It first happened in Kazakhstan. I was standing in line at the coat check at the Almaty Opera, and a pumpkin-shaped babushka elbowed her way by and began to crowd the person in line ahead of me. Later, trying to buy tickets for a train, I found myself pushing as close as decently possible to the person queueing ahead of me and trying to make myself appear larger, the way a cat does when threatened. It was explained to us, at the time, as a Russian peculiarity; when you approach a line, you must be aware that you’re actually approaching a queue, and understand that these are different phenomena, with distinct rules. The first of these, they say, is that you must ask “who is last?” and upon identifying said person, announce “then I am behind you”; however, this is false. The first rule is that you must never think that your place in line is secure. It is always in danger of being usurped, especially if you show weakness. And although this is funny at first, after several years of elderly women with set jaws and antagonistic voices usurping your place, you understand – no, this is not usurpation. It is good old-fashioned budging. Stress wears away at the shiny newness of living in another culture. Sometimes, the otherness gets to be too much.
This past week was very Russian. It began with Very Russian Event #1; some acquaintances from a nearby village came in to town to meet up and go to the movies. It was a bit late, but we agreed to meet at 10pm and see what was playing. Unfortunately, precisely at 10 they called to report that they had been broadsided by a truck, and, although they were fine, they were going to be late. I felt consternated. In my circles, being broadsided by a truck on your way to a late date with friends would mean that they evening was over, and you were lucky to be headed home in one piece. Here, in Russia it means that they plan to come and drink tea in your kitchen for several hours, even if they arrive at 2 am.
While waiting sleepily for them to arrive, Very Russian Event #2 occurred: we noticed a vaguely piney smell coming from the bathroom, and entered to find it approaching sauna temperatures, but void of any catastrophes. About 10 minutes later, a neighbor knocked at our door, demanding to check to see if we were, through some gross oversight of the condition of our plumbing, the cause of the water gushing out of his burst pipes. Our pipes, fortunately, were in order. He left, promising us to have to the emergency plumbing service come up to have a look a bit later. I decided that was as good a reason as any to call it a day, and went to bed, leaving my S.O. to sort things out – after all, it was her friends coming over, and we were in no way obligated to stay up for emergency services to bother us. However, before I could drift off, Very Russian Event #1 continued. The friend of my S.O. knocked at the door, absolutely dying to tell us what had happened to them. Having reassured myself that no one had died in a brief conversation with them, I retired, and found out only at 4 am, when I was awoken to say goodbye to them, that their 2 hours at the scene of the accident was worth 4 hours of retelling, second-guessing, and quarreling with each other.
The next morning, I discovered the results of Very Russian Event #2 waiting in my bathroom: I had no water at all. Russian plumbers don’t work weekends, and so the water to my building had simply been turned off to await the plumbers appearance, on Wednesday.
Very Russian Event #3 happened as we returned home Sunday evening. As I was walking in the entryway door, an old woman said to me roughly “hold the door, young man!”, and then hurried up the stairs to accost my S.O. at the elevator, who quickly evaded her and followed me up the next flight of stairs. The old woman followed us up the stairs as well, shouting about how dirty it was and weren’t we ashamed to throw our trash on the stairs. As we reached our outer door, she said “I clean up here, you owe me 100 rubles for that!” I began to close the door, ignoring her, and she stuck her foot in the door and shouted “100 rubles for cleaning!”. I told her that I certainly hadn’t thrown any trash on the stairs, and wasn’t in the habit of giving strangers money. She answered “you won’t pay!?! Fine then, see what happens!” I was concerned that the woman was crazy and knew where I lived, but thought no more about it until Saturday, when I woke up to find that someone had kicked three bags of trash onto the landing in front of my door. After conferring with my landlord and neighbors, I’ve figured out that the woman lives across the hall, and collects money from renters for cleaning the entryway – however, given the constant condition of the entryway, it’s impossible that she does anything of the sort. I’ve decided to ignore her, but what’s frustrating is that calling the police is out of the question, because, according to my Russian friends, police in Russia are likely to put you in jail for calling them – people who complain, in their view, are the most likely culprits.
