Wednesday, November 28, 2007

A piece of cake…

Amongst the things that bother me sometimes about the beautiful and interesting Republic of Belarus is that there never seems to be anything fresh or new here. Maybe this is just the jaundiced view one acquires after some time actually living in such a place as this, or maybe it is just from my own getting-older-every-day perspective, but inevitably it does get to you after a while. Certainly it is the poverty. This is not to say in any way, shape or form that I believe that there is anything really and concretely better on the on side of the fence; I am as disinterested in propaganda as the next guy you find standing in the long line. But the truth of the matter is that there simply IS NOT ENOUGH HERE. There isn't. And what is more is that the cost of MORE is so prohibitive that it is simply dazzling to the eyes and the pocketbook these days. What is happening here is simply life in surrealist terms. It's beyond Dostoyevsky. It might even be beyond Jack London but he was a socialist believer on the other side of the fence with all of that I-do-my-own-work-with-my-own-two-hands crap. Cold enough that your spit crackles? Man, did I ever fall for that line. Ah, the hell with it.

But what do you do when there is a special day in a place like this? I am not talking about national and institutional holidays and I sure as hell am not speaking about religious (G-d forbid) holidays. I am talking about genuine special occasions. What do you do when the calendar and the clock simply scream out that you need to do something nice even in the face of the constant threat of an economic tidal wave coming to slush you out? Did I say nice? Christ almighty, does the word even exist in any sort of reasonably attachable form? Priatnost; this is the Russian word but I damned sure don't believe in that! What do you do in Belarus when you want just a little, tiny scrap of good, a feathery microgram of nice?

What am I talking about?

Last Thursday was Tatyana's birthday and through all of the hell-fire and burning hail (read lies, deception, poverty and fear of starvation), there needed to be a high and free day in spite of it all. It was needed, needed; you do hear?! I am not talking about getting a break from any kind of common, every day insults and aggravations. I am not speaking of receiving a pardon for any individual crimes or incidents or disregarding of belief systems or moral prejudices; I am talking about trying to satisfy one's contract to promote familial, local and interpersonal relationships. I am speaking about salving the attachments to what is left of your soul here. Ok, I am also talking about lying through teeth so well gritted that your gums bleed from the pressure. But regardless of the level of cynicism YOU might have to deal with (and I defy you to top mine), we are talking about the need to produce on time and in order something that at the very least seems to appears to be life affirming. I mean, what else can you give if not a mild confirmation that there might be a shred of hope somewhere, somehow, some time?

In any case, the best idea we came up with right there the middle of what was the last of a three-day be-nice-to-Tanya-at-all-costs deal, was to send Egor out to get a "svezhi" cake for the big day. Ok, ok, I will translate for you: "Svezhi" means fresh, but I guess I also need to translate to you why I needed to make a big deal out of the status of a cake which would be from our local bread store and the answer is very simple: The stuff you buy from the bakery is not always as new as one might hope it would be.

I guess I should back up even further. This bread store I am speaking of (I will not call it a bakery both for esthetic and technical reasons) is just across the street from the apartment. It has been the family habit from time immemorial (though obviously only out of deference to its location), that this should be the bread shop that bread is bought from. The problem though is that the stuff you buy from them is 95% crap. I am not talking just about sour grapes stemming from price raising here, I am saying that the bread is generally crap; it is just not tasty and for dammed sure it is never, ever fresh. But you go there and you pay for this because this is the way that it is. Yes, yes, yes you Milinkevich voting Euro-bastards; yes, it is a state bread shop! Yes, you are right that the quality of the service might absolutely be connected to its immunity from competition and that it therefore has no material connection to its customers other than through management's berating its sellers to sell more of their crap, industrial product. I mean we can see the place from our window and on Sunday mornings, that other "special time" for us when we try to put together a nice sit-down for the family, we wait to see when the truck comes in the vain hope that there might, maybe, perhaps, just this once actually be something fresh on it for us. And this is AFTER 8:00!

So what I am saying is that the quality of the product of our local state bread shop is generally in question and therefore, when faced with a situation of needing something nice for a change, there is simply not the sort of consumer trust you would like to have available. What I am saying is that we know that you can and will get screwed on a cake no matter how hard we may beg and plead for something better. And I have. I have gone to them and asked them to tell me the schedule for when there will be some fresh bread as opposed to yesterday's stale leftovers. I have begged them for this apparently state classified information. I have even told them that I would be willing to rearrange my life and my business schedule just to be able to actually have some fresh bread now and then.

But there I was sending Egor out on Thursday afternoon to get something "FRESH" for mom's birthday. I made the point several times in fact that fresh, svezhi, nice, was what was wanted, needed, required and asked for:

"Now listen Egor, just this once do not worry about the money. What is important is that the cake is nice, do you understand? Do not worry about money because today and today only, this is not the most important thing."

And he went out and he came back and… The cake was crap.

That was an amazing moment. We actually had gone through the motions of making several cuts into the cake that Egr had come back with before I could not control it any more. What the hell was this? We could all see the thing was dry and lifeless. Even as the knife was working its way down through each of the tasteless layers, you could see that the event had not one microgram of happiness for anybody at the table.

"Stop!" I said. I had to say it twice. "This cake is crap."

Egor, Anya and Tanya looked at me for a second.

"I don't want to eat this cake. This is not what I wanted. I wanted a fresh piece of cake. I don't understand why I have to eat this." Tanya looked down at where the knife was sticking out of the cake. She had already made four cuts but had not yet removed any slices.

