30 June 2008

Change we can't believe in

Another one from the “my (short) life in Belarus” series…

Anybody who has known me for more than a couple weeks knows that I don’t like change. There’s nothing wrong with a little order, stability, and tradition. And so, whether it’s a question of doing away with the allegedly tacky tinsel on the Christmas tree (S, just you wait, it’s coming back next year!) to the latest hair color of my chameleon-esque friends, I tend to see beauty and comfort in the status quo.

But that’s not the kind of change I’m going to rail against today. No, the kind of change that has been causing me the most problems lately is the kind that the cashier gives back at the store. Two different trends intersect in Bealrus to make even the simplest of purchases traumatic enough to send me whimpering in the corner like a lost, wet puppy.

First is what appears to be the universal post-Soviet desire by cashiers for exact change. It’s a request – no, demand – that I’ve encountered now in Russia, Belarus, and Ukraine. What is more, failure to produce the requested change (“look for a ten,” she barks) seems to be considered a personal insult by the woman perched in front of the register, as evidenced by the dirty look she gives you as she begrudgingly doles out her precious small bills.. In the event that she cannot produce correct change due to a lack of smaller bills (a condition brought upon by previous customers who were similarly inconsiderate enough to shop at the store in question), you have three choices: 1) forego the change and eat the difference; 2) wait for a later customer to produce change; 3) forget about that bottle of kvas entirely.

In Russia, the demand for change rarely causes problems for me – I usually have some tens in my wallet, along with a pouch full of one and two-ruble coins. Always something to fit the bill (bad puns are becoming a bad habit, aren’t they?).

But it is in Belarus where the situation becomes untenable, thanks to the addition of a second factor: Belarus’ ridiculous currency, the Belarusian ruble. To give you an idea of the silliness, the current exchange rate is 2,147 Belarusian rubles to the dollar. As such, goods are priced in the thousands – 4,000 for some cheese, 16,000 for some sausage, and so on. Now, higher-order math has never been my strong suit, and doing rapid conversions of totals in the tens and even hundreds of thousands on the fly is a bit taxing.

These two factors – pan-Slavic correct change dogma and absurd currency denominations – collide in Belarus to deliberately torture me for the few seconds I’m standing at a cash register. You see, Belarus has bills in all sorts of denominations, from the hundreds of thousands all the way down to the meager ten-ruble note, whose value is approximately $0.005. And so instead of demanding four rubles (as in Russia), I am faced with orders to find 3,740 rubles to make even change.

The “law of large numbers” states that large numbers are harder to understand than small numbers in foreign languages (at least I think that’s what it states). So unless one is really paying close attention and isn’t thrown off by the Belarusian accent, it is easy to misunderstand what is expected. Wrath ensues.

And even if I do understand what number the woman demands of me, I am horrified when I open my thick wallet, bursting forth with monopoly-like “play money” in infinite denominations. The bills are all out of order, having been hurriedly shoved in there the last time I panicked at a cash register. So when she asks for 1,790 rubles, I’m hopeless and helpless – I could never piece that sum together under such pressure. Rather than risking the wrath of the 8 people in line waiting behind me as I dig through my wallet, I take the wrath of cashier woman, telling her that all I have are large bills.

I slink out of the store, traumatized by the experience, and for what? Some sausage and a bottle of water. I pledge to myself that tomorrow morning I will change my routine, sorting the bills in my wallet by denomination so as to be better prepared next time. But like I said at the outset, I’ve never been fond of change…


Kristina said...

I can SO relate. I am in Minsk most summers, and find the correct change obsession continually aggravating. I've had cashiers simply take back the goods (usually a cold drink on a hot day) because I couldn't produce a smaller bill.

When I really need to break big bills, I stop a McDonalds. They always have plenty of cash of all denominations in the drawer!

Kristina said...

I've been reading through your past blog entries, and I am very impressed. Your observations are astute and you writing is lovely.

I'm sorry you had to leave, I would have loved to meet the bright, articulate man behind the blog. Don't worry I'm not some predatory weirdo, just a "fellow traveler" and another American completely taken by Minsk and Belarus in general.

Good luck in your studies!

Rubashov said...

I'll resist the urge to question the sanity of someone who summers (voluntarily?) in Minsk every year, having become quite enamored with the city myself (I just put up my painting of Minsk in my apartment in Kiev). But really, what ARE you doing in Minsk every summer? ;-)

Needless to say, I'm jealous that you get to enjoy Minsk in my absence. And of course, thank you for the very flattering comments about the blog - hope you continue enjoying it. Have a good summer, and drop me a line if you're passing through Kiev...


lindsey said...

I'm an American living in Ukraine and face this same traumatizing experience daily - with one lady in particular who gives me dirty looks the moment I walk through the door. Just for her, I've started carrying kopeks in my pocket.

Other than eat the money, wait for change, or release a product, I might add another choice to what may happen if you do not have correct change...the cashier forces you to buy some other product which totals to the amount of money you gave her. I've been stuck several times buying small pieces of candy.

Kristina said...

What AM I doing here?! Sometimes I wonder myself. My first trip to Minsk was in 1992, with a humanitarian aid organization. I fell in love and kept coming back. 9 years ago, my husband was coerced into joining me, and he got bit by the same bug. He's more of an extremist, so now we've got a flat.

We do some small scale humanitarian aid with our little church (we've "adopted" a children's shelter outside of Minsk) and my husband does a some speaking in churches on the side. I'd spend the whole summer here (we're from Arizona) if I could.

It's an odd country to become attached to, but I am attached.