Very Russian Event #4 happened Monday. I had been trying to set up a pull-up bar for nearly two weeks, and had either not had time or run into some obstacle, and finally simply decided to call a handyman to do it, figuring it would save me a lot of hassle and not be all that expensive. The only time he could meet in the course of the week was Monday afternoon, so instead of going to the gym according to my Monday-Wednesday-Saturday schedule, I decided to meet him at 4;30, directly after work, reasoning that I’d be able to do some of the same exercises on the pull up that very night, and then have the thing available to use at my pleasure. I explained to him that it was a simple job, I just didn’t have the tools for it, but he’d need a drill and some wooden blocks to bolt to the doorframe as supports. The handyman arrived around 5, and began to discuss with himself how best to set up the pull-up bar. He had not brought either a drill or the wooden blocks, and at first insisted that he could do it simply by hanging it above the door. I intervened, pointing out the weakness of the screws, the lack of support at the load-bearing point. He faltered a bit, and then changed tactics; “you know, I’ve done these things before, and I think you’ve got a plaster wall here that won’t hold your weight – even if it’s brick, I don’t want to be responsible for the damages.” Now I was concerned, thinking of course that this was a professional, and not wanting to ruin the landlord’s wall. We ended up calling the landlord, who decided he’d rather not risk it. Of course, a few hours later, I realized that this was Very Russian Event #4. The handyman had no idea what he was talking about; only about 40% of my weight would be hanging on the nails, the rest of the force distributed by the the triangular pull-up bar. The problem was that in Russia, handymen are exactly that – a guy with a hammer whom women can call when their husbands are busy or at work. Being a naive American, I thought of him as a certified carpenter who would be giving me advice based on his knowledge of weight-distribution, building materials, and other technical questions with which I was simply not acquainted. All of my thoughts of weight distribution, which I had excitedly figured out and explained to the landlord and my S.O., left my mind in the face of an expected authority. It wasn’t until today, a week later, that I got my pull-up installed, having actually drawn up a force-distribution diagram to verify the safety of the of the set up and called my landlord again.
Very Russian Event #5 took place Wednesday. I was to meet several other foreign teachers in the local clinic to get a full physical, who, being chaperoned by a Russian, were half an hour late. Full physicals are a rarity in the US. Here, there are multiple categories of people who are required to have these yearly check ups, including but not limited to: urine and stool samples, skin samples, a dentists’ glance at your teeth (all teeth are healthy in Russia until they need to be pulled out or covered in gold), a very cursory interview with a psychiatrist (psychology is not considered a real science in Russia) in which the patient answers three direct questions “no, I’m not an alcoholic; no, I don’t take drugs; no, I’ve got nothing else I’d like to talk about with you”, a very serious gel-and-EKG visit to the cardiologist, and a a tuberculosis X-ray. The check-up itself takes about an hour; the Very Russian Problem is the queue concept. I’ve already mentioned the boorish, pumpkin-shaped grandmothers whose single task is to get to the front of the line as fast as possible. There are several ways to do this. The first method I experienced 5 minutes into my wait. As I was speaking with the other foreign teachers, this grandmother parked herself between me and the person ahead of me, and said “I was here”, as though talking to herself. This is of course confusing for a Westerner. Venerable old women don’t simply lie about where they were in line in the West – they’re too venerable for that. But Because of that moment of doubt, all is lost. While you’re still confused about whether it’s possible that this women who you just saw walk in wearing a heavy fur coat and drop it off at the coat-check really had been in line and just needed to step out for a moment – fully understandable, in Russia – her rights to the place in line have solidified, and your objections take on a distinct flavor of the staircase wit that we thought was no longer relevant after graduating middle-school. “Pardon me, were you looking for the end of the line? It’s over there!” The second method was applied by the same woman a bit later, and has two variations. When a new check-in opened right next to us, the receptionist called us over, and the old hag that had cut in front of us walked over and began to berate us for cutting the line – “you were behind me, what do you think you’re doing stepping over here!?! I’m first!” After getting checked in, and getting in line for the blood test, we experienced Method 2, Variation 2: the same woman, arriving a bit before us, had walked up to the front of the line and stuck her head in the door of the doctor’s office and said something to them. She then struck up a conversation with the person in the front of the line, and when that person was called in, she simply occupied their place in line. When the man who had been queueing second objected, she began to shout at him that he was a brazen lout, he could see that she had been there the entire time, and she wasn’t going anywhere. This is foolproof, in my experience – the more brazen the lie, and the louder you defend it, the harder it is to disagree, simply due to the feeling of shame one experiences on behalf of the other person; for some reason, in English, we’ve reduced the potency of this empathetic shame by calling “a sense of decency”. Method 3 was displayed by half of the crowd; this is very simple, and also Very Russian – simply walk up to the end of every line and announce that you are at the end. All that then remains is to race between the 15 different offices on three floors, monitoring the lines and re-occupying the line, preferably nearer to the front than to the end (by utilizing Methods 1 and 2) whenever you miss your turn. In the end, I spent 2.5 hours waiting in 6 lines and about a half hour with various doctors, missing a lesson and lunch.
