Let me tell you three funny stories. Well, two curious ones and one funny one. Good to see Russia is starting so well. Although your sense of humour may be different from mine. So perhaps you won’t even chuckle. I take no responsibility at all for your reactions.
First, we went to the bank to change some money. I had no roubles. What was I thinking?
We finally find one that is open and willing to take some fairly worthless Kazak currency. She quickly counts the Tenge and, using her calculator, figures the appropriate number of roubles. She puts one currency away and pulls out the other. Tantalisingly, she leaves the Russian cash on the table, out of my reach given the centimetre-thick perspex that limits our relationship.
Then she turns to the computer. But it is not going for some reason. A poke of a key. A mouse wiggle. No. No dice. Another few pokes and wriggles. Definitely not. Reset time.
The computer is the slowest on the planet. Five minutes, ten minutes goes by with a blank screen.
We wait, thanking providence (I have been reading “Robinson Crusoe”) that we are in the lobby of a chess club so that we can while away the time by checking out the photos of recent champions. It appears to be a chess club for kids. But not for happy smiling kids. Very serious, dour children. If one is to judge by their photos. I wonder if a lot of the Russian penchant for making unfriendly faces is because they learn it at a young age in chess clubs.
Finally the computer comes to its senses. Another few minutes goes by while we load up the software. This computer is not actually connected to any other. We are just entering important details (my passport info and things) into a database so that the computer will spit out a receipt. Its use or purpose is unclear. Civil libertarians would not appreciate this. George Orwell could write a novel. Under the Privacy Act, recording this information could even be illegal in New Zealand.
Eventually she produces a receipt for me. She is not the world’s fastest typist. And hands over the money. Yay. Fifteen minutes of effort. Well, mostly waiting really.
Then I walk outside and throw the receipt in the bin. Important for her. Worthless for me. If only she had asked. Although this is Russia, so probably I would have had to take it anyway.
Second, I cruised up to the Kazakhstan/Russian border post near Orsk (a normally unimportant town in southern European Russia). In my experience, very many funny things (or curious ones, or not at all interesting ones, depending on your sense of humour, as noted above) happen at borders. Especally land borders. Airports are nowhere near as interesting, perhaps because they process so many people.
Anyway, at the Kazak post, someone had clearly told them that processing a foreigner takes a long time. Because while it took no time at all for a Russian citizen (just a passport glance), and 30 seconds for a Kazak passport holder (record details in notebook), it took about 10 minutes for me. Record the details twice (in different books), look hard at the passport for ages, ask other people their views on things. And wonder a little about why a New Zealander would want to cross this border anyway.
On the Russian side the most important thing was a form that they had to fill in. No blank spaces at all (although it has been my experience that leaving as much blank space as possible on forms is a sensible tactic – it avoids too many questions being asked).
None of the normal rigmarole at all. No questions about why I was coming to Russia, how long I would stay, whether I could support myself, whether I could prove that I was leaving. Only the form is crucial. In what city was your passport issued? Arguments with the others about how to fill the form in, where to put the copies on the desk, where to move the inkwell to so as to make room for the form. For god’s sake don’t make a mistake.
Very strange indeed. Not that I think I present any immigration risk. And my documents were all entirely in order, of course. So it isn’t that those questions would have helped them in any way, but strange all the same. Welcome to Russia. But you are not as important as this piece of paper.
And third, here we are waiting for a tram (to the bank, about which more above). It eventually arrives, as trams normally do. And we wait patiently for the passengers who want to get off before endeavouring to climb the steps to get ourselves on.
A beautiful creature appears an the top step. Tall, slim, well-dressed, high-heels, fashionable hair, just the right amount of makeup. Perfect posture. Upright. She pauses, waiting for her presence to be noticed by the crowd (okay, so I might be making this bit up, but the next bit is real), and then regally descends the steps, her pace dictated to some extent by the height of her heels.
Imagine my delight when she bangs her head on the doorframe when coming down the last step. A expression of pain, a rubbed head, an embarrassed smile. Proof of humanity.