Sunday, January 20, 2008

The end of the cake story…

So what happened that day? I am of course talking about the little war I started with the bread shop around the corner…

Ok, if you don't know (or don't remember) the story, it goes like this: Back in late November I sort of flipped out when the local bread shop sold Egor a stale cake for Tanya's birthday. After, I stopped going to them entirely and started frequenting another shop a little further away. This second shop has not only fresher and better tasting breads and cakes, but as you can see in the film, they are very pleasant and when possible, have no problem allowing for a little individual attention.

But as to what I actually did that day, well, I yelled at them a little and this has sort of followed me. This is not to say it has made life worse, just the opposite, it has gotten me a bit more respect around town. Maybe I struck a chord with people.

But as to what happened on that day, well, when we saw that the cake was bad, I put that stale piece of cake back in its box, grabbed my coat and told Egor to get his and the two of us walked straight back across the street to the cake shop.

"What the hell is this?" I asked? I had walked straight in and started talking without bothering about the people who were in line. They all stopped and looked at what was wrong. One of the women, a lady I have never particularly liked, straight away understood what was happening and, being who and what she is, directly decided to deflect the attack elsewhere. Rule number one in Belarus: Point the blame elsewhere.

"I don't understand." she said, "The boy picked that one out specifically. He pointed at it and said that he wanted that one."

"Did he ask you for a fresh cake?"

"Yes, he did. And that is a fresh cake." I put it on the counter and pulled the lid off. We had already cut the cake but had not eaten any of it. I held the lid up and showed her where the date sticker showed that the cake was just beginning its third day of life.

"You want to tell me this is a fresh piece of cake. It says it was from six in the morning two days ago."

"But that's fresh."

"This is fresh? This is not fresh. This piece of shit is dry as a bone."

"But you don't understand; we have laws!" This stopped me for a moment. I may have been angry but I am always a sucker for a rational argument.

"What exactly does that mean?"

"The law states that we can sell any cake as fresh for five days from the day that it is made. Legally, the cake is classified as fresh during these five days."

"A five day old piece of cake is fresh?"

"Legally we can call it fresh."

"Wait a minute. I understand that you might legally be able to sell a cake for five days because there would not be any danger or health risks, but you can't say that it is fresh. I mean, fresh is fresh. This mean new. A five day old cake might not be a risk to your health but obviously there is also no danger of it tasting good, don't you think? There is a difference."

"No, you don't understand: The law says we can call it fresh."

"So you are telling me that because you have a legal right to do so, when a 12-year-old boy comes in to your store to buy a "fresh" cake for his mother on her birthday, you feel no particular moral disturbance at hading him a three-day-old cake?"

"He didn't say he wanted it from today; he just said "fresh"."

"Oh, he didn't say the word "today". I see what you are saying. But, what? I am nobody? I am not kind to you? You don't need my business? For me on Tanya's birthday, you couldn't discern the difference?"

"He asked for fresh cake. According to the law, everything that was in the glass cabinet was fresh. So I asked him which one he wanted and he pointed to that one."

"Did he tell you it was for his mother's birthday?"

"No." This is what she said. I looked at Egor and asked him if he had mentioned it was for his mother.

"I don't remember." This is what he said. The woman smiled. She had won back a few meters of territory. No wonder she was so quick to screw the boy over in the first place. Egor was easy.

"Did you tell them it was for your mother or not?"

"Yes!" He said that loudly. He didn't like any of this. The old cake was just fine already. We should just go home and eat it.

"He did say it was for his mother but he didn't say it was for her birthday." This was another of the ladies who worked there. This other lady has always been nice. She was a friend. Perhaps in a perfect world, she would have been the one to get the cake for Egor and none of this would have happened.

"But he did say that it must be fresh, right?"

"You don't understand; we have laws. The law says that…"

"I understand exactly what you saying." I interrupted. "Everybody wants new cakes, but not every cake gets bought. So, your point is that rather than lose money, you would prefer to unload an old cake on a loyal customer than try and find something nice. It's the money here that is important. Believe me, I understand; if you don't sell the cakes, you will lose the money and so what you ARE in fact saying is that the business of selling cakes supercedes any other human situation up to and including allowing for a genuinely fresh and tasty cake for a 12-year-old boy's mother's birthday party. Would you say that this is the case?"