Very Russian Event #6 also took place Wednesday. I had expected to finish at the clinic in an hour and then stop by the bank to open a bank account, so when the clinic ended up taking 4 hours, I moved the bank stop to later that afternoon. I arrived at 4 pm. Banks in Russia, which deal with Westerners far more often than hospitals, have acquired a sense of shame for the disgrace that goes on in other institutions requiring queues, and have instituted a system of call-numbers. I was advised by a receptionist to take two tickets, since I had two types of transactions. When my number was called, I approached the desk and was perturbed to find it occupied. Deciding that the teller must simply be finishing with the previous client, I retreated about 10 steps to keep an eye on the call-board, and in doing so, missed the moment when the client left, the number changed, and my chance was lost. However, oddly enough, the same number appeared again the call-board, this time at a different desk. I rushed over, and again discovered the teller busy with another client. I resolved to wait it out. As soon as they left, I stepped up and announced that I had been called, and the other man who had been there under my number had cut the line. I was already rather put out and suspecting that the system was glitching, and so I insisted on being helped. However, the teller ended up not being able to perform the type of transaction I needed, and sent me to window 7, saying someone would be right with me. No one was at window 7, but upon inquiry, I was told that someone would be right there. In about five minutes, a man appeared and told me that he hadn’t called my number, and I would need to go take a new call number to be served. I refused, and he told me to go resolve the issue with the woman at the second window who had sent me there in the first place. After arguing her in to spending 10 minutes trying to open the account for me, I was sent back to the same window 7, where yet another teller sat, this one finally able to help me. I exited the bank after 2 hours, and finding that I was out of change for the bus, walked home, where Very Russian Event #7 awaited.
The court summons stuck in my door were not for me; one of them wasn’t even for my apartment or floor. The other two were for 20,000 rubles and twenty rubles, the latter of which is the same as the cost of the stamp. However, due to the boorishness of the woman in Very Russian Event #5 and the recollection of Very Russian Event #2, I was immediately seized by the idea that the neighbors whose pipe had burst and left me without water for three days were trying to pin the costs on me, and my mood was spoiled. The message from the teacher who manages foreigner’s housing 15 minutes later did nothing to calm dissatisfaction with Very Russian Event #7.
The next day, I spent an hour and a half waiting in line at the clinic again to collect my results (this time being at fault myself for not understanding the practitioner’s instructions to come right in if I had given my samples the day before), and encountered Very Russian Event #8. None of the doctors whom I had seen the day before had asked me for my medical booklet (an artifact of Soviet bureaucracy), and so I had collected no stamps; moreover, the psychiatrist hadn’t asked me for stool or urine samples, and so I didn’t even have the data for one of the necessary stamps. Proving the absurdity of the whole system of requirements, the practitioner in charge of issuing results simply produced the whole set of stamps from each department and forged my results.
Finally, at the end of a very long post, the point of all of this. Some of these things are simply unimaginable in my culture, and although they’re all frustrating, none of them are unbearable. They’re frustrating mainly in their unfamiliarity. I spoke with a Russian friend about queues and he laughed and agreed that it was boorish what the woman did, but insisted that Russians are extremely tolerant, and everyone uses the general tolerance of disorder to their own advantage at times. It simply doesn’t bother them anymore. Yet, if only because it’s so unusual for me, the whole situation is a thorn in my side – I spend the entire day in shock at the barbarity and complacency of the entire company, sharpening my staircase wit in my mind. Friends recommend that I either pay off the crazy old lady next door, since 100 rubles is about the equivalent of $8-10, and I can certainly afford $10 a month, or bring her a cake and tell her I want to be friends. Yet, I’m unable to offer money or cake to someone who has so grievously sinned against the laws of decency. All of this stress comes down quite simply to expectations; and when expectations are not fulfilled, the stress that accompanies failure of plans. If expectations play such a large role, how much of our interpersonal chemistry, then, is based simply on the fundamental expectations instilled in us by our parents, friends, and minimal milieu? Can we apply the same thing to a monocultural interpersonal communication? Suppose that you’re working next to a person who chatters unendingly about inanities and her own daily stressors; you react poorly, not so much because of the inappropriate behavior of your coworker as because you were socialized in a more reserved environment. The only thing that’s really stressing you out is your coworker’s violation of your expected norms. Within any single culture, as within our singe species, there is a multitude of behavioral norms; shouldn’t these have some underlying cause? One need not even be fully aware of the irritation in having one’s expectations left unfulfilled – the lack, though will slowly accumulate and become dissatisfaction.
What is a cause of stress for you? How do you react to it? Is it possible to reduce stress by understanding its cause? Especially in the holiday season – are there members of your family whose habits seem totally alien? How did they, coming from the same background, become such distinct people?