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…