Thursday, August 09, 2007

Ok, I agree: It's about the money...

Had a bit of a shock the day before yesterday as I was coming home from the dacha. We have this bum here in Pinsk who always hits me up for money whenever he sees me. Please don't take offence at the word bum here. Belarus is kind of a call a spade a spade place and a guy who begs money from you every time he sees you is pretty much, you know, a bum.

I don't really mind so much but I mean, it doesn't seem to matter the day of the week or what I am doing, if this guy sees me, he asks me either to buy something from him or to just give him some money. Usually he is pretty polite about it and often I can get out of it without too much trouble by making some excuse that at least seems feasible. In fact, he has told me that he really respects me because I never have gone off on him or insulted him for being a bum. But he remains persistent and always has a big handshake and smile and doesn't seem too broken up by a no answer. But yesterday he threw me a real curveball that I was simply not expecting.

I had just taken Anya from kindergarten and we were going to the bread store and my man sees me coming and runs over to shake my hand. He is big on shaking hands. I guess I was pretty tired from all of the digging and cutting and weed whacking because even though I really didn't want to have to deal with this guy, I couldn't seem to generate any excuse making electricity to push him off. When I looked for it, all I got was a low hum; very disappointing. Unfortunately I also had a pocket full of money and was on my way for bread which meant I was on the hook for a ruble or two.

"Please give me today…" He started in as if he was straight out of a Carnegie "How to win friends and influence people" course, "oh, nothing too big. I only need something small. Very small actually. I need only… 400 rubles."

"You only want 400 rubles?" I noticed my hand was going to my pockets. I don’t know why it does things like this, but it does sometimes.

"Well, ok, perhaps you should give me 2 rubles instead." This means 2000, or a dollar. I pulled a thousand out and gave it to him. He shook may hand profusely.

But then all of a sudden he reached into his pockets and showed me a group of newly cut keys. I thought he wanted to sell them to me for the price of a bottle of wine.

"You must congratulate me," he said, "I have just received my new apartment."

I blinked a few times. I knew he lived somewhere because he game me an address one time just in case I ever needed some help. I haven't called him yet but I am sure I could find that scrap of paper should the urge to call him ever comes up.

"You received an apartment?"

Yes, they were his keys. Or his and his mother's. Apparently he had been in line for a new apartment for some time, or maybe his mother had been, but getting a set of keys to a newly built apartment had turned out to be a good excuse to drink a little and he had come out to play the street. I wasn't sure I was thrilled or anything, but I didn't want my money back.

"How much did this cost you?" I asked.

"Nothing. I didn't have to pay a thing." I examined the keys. My head was a little fuzzy still and the thought of this guy receiving a free "social" apartment seemed odd.

"Is the running water?"

"We have everything. There is city gas, running hot and cold water, a toilet. There is even a balcony." We don't even have a balcony. We don't even have city gas.

"How many rooms?"

"Two. One for me and one for my mother. We don't need to make any payments on it. We only pay the cost of heating and electricity. Maybe 60,000 in the summer and 100,000 in the winter." The thought stuck me that there wouldn't be any way for him to pay this money in general but I decided not to rain on his parade.

I offered several perfunctory congratulations and good wishes and tried walking away. He had started in shaking Anya's hand and complimenting her on what a good person she was by now. I don't know if she had any money or not but she was quick to seconded the thought that she was horosho, and added in that she was also ochen krasivia- very beautiful. Right after we finally stopped shaking hands, our man found two other drunks to show his keys to. Now doubt it will be a hot night on the old balcony tonight.

I guess there is a law against homelessness in Belarus. This isn't to say that there aren't homeless people, but basically there is a law that says every person in Belarus needs to be registered as living somewhere. It is also pretty hard to get thrown out of your place for lack of payment. Tolic, our former neighbor tried about as hard as anybody to get evicted but nothing ever happened to him other than receiving a bill for back payments. And of course falling under that train.

I think you can imagine how startling it is to have your friendly neighborhood bum come to you and say he now has a better apartment to live in than you do. On the one hand, I think that it is very nice of the government to provide housing for drunks and their elderly parents. For sure there is also a money argument that says that perhaps in a time of crisis, there might be a better solution for our money than to give this guy a newly built apartment. But basically it all just freaked me out. I have not seen him since so I suppose he is enjoying his new home. They probably gave him a color TV and cable as well.


Speaking of getting hit up for money, we had a parent-teacher meeting at the kindergarten today.

