|Back To Civilization
|As much as Alex was looking for her: the gorgeous blonde that checked
us in a week ago outbound to Novogriewsk was nowhere around - maybe she
had already married a foreigner and left the country. Nor was the Marlboro
sucking prostitute - probably Robert Redford had arrived after all. A sad
reception back in Kapitolsky. So we left the lonely, barren, echoing corridors
of this airport building and walked over to the main one with its pulsating
At least that was what we seemed to remember vividly. Reality however - like always in this country - was very different.
It was still too early. No inbound flights from foreign countries were arriving yet. So the dealers, hookers, pickpockets, illegal cab drivers and the usual curious welcoming crowd wasn't around yet. Both cafes were empty, the shopping stalls desolate. But there was a handful of people like ourselves - stranded waiting for a connecting flight later that day - or maybe tomorrow. We tried to get rid of our luggage but to no avail - there weren't any check-in counters open until later, much later. Very much later. If at all.
The cellular phone was connecting again. But even that welcome sign of civilization wore out after we had done a couple of calls to our dearest back home. Five more hours to go. What about a cheap and fast haircut that I never had time to get done in Novogriewsk? Good idea to spend the last of my non-convertible money for something useful. Alas how much we looked around and checked in the whole building - we couldn't find a hair dresser.
There wasn't even an information counter. In my despair I went to the TransWorld ticket booth - at least they were our carrier airline, weren't they? The employees were busy doing nothing. Maybe they should have done some English lectures instead? Communicating was tough. When the lady finally understood my question her reaction was „njet" or something as inviting.
I indicated that a hairdresser was to be found on any respectable airport in this world. At least I thought so as I had never tried it out before but that was my conception of a global airport. Earnest discussion with her male colleague for a longer time. Downtown many could be found. My response that 50 $ US in cab fare wouldn't bear any relation to the cost of a simple haircut didn't seem to impress her.
Five minutes later I walked down the long road from the airport to the nearest hotel. It was icy cold but the sun was shining through the trees along the way. No vodka yet today. Walking felt good. Not even the suspicious looking check-out guard at the edge of the terminal area could impress me much. I confused the hotel with a cargo interchange at my first try but still hit the hotel all right behind some bushes in the shadow of the building. Admittedly it showed a different style than our cozy "Turist" when I walked through the ground floor in search of my target. As I couldn't find it anywhere I proceeded to the reception. The lady stared at me for a moment. Then she explained in broken English that yes, there was a hairdresser. But for women only.
When I slowly walked back the long way to the terminal I couldn't help suspecting that the TransWorld lady had sent me here only to get rid of me and my persistent questions. But the weather was still fine, no doubt about that.
In the meantime Alex had come up with a bright idea: what about writing some picture postcards to our beloved ones back home as we hadn't had time to do so in Novogriewsk? Kapitolsky at least was supposed to retain some churches from the middle ages. And beautiful ones at that.
At first I thought Alex was still not up to his normal performance when he returned from his round-trip through the departure hall without any postcards. Clearly I could do better. Alas, I soon found out myself that neither the souvenir shop nor the newspaper stall nor the sweets & snack shop carried any.
As much as I peeked behind the empty rental car desk or to the side of the toilets: no picture postcards anywhere. Finally next to a pile of gilded souvenir daggers, we found a small pile of cards stacked up. Socialist realist greeting cards depicting small rabbits and puppies. Were they cards for birthdays, get well cards, sorry to hear about your botched operation cards, welcome back from forced exile cards? It didn't seem to matter anyway. I decided on the rabbit with the gigantic turnip as the most tacky one - better something than nothing. Alex agreed with my choice and bought the remaining copies - all two of them. The stand was empty now.
15 minutes later we were having another problem. Stamps. Where to get hold of stamps? I should have been warned by my earlier experience when Alex returned empty handed from the post office beside the gates. It was a post office all right. With two counters: one for phone calls. And one for stamps. The only thing missing was any sign of staff.
We carefully examined an almost illegible handwritten sign which seemed to indicate something from 1200 to 1400. I presumed it was lunch break. But it was only 11.20. But what could we expect - in this country employees were paid even worse than their lousy working performance.
By 14:30 the problem had developed serious proportions. Not many more hours until check-in time. We were customers of TransWorld so they were fucking obliged to help in an emergency situation! This time I decided to use a sweeter method.
The lady with zero knowledge on local hairdressers was still on duty, browsing through an inflight magazine with amazing concentration. I kept quiet and stood still - better not irritate her. After a while she had no choice but to notice me. I explained the situation, elaborating on my expectant son who collected postcards from all over the world - and daddy can't send one from this lovely country. Better to touch her patriotic feelings as well, I thought, not only the motherly ones.
How could I solve this problem of early capitalism? Where could I get stamps? Furrowing her brows in intense concentration she began to try hard, damn hard. She told me that the Post Office just around the corner sold stamps. It took a time to convince her I had been there repeatedly but she did not appear to belive me. Finally she gave in to the pleas of this hopelessly demanding foreigner, grabbed the postcards and went to see for herself.
When she reappeared she told me there was no-one at the counter. It was lunch break, and on this day lunch break lasted all day if the underpaid or unpaid workers decided not to come back. I already suspected that. I next made a carefully considered but extremely radical suggestion. " If I gave her money would she be prepared to post the cards for me?" It was indeed like battling with a fish already on the hook - she desperately wanted to get off it.
But this was impossible and totally out of order. One - she was not the post office. Two - how could I know how much money was needed for a postcard to the West? Thirdly -perhaps the postcards couldn't be treated like cards and had to be put inside an envelope? Fourthly she was very busy and she didn't have time anyway to post them until tomorrow. I smiled my sweetest most understanding smile. Days didn't matter at all and I could leave her some extra money to be on the safe side.
There was now no escape.
Her colleague who had been silent all along finally said a few words. Probably he reminded her of this newly introduced concept called customer service. Finally she determinedly picked up the phone declaring she would find out from the nearest post office.
At first the lines didn't work. Then five phone calls of a few minutes followed in quick succesion. I could feel she was bitten by this virus but there was still no answer to the question of the correct postage. She drew herself to her full height and announced "I am going to phone the Ministry of Postal Affairs, only they know. Don't worry, its only a local call". I was dumbfounded. This was taking customer service to the extreme - phone a Government ministry! For me. Just like that. Unbelievable!
The call was short and precise. The answer was given. Three bucks local currency each postcard. Nothing extra for airmail. No enclosing envelope required. I smiled as best I could and gallantly handed her a 10-buck-bill. Not to bribe - but to mark her new found commitment to customer service - I dug in my bag and presented her with my last bar of German chocolate.
A major victory had been achieved. No worries that that Trans World was always vague about arrival and departure times had never even considered providing sick bags. Forget the fact that there were no announcements and the customs and immigration officers insisted on selling you medical insurance.
Forget the difficulty of finding the departure lounge restaurants around too many bends in too many corridors and stairways. Forget the gross overcharging at the Duty Free Shop - three times as much for the local Vodka as in the desperate little shops outside the terminal. Not at all. The main thing was that the system had responded to a human need.
Three days later after arriving home I got the phone call from my son: the postman had just delivered an extremely tacky postcard with a bunny and a turnip.
Not all is lost yet. Things are changing. Slowly. But anyhow.