She was standing there silently pleading for me to stop. She really is such a nice lady. But the other one spoke up anyway:

"He didn't say he wanted a cake from today…"

And for me, you know, that was about it.

"Here." I put the cake on the counter. "Keep it. I don't want it."

"If you wanted your money back, you should not have cut it…"

"I don't want my money back. I don't care about the money. I cared about the cake and the party and the birthday."

"You can't leave that cake here. What do you want us to do with it?"

"Eat it. You made it. Consider it a present celebrating Tanya's birthday."

"We can't do that."

"Why not?"

"Look," the kind lady said. She had scooped off a bit of the icing on a knife and was holding it up for me to see. "The icing is still moist. You can see it. It is still a little fresh."

"You want to tell me that is fresh? Taste it yourself and tell me it is a great cake." She hesitated for a long moment.

"I can't do that."

"Why not? Is it not fresh? Is it not tasty? Go ahead," I said to her "taste it yourself."

She looked at the cake that was on the knife and then back at me. Probably she understood that this was a real and genuine moment in her employment history at the bread and cake shop. I say the word probably because I really can't say for sure that she understood what I was asking her to do. If she actually put the cake in her mouth, she would be forces to show everyone there what she really thought of the cake. I guess there was also a matter of trust; I mean, I might have poisoned the cake or something like that. But then again, once we actually get into the realm of trust, we go right back to their taking advantage of Egor's innocence and passivity when they sold him an old cake in the first place.

She never took a bike. Instead she only looked at me with wet eyes, pleading for some sympathy. Of course it was sympathy. That was all that was needed. She, this particular lady, not the one who sold the cake to Egor, knew better than anyone how lousy their products are. She knew they were getting by on habit and location more than on quality. And she also probably knew that this whole situation was the fault of a system that does not allow for changes on the local level to accommodate for any individual's needs. This bread shop was a servant of the state, following state orders and state plans. Probably even the eating of this crappy bread could also be called a form of state service. Or if not, this thought should at least have equal weight to the customer's not knowing better (or caring) about the difference.

But I didn't go for the sympathy. Why should I? Where was the sympathy for Tanya or for Egor? Where was the sympathy for a 12-year-old boy's mission to find something nice for his mother's birthday table? Or really, where has there ever been any sympathy for me over the last few years here? I am not going to sit here and say that here is better than there or which is better than what, all I am saying is that I did grow up in a place that actually did have some forms of checks and balances and this meant that there was such a thing as quality assurance. Or, if that was not a good way to say it, I could at least say that the necessity to compete with other shops would in any other world demand that there should be genuine value either in price or in quality.

"Then give to these nice people or eat it yourself."

"We can't do that."

"Well, in any case, I won't eat this shit. And that is the most important thing. And so, if we all understand each other, I would like to wish everyone in the store a happy birthday from Tanya. Please help yourself to some cake if you would like. It's on me and as the store says that it is fresh, bon appetite."

And with that, I walked out and of course, have not been back since.

Is there hard feelings? Yes, I suppose there are and in some way, I know in terms of the local culture I am to blame for rocking the boat a little. On the other hand, if you are willing to walk a little further, starting from 8:00 every morning but Mondays, they have fresh, still warm factory bread over at the market. I don't like their white all that much but the black is possible and sometimes that have new bubliky, a circular roll which is kind of like a bagel for someone without taste buds. Or of course, we can just wait get something really good from our friends at the real bread shop next to Anya's kindergarten. I know they are late, but at least they tell you the truth about what is fresh and what is not fresh. And the bread is actually better.

But really, what are we talking about? Why is it so impossible to say that a couple of thick slices of fresh tasty bread, some butter or jam, some juice and a hot cup of coffee makes a difference? How much more do we really need in the morning to remind ourselves that it is better to be alive, to be out and about, to be with people? I mean, it is not as if I am asking for all that much, am I? Just a little slice of something nice now and then. That's all. Just a little something fresh.

More soon...