Saturday, September 29, 2007

Sometimes you actually get it...

A simple roll; as yet unbuttered
I know I have been very negative for a long, long time about living in Pinsk. I have said many things that, though true, have not been very complimentary about the people of the town or about how they go about doing business. But I would like today to tell about two incidents which to me were exceptional and very professional. Perhaps those of you who read this in the west will think that what I am about to say is simply normal and the way it is supposed to be and probably you are right. But it is not generally the norm for here and this is why I wanted to write about it.

The first event came last Wednesday as we were heading over to the Gorispolcom, which I guess is basically the equivalent of the mayor's office. We were going there to get started on the paperwork necessary to open a private business in Pinsk. The business will be teaching English but it needs to be set up just as if I were selling paper products or importing power tools and so there are a lot of papers that need to be filed and plans put in order. On the way though we decided to stop I and have breakfast at the Zolotoy Kolos- maybe the golden seed pod. This is a private bakery that has both sweet and non-sweet breads, candies, cakes and even blinnies for sale. As their fare is made up entirely of sweet snacks, their customer list is made up of college girls- all of them smiling guiltily at each other over the indulgence. We hadn't eaten breakfast and so we decided that we should eat first rather than to go and face the bureaucracy nervous and hungry.

At the Zolotoi Kolos they have two cashiers; one that services the breads and cakes on the left and the other which deals in coffee and blinnies over to the right. To us what this meant was that we had to split up, with Tanya going to one register to order coffee and me standing in line at the other to get the breads. I had to call over twice to ask her what she wanted because she refused to answer the first time because she thought my voice was too loud.

Now, Tanya likes sweets but I do not and so after choosing for her the chocolate croissant she wanted I asked for a pair of simple rolls, buttered. Now, here was the great moment because at this bakery you see, they do not sell buttered rolls. They have rolls, which are on the left side, and they have butter, which is available for the blinnies over on the right, but they have no particular planned combination of the two. Normally in such a situation I would have been informed either that what I asked for would not be available or, that the request itself was high comedy, especially as it was coming from an "outsider" such as myself. Yes, facing similar situations I have several times gone into my best Jack Nicholson from "Five Easy Pieces" and explained how the solution to the problem was very simple and only their refusal to initiate motion towards that solution was keeping us all suppressed and unhappy. My conversation with the department head at Polesskie State University the week before was one of these. But to my astonishment, the girl behind the counter actually made an on-the-spot field decision. Without a second's hesitation she decided that even though a request for bread with butter was unusual, it was really not such a big deal if the bread was on the left side and the butter was on the right (there is no divider by the way; both the left and right registers share a common walking space of no more than two meters); the solution to he problem was simply to use some of the butter which was normally put on the blinnies and charge me for it just as if I had ordered a blinnie and not two rolls. I was impressed. I am telling you; this was real personal initiative. Her fellow worker though was not so quick to grasp the simplicity. But rather than quitting on her plan, the girl at the left register simply explained again that all that was needed was to get some butter from the right side, slather it onto the rolls with a knife and charge for it exactly as if it were headed into a blinnie. The second girl's face still had sort of a blank expression- It is not just that these sorts of improvisations are not normal, they are also probably against some rule somewhere. So still not clear, they argued for a few moments as to whether the butter should come from the right side to the bread on the left or whether the bread should be sent to the right side to be buttered over there. Eventually it was decided that it was much smarter to take the bread to the butter as all of the tools (the butter, the knife, a cutting board) were already in place. This meeting accomplished, the second girl took my two rolls over to the right side, ostensibly, to be buttered. I went with Tanya to our table empty handed and watched her start in on her chocolate croissant.

After a few minutes we noticed that the job of buttering the rolls was simply not happening. The butter-knifer was having some serious difficulties with the situation and was talking the problem over with a fellow worker. When they noticed that I was looking, they stepped back out of sight, hiding in back of the coffee machine. Being a natural problem solver, I went over to see if there was anything I could do to help. At a glance I could see that there had not been a whole lot of work accomplished. Now, this was not because the designated butterer was busy doing something else. On the contrary dealing with the bread butteing issue was the only game in town. The problem was that they had been discussing how to deal with the issue of actually putting the butter onto the bread. Apparently the newly elected butterer was not very confident of her skills in this regard and was worried that she might get into trouble should she do something wrong. I suppose normally, because the butter is for the blinnies and not the rolls, they were lacking a specific protocol about proper buttering technique. And this is a big deal: Because the girl would never have been trained in proper bread buttering skills, this would create a situation where there was an issue of personal responsibility. The blame for screwing up and buttering badly would have to go somewhere and because there had never been a bread-butter master to show her the proper form or a boss to take the fall for not having supplied her propper bread buttering knowledge, my butter girl could be singled out as an incompetent roll butterer and this could eventually end up in her record. She of course did not want that to happen.

