Monday, October 01, 2007

A second instance of rational independent thought…

The statue of Lenin in Brest, just around the corner from the archives
I did mention in my last post that I had two encounters with a local which had impressed me because of their clear thinking and initiative. I don't want to sound like I am down on people, at least I know in my heart that I don't wish to be. But it does get frustrating here sometimes. I know also that if I say those words, the ones about how Belarus can get frustrating, that I fall into the old trap; "Belarus bad, Belarus bad, Belarus bad". I understand how things can be bubblegum here but to me, all of that supposedly rich texture they offer from the opposition side is equally empty and sweet; just because the news is negative doesn't necessarily make it news. Of course this applies to me as well, but the point is that what you do want is that the place you live in functions well enough to support a reasonable existence for all of its inhabitants. Of course the word "all" has its problems, inherently from the western winner-take-all philosophy but also from the not entirely oblique Russky side, which also needs to include the drunks and criminals (and now the drug dealers). And I include myself in this because I also need to make a living. After five years of thin without thick and without even a normal path that I walk through, I am finding it all to be rather frustrating. I have eyes, can I not see? I have ears, do I not hear? I have a vent, should I not use it?

And so you know, I vent.

I suppose what is the most frustrating to me is the issue of getting started doing some teaching around here. It is the most mind blowing thing to me to be given such an arbitrarily hard time about it. And I do mean arbitrary because for the life of me, I see that the problem exists on both sides, theirs and mine, and that even though the solution is right there they simply do not allow for the fix. Why? This is what I don't understand except that it seems to be because of the same mental problems and insecurities I wrote about in the bread and butter story. It's bullshit is what it is and it just drives me up the wall.

And every day I get more and more examples. Just yesterday, for instance, Egor brought a friend home from his chess tournament to hang out and use the computer chess program for a while. I won't say the boy's name because he is eleven and I like him and I like his dad and because he went to the Republic chess tournament last year and is a very serious young boy. But he comes in the house and just for fun I decided to greet him in English rather than Russian and he simply couldn’t do it. Ok, let's give the boy the benefit of a doubt and say that it was Sunday morning and he had just played a tournament game and these "How are you doing/How was the chess tournament/Did you win?" questions would be coming from way out of the blue. But my point is that even after allowing for a moment to digest the fact that I wanted to speak to him in English, the boy was unable to grasp even the slightest hint of what I was saying to him. And this includes the questions, and I am not joking- Do you study English in school? and How many years have you studied? If the answer had come back that he didn't do English but rather German or Spanish or French, I would have been ok with this. But after agreeing to change the conversation back to Russian I learned that he had been reading, writing, speaking and supposedly listening to the English language for five years! Do you understand what I am saying here? Five years of attending classes for the purposes of being able to communicate in the English language and the kid could not understand a single word I was saying.

And he is not the only one! This is the way it is here.

And me? My people in Poland wrote essays in English in their first year of study; not perfect, but they had enough of a vocabulary and grammatical understanding to attempt a thought. And these were Polaks! And you want local results? My guy Egr sat and bullshitted with my father after only 18 months with me! And believe me when I tell you that my father DOES NOT speak a word of Russian. He may speak like a Russian, but the words are only English. And I am not good enough to help? I don't understand English well enough?

The real truth is that they are hiding behind their bureaucracy and it is pure bullshit too. The truth is they took all of the money out of the budget and all the hours away from the teachers but rather than say they were downsizing, they decided to play elitist with those who managed to hang and called it UPGRADING TO A HIGHER STANDARD OF EDUCATION. But hey, I got the qualifications THEY told me to get. I did the work and paid for the course. To me, it' is just that they refuse to take responsibility, even for their promises.

(By the way, that coffee maker my father sent out finally came and IT IS AMAZING! No more aluminum pots for us; we are officially toddy people from now on.)

But I digress…


I ran into that second bit of extraordinary, extra effort and initiative over at the archives in Brest. I mentioned that we were in Brest last week. The reason for the trip was for registering the name of our potential "private" teaching business (sigh), we are attempting to set up in place of teaching at the schools. But because we would be in town, we also decided to check into the archives for our friend Bob. We have been helping Bob with a family lineage search but he has not been receiving much news. What he is looking for are any remaining family members who may yet still reside in the territories of the beautiful and interesting Republic of Belarus. Bob had been writing to the archives in vain for quite some time but then Tanya and I got involved locally and we found that getting face to face seemed to actually do the trick of getting things started. However, we also found out that searching the Belarusian archives can get a little spendy; there are hefty fees just for getting started, additional fees for individual documents of up to $40 and all of it without any guarantee of results. So far Bob had agreed to invest several hundred dollars in the archives but had only received back a few stray birth and death certificates, none of which listed any peripheral names- the real reason why we wanted to see such documents. I should add that if you actually want a photocopy of one of these documents in your hand, there is also a charge for that. Yikes.

My part initially was simply making sure that the money got to where it was supposed to go and to stay in touch with the archives by phone. But as we were there, I said I would stick my head in to see what was happening. I think that my only intention was to ask if it was possible to focus on things like addresses or occupations, things that we could at least use for leads when we got down to the business of doing the leg/detective work. But I never got to even ask any questions because from the moment we said we were with Bob, his family name registered with Natalia Vasilivna, the head archivist, and she became very nervous and agitated and started in explaining that the reason we had not heard anything was because the search had not been paid for. They actually had found quite a lot of things but they had all simply been sitting on a desk.

