course would eventually be twice as expensive, but then again, if you are doing creative financing, what really would be the difference, right?

Well, you know I would love to go with the third explanation, but I can't. I would like to because it even adds a note of heroism to what could possibly be considered a hardworking, under-financed and underpaid organization. I would love to take this side because it is a feel good story about how we all pull together as a team in times of stress and about how staying together and working together for common goals always wins the day. But I can't take this side because it is simply not the truth. The fact is that they mismanaged public funds and screwed up the paint job because they just didn't do what was needed the first time. And I know that they knew what they were doing because several other houses were also painted on our street and the paint did not fall off of theirs. To me this simply means that they played with money that was not theirs to play with. The money that went towards painting our house was Belarus' money, the town of Pinsk's money or best said: the people of the town of Pinsk's money. Making money decisions that show both public incompetence and even potential corruption is stidna and completely unprofessional. Making improper use of materials and labor which end up costing twice as much as is needed, especially when this is exactly what your organization is supposedly there to do, is criminal. Of course stealing money or materials is also criminal, but that is a given. And further, as this organization has insisted on using heinous, fascist and abusive control tactics, year after year, on a group of retirees who wanted nothing more than to work their little garden spot of fifty years in peace, I simply cannot believe in any altruism; there is no way that the DP has even the slightest care about caring for the community around them and this paint business is a perfect example.

But anyway, the scabs have finally been scraped and spackled away. The new color is more of a peach than a yellow but it is not so bad to look at. They didn't bother to put drop cloths down so the foundation and asphalt walkway is now Jackson Pollock-ed with yellow and gold and I had to yell at them twice about using our garden for a toilet or leaving their beer bottles under our benches after they drank their lunch, but as I said, the place looks a bit nicer. I guess we'll see how long it lasts though. Probably they got it right this time. Probably they did.

More soon…

7 Comments:

Anonymous Anonymous said...

Adam. I have been reading your blog for some time now and find it extremely interesting. I was reading about your kurfuffle with the dude in the car. I wrote the comm, I had to call you on it.

First off a little about me just so you know where our toes are here. I have been traveling around Russia, Ukraine and Belarus for some time. My wife is currently staying with her parents (father is ill) in Gomel and I have spent a significant amount of time there and in Minsk. Both lovely cities. I have never seen Pinsk. Passed through, not stopped. I am not from California, insults will get you nowhere. :)
I live south of Seattle, I was born and raised in the wilds of Wyoming. I am a bike rider also, the bike I ride is one I pulled out of the trash bin, tuned up and tweaked to my liking.

I called you on it because as I said, it was the dumbest thing you could have done. Do you have a mission in life? To make the world safe for all bikeriders?

I've seen bikeriders do dumb things to get themselves into trouble. I've doored fools on bikes myself. If you want to go from the walk to the street do it at the crosswalk, not halfway up the street. I only look in the mirror once and if I don't see you I'm not the one breaking the rules.

I really have to question why you were on the street to begin with. Do you see how Russians drive? They're like frozen Italians at the Gran Prix for christsake. They have no respect for the rules of the road and even less for people on bikes or the local mutts.

I'm not going to rub your nose in it or pick a fight with you, I can handle constructive critcism and believe me you are not the only person on a bike I have seen make poor decisions, don't even ask me about the dopes on 4 wheels.

I call'em as I see 'em. We all need to be aware of the people around us, what we can do and say and what situations are good and bad. I think you stepped out of line, I know you paid a price for it, just don't do things that may someday reflect on people like US. Sorry to hear about your "Kot". Bastards.

Spahkoynay noche. Al-e-cat.

Wednesday, September 26, 2007  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Adam,
Paint shouldn't fall off a house after 2 years. The "whys" of this case are likely multi-fold and interwoven. 1-Somewhere along the line, somebody proably stole and then thinned out some paint. 2- Pinsk proably couldn't afford Sherwin Williams finest outdoor industrial grade paint. 3- When a giant rush job is started, like to paint all of Belarus, then there are going to be some novice painters holding brushes and running crews. 4- The paint used could have been mixed from old or inferior chemicals that didn't perform well. 5- The building having no paint for years might itself have failed to hold the paint with little fault to the painters. 6- An unknown failure ensued that no one could have predicted, or prevented.

I think I actually addressed this in response to an earlier blog which dealt with the painting as it was happening. There are plenty of places in America that could use a coat of paint. Plenty of streets that need fixed. Belarus is a young and struggling country, and she did her best to "freshen up" before the party , "after a long time walking in the elements". And for that she sould be commended.

Pinsk will catch those habitually stealing paint, and the Doma Provlena will proably never win any medals for customer service. But nobody will be homeless, and hopefully no "gangsters" will be stealing appartments out from under the elderly by gunforce.

Mike

Wednesday, September 26, 2007  
Blogger BEING HAD said...

You know All-e-crap, your remarks are telling. I'll make this quick: A guy who smiles and says he has (happily?) doored bikers and that he pulled his own bike from a dumpster is not only someone who knows nothing about urban biking, he also eats his lunch out of that same container. The point is that the road must be shared and ego-ed out cretins who think that they are immune from life because they surround themselves with two tons of steel, glass and plastic are morons. And while you are out there, happily polluting the air and supporting big oil in your little four-wheeled hooker net, you might have a thought about those people who would rather push it around for themselves, even if it was just for how earth-friendly and healthy an activity it is.

I actually at first had a thought that I should try and be political with you, speak to you kindly and try and cultivate a relationship but I am not going to. Thanks for going right by Pinsk. You made the right choice. Just keep going. And if you picked up any Russian along the way, you know what I just said to you.

Michael, you understand things just fine. We look forward to seeing you out here in November.

Wednesday, September 26, 2007  
Anonymous Bob D said...

I noticed you had a rainy year in Pinsk. This was bad for your garden. I was think about avoiding summer in 2008 because it is the tourist season in Europe. How is the spring and fall weather in Pinsk. I will stay again in the Pripyats Hotel.

Wednesday, September 26, 2007  
Blogger BEING HAD said...

Yes we did have a terrible year because of the endless rains. And the price of potatoes right now is proof of that.

If you are coming out, spring is nice and there are two parties between May 1st and May 9th. Both are major national holidays and the weather usually dictates that the first is planting day for all of the major staples i.e., next year's potatoes.

I will give a call to the archives and see what they have to say at the end of the week. I am in Brest tomorrow and if I can, time will be an issue on our errand and I will have Tanya and Anya with me as well, I will stick my head in there and ask in person.

I don't know that the fall is all that wonderful except that if you have a better year than we had this year, harvest time can be kind of fun (and filling). I say go for May Day and the War Party. When the whole town walks from Lenin Sq to the park together, you really can feel like you are a part of something bigger than what at first you may see and hear.

Wednesday, September 26, 2007  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Lets see a photo of your new house painted then!

Thursday, September 27, 2007  
Blogger BEING HAD said...

You know I would love to. And in fact one of the stupidest things I ever did not do was to take pictures with the last new paint peeling off. I had a camera for a while but I had to return it and now I don't. I also don't know why I never bothered to write about this before, but I am glad now that I did. But I tell you, if I can find a working digi in the next while, I will accommodate you. Oh, and I should add one thing: On the south west side, they left the top part yellow and painted the bottom orange. I don't now why they did this and all the other three sides are just one color. Very odd. And two days ago, they went and painted the foundation gray, so now only the walkway looks like splatter art.

Thursday, September 27, 2007  

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