Previously in Atlantic Abroad
Soccer in the City (Erik Barmack, Italy, May 10, 2000).
This Goat Goes to Market (Joshua Kurlantzick, Oman, March 29, 2000).
Monsoon Time (Rahul Goswami, Dubai, March 1, 2000).
Rank Strangers (Jeff Biggers, Italy, February 9, 2000).
Midnight Express (Akash Kapur, Romania, January 5, 2000).
The Price of Devotion (Jeffrey Tayler, India, December 22, 1999).
Israeli Forms of Identity (Miriam Udel Lambert, Israel, December 1, 1999).
New Year's and Nothingness (William Tyree, Indonesia, October 27, 1999).
Searching for El Chapareke (Jeff Biggers, Mexico, September 29, 1999).
Opium in the Naga Hills (Rahul Goswami, India, September 1, 1999).
A Saturday at the Auction (Miriam Udel Lambert, Israel, August 4, 1999).
The Bulls of Goa (Rahul Goswami, India, June 16, 1999).
For more, see the complete Atlantic Abroad index.
Share your tales of life abroad in Post & Riposte.
June 1, 2000
Recently I traveled to the small town of Ozyory, just south of Moscow, to run errands for a Muscovite friend whose job does not allow her time to leave the capital these days. She asked me to pick up the mail at her apartment there, pay her bills, and, "Oh," she added, as though guilty about saddling me with a task I was sure to find onerous, "change the lock on the front door." Soviet locks are notoriously fickle, and this one was no exception, requiring nothing less than incantations of shezam! and deft twists with a butter knife to be coerced into opening -- a ritual I had become used to performing every time I visited. "Changing the lock really should be no problem," she said, averting her eyes from mine. "The ZHEK" -- the Office of Residential Services -- "will be happy to perform this service. For a small fee."
Ozyory, like many Russian towns, has changed little since Soviet days. The spirit of capitalism has hardly touched the place, and Soviet institutions and bureaucracy still rule. I discovered that the ZHEK was located in a collapsing log building with wobbly uneven floors and lace curtains on crooked windows. I entered, and walked past office after deserted office. At the last office I startled a woman who was licking her fingertips. She rose from her desk, her cheeks chipmunk plump and stuffed with sausage, and shot me an accusatory stare. "What do you want?"
"I'd like to change the lock on my door," I said.
"Are you a man or not?" she retorted, swallowing and then dipping a fresh gobbet of sausage in mustard. "Men change their own locks."
"I've come from out of town. Please, just lend me a locksmith or a carpenter. I'll pay for the service."
Lock-changing, she told me, chomping through her sausage, was performed by the ZHREU -- a far more imposing and lofty state agency than hers. ZHREU is an acronym standing for Headquarters for Residential Repairs and Service. "The ZHREU is down Lenin Street," she said, "beyond the Office for the Repair of Household Appliances. At the ZHREU go to the PTO" -- the Department of Technical Production Activity. But," here she gurgled buttermilk out of a tin cup, "what are you men coming to? You should drink less vodka and repair your own locks. Frankly, I'm sorry for your wife."
"Thank you for your concern," I answered. "But all I want to do today is change my lock."
"Of course, the wife comes last, as always," she called out, in lieu of good-bye, as I wobbled across the buckled floorboards toward the exit.
I headed out into the falling snow, following the sidewalk past blue-green izbas, or traditional wooden cabins, my destination the ZHREU.
The ZHREU turned out to be better appointed than the ZHEK, with its own private store, into which a woman tried to lure me by waving her stock of door locks. But I pressed on to the PTO.
There I found the director and the vice-director of the PTO -- two well-powdered and fragrantly perfumed women -- primping their coiffures in hand-held mirrors. They heard out my request.
"My Lord," said the director, keeping her eyes on her mirror, "what are you men coming to? You can't even repair your own locks these days. You're no good to us at all!"
"No good at all," echoed the vice-director, clamping shut her mirror.
I was nearly beside myself. "Please, please, just help me change this lock! It's your job, isn't it? I'll pay you whatever you want."
They stared at me, stupefied.
"Delegate!" I raved. "You can delegate, can't you?"
The director gave me a sympathetic look. "Well, it's our foreman Petya's birthday today, and you know what that means." She clucked her throat making the traditional Slavic gesture for heavy drinking. "Then there's Vova the metal worker, but ..."
"It can't be Vova's birthday, too," I interjected.
"No. Vova doesn't need an excuse to" -- she clucked her throat again. "But try the private repair company down the street. It just opened."
Down the street, the free-market entrepreneur boss listened to my request. He huffed up his chest with stern pride. "We're the leader of the market here, and we follow market principles."
"Which means what?"
"Which means, sorry, we don't make housecalls. But if you bring your door to us, that's another story."
Defeated, I returned to the apartment. It was back to shezam and the butter knife.
Jeffrey Tayler is a freelance writer and traveler based in Moscow, and is the author of Siberian Dawn (1999). He contributes regularly to The Atlantic Monthly and files frequent dispatches for Atlantic Abroad.
All material copyright © 2000 by The Atlantic Monthly Group. All rights reserved.