"But I paid already."

"You did?"

"Yes, I paid at least six weeks ago, right from the moment we started."

"Six weeks?"

"Yes, maybe eight weeks, I don't remember exactly. But absolutely I paid. And the bank said there was a problem but they told me it was fixed. They called me about this maybe two days after we put the money in and asked me to come back to the bank. But when I got there, they told me that they had made some calls to their main bank and assured me all was cleared up. I didn't ever really know what the problem was except that they said there was one and then they said everything was ok."

This sent Natalia Vasilivna running upstairs to try and deal with the problem. Tanya, Anya and I camped out on the bench in front of her office.

"We have never had any problems before…" said the receptionist, a rather large, unhappy lady who was sitting in a yellowish office behind a sheet of glass. She was very round, had short gray hair and I got the feeling she didn’t like me very much. I was obviously some kind of trouble maker. The archives were as silent as a tomb except for every footstep which ratted and echoed throughout the concrete stairwell that went up through the center of the seven story building. Anya was running back and forth playing peek-a-boo with me, which I was enjoying but which only drew sneers from the receptionist. Obviously Anya was a troublemaker too.

After a few minutes Natalia Vasilivna returned and said that they still could not find the payment but that she had called the bookkeeper, who was out at the moment. She would be back in just a few minutes and we should continue to wait. There was another woman who had come to get a document and Natalia Vasilivna asked her several questions very quickly, anxious to get to the bottom line. It turned out to be an obvious issue and she quickly pointed out the form that needed to be filled out, ran to her office to take a phone call and then ran back up the stairs again.

Apparently my friend Bob was a celebrity because there were several other employees now coming to take a peek at us. I still had not said anything other than Bob's name. I got it in my head that I wanted to make a joke but I didn't know the word which was the main punch line. I wanted to say that it certainly seemed as though the archives were a pretty exciting place but I didn't know the Russian word for excitement. I asked Tanya but she said she didn't know what the word meant herself.

"You know, exciting; like when you go to the circus or to a ball game and something happens and everybody gets happy and jumps up and starts screaming. This is excitement. What is the word in Russian?"

"I don't know this word." Tanya was bored.

I tried a couple of more times to try and figure it out, approaching the issue from several directions but each time she insisted that she didn't know it. I went over to the receptionist and asked her. She had never stopped scowling at me and when she saw me coming towards her, she started to shuffle the papers on her desk. She really didn't need to speak to me.

"Listen, what is the word in Russian for, like when you go to a football game and someone scores a goal and everyone jumps up and starts to yell…"

'I am not a football fan" She said.

"Ok, it doesn't have to be football, I can be a circus or a marriage or any happy event. There is a specific word. It is excitement in English but I don't know how to say this in Russian." She was staring blankly at me. "You know, it is when your blood gets hot and everything is going really fast and you really feel alive and interested and…"

'We have no such word. I don't understand what you are talking about." She got up and left her cubicle.


About this time Natalia Vasilivna came back with the bookkeeper. The bookkeeper was very confident that there was simply no record of a payment being made. She asked if I remembered if I had paid in dollars or in rubles. I honestly didn't remember. Now that she mentioned it though, I did remember that this had been an issue but all I remembered about it was that I handed over the money. I didn't remember if I had given them dollars or rubles. Well, she said, this could have been the problem. The account was set up to take foreign currencies. They had received money from Australia and Canada as well as the US and it had never been a problem before. I honestly didn’t remember except that I paid them whatever the number they had asked me for and that it was around $160 or the Belarusian equivalent. She wanted to try calling the bank. Wed told her it was Belvnyesheconom on Sovietska Street. They both went back to their respective offices. We sat and waited some more.

After about 10 minutes the bookkeeper came back and said that she had spoken to the bank and all was in order from them but still there had been no records of this here and she had been through September already four times.

"The payment was made in August." We all said this to her at the same time. August?! It was only another five minutes before Natalia Vasilivna came down holding a small packet of papers. She was smiling. So was the bookkeeper.

"We really found a lot." She said showing me the four pages of lineage they had uncovered. I glanced at it and saw that they had included, without having been asked, whole family trees, birth and death dates, who was related to who and best of all, where they worked and the addresses in Pinsk where they lived before the war. "We had been so worried. We didn’t know what to do."

That made for a good day. And after, we found that the name registration hadn't had any problems either. When I got home I went ahead and translated the lineage for Bob so he read it straight away and mailed him the original copies. He was on line when I sent the e-mail so I go a response from him in perhaps five minutes:

Dear Adam,
Thank you. You have no idea what joy this brings to me.

Olga U** was born 1 July 1915 (the record has it listed as 1 June 1915), she is my mother. Dyonizy or Denis D***, born 14 May 1914, is my father. On 1 Sept. 1939 Germany attacked Poland. Pinsk was then in Poland. He was in the Polish Army. Victor D***, born 6 March 1942, was my brother. My mother, father, and Victor were shipped to Germany in 1943 to work in a slave labor camp. Victor died in Augsburg, Germany, on 31 Dec. 1943. The young and the old did not last long. My people were considered subhumans.


I guess that's the difference between giving a little service or not…

Oh, and the word is Obodrenie. Здесь mного ободрение. (It's pretty exciting around here). That's what I was trying to say.

More soon…