Thursday, January 04, 2007

So shall you live, so shall you learn…

Part 1: Tanya and the light bulbs.

We have a couple of lamps around the house that need some fixing. They have needed some fixing to be done for a while but we simply have not gotten around to it. And along with fixing the lamps we have thought about adding in some new outlets while we are at it, something all standard Russian homes are really without. These are not major projects in any way, just some minor improvements that again, we simply have not bothered to do for a long time.

But in planning out the work I noticed that I was only interested in buying 40 watt bulbs for the lamps. My reasoning is that we don't really need to flood the place with light, we just need enough to see where what we are doing and to be frank, big old glaring 75 or 100 watt bulbs are sort of overkill for home use. But why I am mentioning this is because when I first came to live here I used to complain that there was never enough light- "Turn a light on for G-d's sake!" I used to yell, "You can't even see what you are doing around here! Come on and spend the extra dollar a month, live a little!"

But now my thinking has gone from the necessity of having a little comfort excess to the mindset of practicality and real (Belarusian) necessity. Ok yes, I agree that this is cultural; I agree that it is from here. But this 40 watt lamp business has gotten to be a stickler for me. A friend even tried to argue me out of it saying that using more wattage and fewer bulbs actually is more economical. I countered that there is no way that four sixty watt bulbs is more economical than four forties and, and this is the big point, other than filling out the quota of a five bulb lamp, we don't need all the extra light!

When I spoke to Tanya about this thought, she only laughed and told me that once, when her father Victor was still alive, they had spoken about me and my western ways once- especially about the light bulbs in fact and at the time he had said about me exactly this: He will live, So he will learn. This was worth a real laugh for Tatyana, but I guess he was right.

Part two: About making $20 a month and pooling the money together.

This conversation about Victor actually took place very early in the morning. I had woken at three and had done some work, but now it was 5:30 and I was wanting out of work, but still was not sleepy enough to drop off; a bit too early for a bike ride or breakfast, a bit too tired to try and do more work. So I lay there with Tatyana enjoying the quiet of the predawn morning. What follows is at least a decent representation of what we were talking about:

"You know Goodman," She started, she calls me Goodman, "I saw on the television last night that they sent so many train wagons of sugar back from Russia."

"I read about this on the internet."

"They said that the reason for this was that we had put some different things into the sugar, like using beets and such to add to the load. But I don't believe this. I think that this has to do with the gas deal and the oil."

"I do too. This is an absolutely terrible moment for Belarus. The Americans have passed their Patriot act, the Europeans have made trade sanctions, the Canadians literally hate us and now the Russians are gleefully putting the screws to us. Tough situation to be sure."

"We really don't have such money to pay for this do we?"

"I don't think so, no."

"I don't think so either. You know, I remember when Egor was perhaps Anya's age, there were times when I would work at the bookstore and we would have no customers. Nobody had money to buy books. And at the end of the month they would pay us maybe twenty bucks. And this would be for one month's work. And you know it was exactly, exactly enough to pay only for the apartment, but not a kopek more. So you know we had nothing. Me and my mom and dad and my sister would put all our money together, but it was still like nothing. My dad had a good pension because he was in the war and because he worked for thirty years on the river. But what did we eat? Potatoes and porridge and nothing more. Yesterday I was in the milk store and I heard a seller crying. There was maybe two million in theft that had to be paid ($1000). She was crying: "How can I pay this? It is impossible; who can pay such money?"

"They have been really nice to me lately." I said, "They even gave me a free plastic bag at the bread shop the other day. I never had THAT happen before. And yesterday, the girl at the vegetable shop actually suggested a cheaper kind of cooking oil rather than the more expensive. Can you believe that? She was actually being helpful. I was thinking that maybe it was New Years, but maybe it is just that everybody knows that we are going to have to pull together for this one."

"She really just gave you bag?"

"Yes, I had some things in my hands and she just gave me a bag."

"That's so interesting…"

Part 3: Our people used to be so fat…

"I remember," She went on, "In the times of the Soviet Union, our people were fat. The women especially were always a little fat. Perhaps the men too. It is not like you saw when you came here. You came here in the bad times when we all became so thin. There was nothing to eat. These last two years I have noticed that we have eaten better and our people started to become a little fat again. Maybe this gas deal will turn out to be good for us and we will all lose a few kilos."

"Maybe we could make some money selling the Gazprom diet and recipe book."

"How did we ever live that way? How did we live through it? And see what happened these last few years? People became so terrible with each other. The Doma Provlenya comes to our house and tells us we must break this fence, we must break that fence. "You are living in the middle of the town!" They cried, like we were nothing. Oh, look how special we were. To them this was a new time and now we were so rich. Now we have $150 for our work and this means that we are rich. They talked to us as if they were millionaires; that we needed to live as though we were millionaires. We lived how we could all our lives and for more than 10 years on nothing, from our gardens. But now we needed to act as though we lived in the middle of a rich town. We needed to buy a new fence; we couldn't build with what we had like we did forever. And we had to paint everything! They made us spend money! And now look at our house; the paint is peeling off the walls from the idiot job they paid for and now it looks worse than I did when it was just old and we had no money for new…"

Part 4: Ketchup…

"I am stuck on ketchup." I said, "I still have a fixation with ketchup. We have been able to buy ketchup for a year now but I am still stuck on it. I have lived here through my own thick and thin, I remember everything, and during this time I have had to get used to making do without in many more ways than I would ever have thought possible. This business with the bags all costing a few rubles is one thing; nothing is free, nothing comes with. "All included" is actually a new phrase in the Russian lexicon, but it is not a part of standard use by any respect. Try buying a hot dog here in Pinsk and you will notice that you have to pay for every single thing that goes on top of it, including the mayonnaise and the ketchup. You always pay for the ketchup. "Do you want ketchup? That will be 50 rubles." And really, if you actually agree to spend the money for a whole bottle, the truth is that the ketchup you buy is not all that good."

"I think they steal some of the ketchup out and replace it with water."

"Without question. But regardless of this I am still stuck on ketchup. In fact, now that I am thinking about it, I have actually experienced some sort of physical withdrawal symptoms while sitting at a table with friends and seeing a bottle of real ketchup on the table. Can you understand what I am saying? I understood that there was no money for ketchup so we just didn't have it. Ok, fine; we live without. But you know, I go over to David's house and you see a bottle of real ketchup there on the table and it's like… I don't know, it certainly must be as it is for guys who are into coke and then stop. You can be off the stuff for years but then one day you go to a party and there is the mirror on the table and someone has their face down into it and is sniffing up a fat line and boom, I don't care how many sessions with the therapist you have had: YOU WANT IT! I probably have the same thing with sour crème. I like sour crème but it's, you know, 75 cents."

Part 5: Belarusians eat their food without sauce…

Well, this is not true, they use mayonnaise a lot. But mayonnaise is not hard to make: Eggs, oil… You have mayonnaise…

Anyway, everything's going to be ok. Saw the president on TV talking. Everything is going to be ok. He wants to fight for this thing; the rights to the pipeline, the land under the pipes. We are going to fight for our rights and do what needs to be done. Everything is going to be ok. Really… Really it is…

More soon…