A night at the opera (day 126)

So what were you doing tonight? Well, I stood in a queue.

Actually that is the truth. It only took four hours, which is not too bad really. And standing in queues (while you might think it rather tedious) can actually be rather exciting, especially in Russia.

You see, queues are great places to meet people and make friends. I met a 22 year old forestry student who was studying in Khabarovsk, and going home to visit Mum and Dad before the new school year begins. I even have both his addresses so I can write to him. His English was worse than my Russian (which is saying something), but we had plenty of time.

Queues are also great places to meet people and make enemies. Two examples will suffice. First a dumb woman approaches the queue. She asks a dumb man “who is last?” (this is a crucial phrase to learn if you are ever learning Russian) and the dumb man answers “I am”, which, of course, was true. But he was just standing in space near the front of the queue without actually being in it at all. His real spot was right at the back (about 10 people behind where he was standing). I never quite figured out exactly why he was doing this, or why he did not explain it to the dumb woman.

Anyway, then he wanders away naturally expecting his place to be saved (people do this in Russia – I will say more about it below). So she shuffles up a little and is now quite close to the front of the queue.

Then someone who is actually near the front (as opposed to just standing there) says “what are you doing? you are not there”, and dumb woman says “I am behind that guy who was standing here”. And then someone explains that dumb guy was just dumb guy, who has now wandered off, and that she should just go stand at the back of the queue.

Now many people, faced with this information, would gracefully conceed defeat, but she begins to argue. It is not clear who she is arguing with, since most people don’t care a stuff about her and just ignore her rantings. But sure enough, someone responds and they bitch at each other for a while. Eventually dumb woman realises that no one gives a stuff about her problems and she wanders off. Dumb man and dumb woman return separately a little later, and she has a go at him. But he just shrugs his shoulders and the world goes on.

The second example is a lesson in who not to argue with. The Russian train ticketing system is incredibly inefficient (the trains work well, the process of selling tickets is hopeless). One thing that happens if that if you need to rebook an existing ticket for another day, the poor clerk has to type a 16 digit number into the computer. If you are reticketing for four people, then that is four 16 digit numbers, all of which have to be correct.

So, two minutes before the train they want to be on is scheduled to leave, four people rock up to the front of the queue (they can do this, according to the rules of Russian queues that I will explain a little later), and explain that they want to get on the train in two minutes and they already have tickets for another train (which means their new tickets are free).

So the clerk says fine and starts typing in the numbers. But, of course, no one can type in and check four 16 digit numbers as well as do all the other stuff you have to do to issue a ticket in Russia (it seems to take about five minutes per ticket most of the time) in two minutes. So the train leaves while the clerk is still typing in the numbers. The tickets eventually are done, but they are for a train that has already left.

Fair enough. Things are not ideal. We have a clerk given an impossible task, and a bunch of people who are not on the train they wanted (in fact, they are not on any train). But instead of saying “hmmm, okay, we arrived too late”, the woman who represents these four individuals who want tickets starts to argue with the clerk, complaining that they did not get on the train. The clerk, of course, says “What could I do? You came too late. I did the best I could. It might have been okay if you had just bought the tickets outright rather than trying to reticket.”

This pointless debate (the train has already left, remember) goes on for a while. Eventually the woman gets tired and gets a refund and buggers off. Thankfully, since she is holding up the rest of the queue.

So yes, (some of) the rules of Russian queues:

* No matter how long the queue, some people always get to push in. This includes old people, veterans and the like. I can understand this rule. But the other type of people who are always allowed to push in are people who want to get on a train that is just about to leave.

So there can often be two queues at once – one for the people who want tickets in the next 20 minutes, and one for everyone else, who just have to wait patiently (regardless of how long they have already been waiting) until the other people are done.

* You can save places for people in the queue. So I can go stand in the queue for a while, then say to the person in front of me “I am behind you, yes?”, and then bugger off for as long as I like. When I come back, provided I am not too late (i.e., the person in front of me is already gone), I can just happily rejoin my place in the queue.

But lots of people can have reserved spots in the queue in front of you that you don’t know about (since you have never seen them before, and they have come, saved a place and gone before you even arrived), it can sometimes look like you are really close to the front of the queue when, in actual fact, there are 10 people in front of you.

Add this to the fact that one person can stand in for others as well (common practice is to put a teenager in the queue to proxy for the whole family who might want six tickets), and you never really know how long it is going to be until you actually reach the front of the queue.

And it is not impossible for someone who saved the place in front of you to arrive just as you get to the clerk after waiting several hours, and then you get to wait just a few minutes more.

Quite amazing. A highly sophisticated system developed because the train ticketing is so hopelessly, unbelievably, indescribably useless.

Of course, all this inefficiency provides huge opportunities to make money (aside from providing a more effective ticketing system, of course, or barcodes so those 16 digit numbers are easier, or actually employing more staff so that more than one window is open at once, or organising it better so that they clerks don’t all close for lunch (2 hours!) at the same time).

You basically have to stand in the queue (although sometimes I can sit on my bags). When you get near the front, you can lean on the counter, but apart from that you are on your pegs, sunshine.

Scalping is basically impossible (because you have to show your passport and the ticket is only in your name). But renting chairs would be highly profitable, I think. So would icecream selling. And you could sell tickets to tourists to watch this amazing display. I find it quite fascinating. If you do not laugh, you cry.