"What if we take it back?" I asked. Another pause. Egor was the one who had bought it and he knew that it was botched job but in that moment his 12-year-old sensibilities were solely occupied by getting this thing into his mouth as quickly as possible. But Tanya was intrigued. Normally she would not have been but this was and had been her birthday for the last several days and therefore she was already high on her own, artificially-built-up (This is MY birthday, dammit) self worth. Her attention, I had.

"What if we say that this is not what we wanted?" I said. "What if we simply take it back and tell them that we asked for svezhi and simply are not satisfied with this particular cake's…uh…svezhiness?"

"Would you actually do this?" Tanya asked. She had an evil smile on her face which was a sure sign of happiness.

"Egor, did we or did we not ask you to ask for svezhi?"

"Da…"

"Did you ask them for svezhi?"

"Da. I said this but the lady there said that all of the cakes behind the glass were fresh."

"Did you ask if it was made today?"

"Nyet. No, I said it. I don't know. I just said fresh."

"But you did say svezhi? Absolutely, positively you said that you wanted svezhi?"

"Da."

"Then to hell with them. They took advantage of a 12-year-old and sold him yesterday's cake for his mother's birthday. I am mad as hell and I am not going to take it any more." Tanya looked at the cake box. There was a tag on it saying when it was made.

"Yes, it was made yesterday. It says that the cake was prepared yesterday at six in the morning."

"This cake is 36 hours old!? How can they say that it is fresh?"

"If you are taking it back, make sure you don't lose the tag."

"This is your mother's birthday, Egor. Why should we feed her an inferior cake if we don't have to?"

Egor's eyes were shifting back and forth between me and the cake. I might have been speaking of upsetting the status quo on USSR terms, but I was for sure upsetting Egor's conception of available cake.

"Come on, Egor, let's go make a point."

The boy looked at me with complete and utter disbelief. This was not disbelief containing any sort of admiration; it was more like he couldn’t understand why there was something more important to do than to just eat the cake we had. But Tanya for sure was into it. I was defending her honor. And for damned sure, getting one's honor defended in Belarus is not an everyday happenstance.

"I think he is serious Egor." She said to him as she was putting the plastic cover back on the cake. Egor made as big a stink-pie face as you will ever see but nevertheless, he grudgingly got up and put on his coat to go with me.

To be continued…

3 Comments:

Anonymous Anonymous said...

Adam, I sympathize with your desire for "fresh" birthday cake. When I was on the train from Warsaw to Minsk, I had the opportunity to buy some bread from a vendor that hopped the train selling beer, chicken, pickles, beer, etc. I bought 2 loaves of bread. One of them was fresh and
delicious, and another as "rougher" or "staler" tasting. My Belarusian cabin companion told me that at the end of the day in the bakery, the old bread was "re-ground", and re-baked. I told him that this sounded like a good idea to prevent waste. He told me this was a "poor" idea, meaning it was done for economic necessity, rather than quality. He told me the lesser quality loaves were sold at a substantial discount
and that they were the meals of "poor people" who didn't have much money.

Your article implies that lesser quality baked goods were sold to you because a "state" run bakery, while proximal to you wasn't forced by "competition" to sell only top quality products. But you didn't tell us the "price" of the cake you bought. Belarus is obviously not sweating "fiat money" the way the west and America is.

What would this same cake have cost in NYC, Moscow, or London?
Freshness is important for many reasons that you have described, and I agree with you. However, do you remember living here in America where out dumpsters are overflowing with "day old" baked goods? When is the last time you have watched half of a giant birthday cake being thrown away at
the end of the night because there was no one interested enough in saving it to take it home.

Here in America we suffer from "HYPER-CALORIC MALNUTRITION". Another words , we are all pretty fat these days. Our economy is 29 Trillion
dollars in the red. In Belarus the government spends what it has, and sometimes "stale" cake, or bread is what is convenient and available.
However, you didn't tell us how the taste of this product when "fresh" would have compared to what would be obtained in an America bakery. For that matter, allow me to remind you of what a loaf of quality bread costs in Panera Bakery, sometimes between 5-8$ for the same product you
pay much less for.

News Reels of Soviet bread lines were nailed into our western psyches in the cold war. Their implication was that if there was a line outside a bread store, then the people must be starving, and communism must be failing. The truth of the matter was, the bread everyone was "lining up" for was sold at a ridiculously low state subsidized price, and the quality was through the roof. This same bread was very nutritious and probably delicious.

The State controlled satellite bakery sold you an old cake. But I
don't think your story represents all of the pertinent facts that a reader should be aware of when considering the validity of this same bakery, namely, the cost of the products, the quality of the products when FRESH and STALE. And what would an analogous product have cost in the Ukraine, Russia, or any other CIS country where the citizens don't have the opportunity to buy either fresh or stale products at the prices you have outside your home.

I am not unsympathetic to Egor for being sold day old goods, but your
article simply doesn't present all of the facts I think well informed reader should know.

Mike

Friday, November 30, 2007  
Anonymous Jenya said...

I used to work at a local bakery here in U.K. The cakes were baked on a Monday, by the following Saturday, they were stale as **** then they were repacked for retail sale in other stores......guess what? They still got sold!

I used to drop them mid-week on the floor sometimes, thus breaking them and got to take them home..... they weren't stale then!

Friday, November 30, 2007  
Blogger Mike said...

Adam, here is an interesting link about Russia's bread market. I think it directly relates to this story. Mike Miller
http://youtube.com/watch?v=RqcJ3DiEEYw

Tuesday, December 04, 2007  

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