When I came over though, she did actually begin motions pertaining to buttering a piece of bread. However, she was not actually administering the butter but rather, only turned the rolls this way and that in her hands. There was obviously some sort of complication. After a moment she decided that I was probably a good person to ask about such things (as an outsider I could always be easiy blamed for screw-ups) and inquired politely if I wanted the rolls cut open and the butter placed inside. I agreed that this would be nice.

I personally have never mastered the task of talking while I am working and have always admired people can. As she began applying butter to the first roll, the newly appointed butter-putter-onner started telling me about how unusual a request this was but that it was really no big deal because they have butter over here on the right side because they sometimes put it on the blinnies; it would not be a problem putting blinnie-butter on a roll because they could just charge me for the butter just the same as if it was going on a blinnie. The butter must have been very cold because she was having a hard time getting it to spread. I suppose the blinnies are hot when they drop a tab on it so it melts a bit. Not wanting to break the bread with the cold butter though required a technical decision on her part and not wanting to appear out of the loop (everyone else was starting to make decisions, weren't they?), my butter girl decided against slicing the cubes and laying the slivers over the bread, and went instead with the much better idea of laying out whole cubes of butter, end to end, and then smashing the cubes together with a knife until there was no bread showing on the roll.

"Isn't that quite a lot of butter?" I asked. She smiled at me. She had not even finished the first roll and there was an astounding amount of butter on it.

"We don't usually have people ask for butter and bread." She was still trying to scoop more butter out of the cold plastic container.

"Actually… thank you, no, really… that is quite enough…" I said, wanting her to stop adding butter. I guess I must have spoken too softly (I didn't want to hurt her feelings by being too critical) or maybe she wasn't really listening but in any case she continued to lay the butter on the bread and all the time telling me that what I had ordered was not so terrible and that I had a right to put butter on my bread if this was what I wanted. I tried again-

"Listen…" I said smiling, "I think you have done a great job and in fact, I think that is probably… you know…quite enough butter already." She still was not listening.

"The problem is," she pointed out, gestuiring with the knife while hunting for the last remnants of butter from the butter cup, "the butter is very cold and so it doesn't spread very well. I do not want to break the bread…" She was getting into her work now. Probably, she was thinking that she had just added bread buttering into her list of practical experience. With all of the bread buttering practice she was getting on my two rolls, she seemed really to be gaining confidence that she knew knew what she was doing.

"I can see that you are doing a fine job, but… "I interjected. "but I think I would like to take the bread now because the coffee is getting cold." This seemed to make her nervous. I guess she had forgotten that there would be a time limit to the task. Her hands started to move a bit faster but there really was no more butter in the cup she was using. Not wanting to take too much more time, she quickly went to the refrigerator to get more butter. The separation between the upper and lower half of the bread was almost a centimeter already. I noticed Tanya was watching me from the table. She was almost finished with her chocolate croissant. I stared hard at my coffee hoping that I could still see a little steam coming off of it. When I looked back the butter-girl had already plunged the butter knife into a fresh buttercup for more.

"Stop." I said. She froze, knife in to the hilt. "Please, just give me the bread." She didn't move. "Now. Really. Just… that's it… just… thank you." She handed me one roll but then had to go and get a second piece of paper for the second roll.

"This is a pretty unusual order for us..." She seemed upset.

"No, really, it's fine. Super. Excellent. Really. This is exactly what I wanted… Really… thank you."

Tanya looked at what I finally received. There really was so much butter on there. I offered that the operative phrase involved was "charge me for the butter". Tanya asked me if I was really going to eat all of that butter. I told her I didn't know what else to do. If I took it off, it would break that poor girl's heart. Both the idea girl and the butter-spreader had been watching to see if I was enjoying my rolls. I had forgotten to look at what they had actually charged me for all this butter. I smiled over at both and took a bite, rolling my eyes at the pleasure eating such a fine sandwich had brought me. When we left I gave two big thank yous and a congratulations and repeated that I rarely see this kind of initiative and decision making in Pinsk. Like I said, you don't normally get this kind of service…

More soon…