I found out about it yesterday when I was there to take Anya home. One of the women who takes care of our children told me about it. Tanya had the day off so I knew that she would want to go. I originally said that I wanted to go as well, but after a day of last-minute detailing, I still had a few things left to accomplish and at the last minute, I said I was backing out in favor of a trip to the gas pump and to the bank. Tanya straight away started in on me and even went so far as to call me a lair. I thought she was being a bit harsh but her emotions got through to me and after she left alone, I thought about it and decided I could redo my own plans, change clothes and show up for the big meeting.

When I showed up, Anya was happy to see me which is one f those indicators that says I am not screwing up too badly as a father. She also thought it was funny when I tried to sit in one of the kiddy stools they have. Most of the parents showed up for the meeting and we all had to sit on these mini-chairs.

The children all played and did their thing, just like they do every day. I guess they all thought it was pretty cool to have their moms and dads hanging around the classroom. They showed their happiness by fighting over toys until they bust into tears and wandering around with their pants around their ankles because they had just made use of thier potties but had forgoten what to do next. Anya, I guess just wanted to add somethin to the party and was shaking a rattle furiously until Tanya, sick of the noise, pulled it from her hands so violently that the head flew off and nearly hit the woman sitting next to her.

The meeting actually had nothing to do with Anya or even with the teacher's opinions and thoughts. These meetings are obligatory and part of the school curriculum and so our teacher simply read a list of suggestion from the boss of the school on areas where the children need to improve. According to the boss, it is charted as being normal for children at this age to be able to draw defined shapes, to be able to tie their shoelaces and to put their clothes away in an orderly fashion. The teacher was smiling as she read us this list of mile markers. Her smile here told us all not to worry too much if our children had not mastered these vital life skills as of yet. Of course everyone went straight into shock at the realization that they had failed completely as parents and had stifled their progeny to the point that they could not handle such basic and important functions. Oh Christ! How could we have forgetting the drawing?!

But it occurred to me that this early "You simply don't cut the mustard" part was only the warm-up part of the plan. Teaching theory says that a good instructor should create a road which their pupils travel, all the while discovering new and interesting things. As set-ups go, it was not bad but once the conversation moved to money difficulties, I pretty much got the gist of the lesson and patiently waited for the bottom line. Probably this is one of those curses you get when you were born in America. I say this because most of the parents were still dealing with their failures and had already decided to try and find a way to make amends for destroying their children's ability to cope with civilization.

In any case, once we got to the money, it was explained that new curtain rods needed to be bought, some new cups and perhaps some cool toys. I was still waiting for the bottom line when one couple basically took charge of the meeting. Apparently there were many details to be ironed out such as where the materials could be bought and if some money could be saved and what should be done about the parents who did not come to the meeting and really, why hadn't the teacher already figured out the costs for these items? The wife even stood up to make a speech at once point. I probably should have listened more to what she had to say but I was distracted by the second hand on the clock. Me and a few of the fathers looked at each other and realized that we had better get the money part worked out fast before our new leader turned the meeting into an over-nighter. One guy blurted out that really, though all of the points being made were important, in the end we were speaking of about 20,000 rubles. H suggested that perhaps 25,000 might be a better number because the extra two bucks would be there to solve any nit-picky problems which might come up. I seconded the motion and called for those who did not agree to pay to say so. Nobody did but the lady who wanted to make speeches decided that we also had to do a show of hands that we all agreed to pay. I piped up that this was a true Belarusian election because everyone agreed. It got a laugh.

Straight away our first couple began working out the details for appropriate payment plans. I suggested that perhaps it was possible to just go ahead and pay today. I guess regardless of my gullibility, I did in fact have the common sense to show up at a parent teachers meeting with some money in my pocket. However, the thought did occur to me that Tanya's freaking out at my changing my plans had more to do with her suddenly having to make the payment to the school. These other parents might be in kindergarten but Tanya has a twelve year old, so she knows the ropes.

I got up and took some money out of my bag. I didn't have 25,000 but I did have a 50,000 note but you should have seen the look on our new leader's face when I asked him if he had his 25,000. He probably didn't understand that I was only looking for change, but though he probably wanted to be on the five year payment plan, he grudgingly coughed up the $12. Probably the best part of the whole thing, really. I then shook hands all around, offered to help out in the English program if they needed me and took off. Great meeting, lots of fun, can't wait till the next one.

On the farm tomorrow, day off Saturday and Sunday I am in Minsk. I will try my best to have something to say about our great big weeklong party and golf tournament we are planning for next week. Very, very exciting time for us. And really, I have got to get a picture of these BBQ tongs I made!

More soon…