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Travelogues

Focus on Safety

Vladimir drives his Audi down a pretty Belorussian countryside village's main road, dust billowing out behind us. They must sand the roads heavily in winter, I think, for this much dirt to be still lying in the road.

Vladimir had set up this meeting for me, having discovered only the day before that the village incongruously contains a factory which makes wooden toys. It didn't seem logical for it to be there, but was certainly worthy of a visit. You never know what you are going to find in this fascinating country. Sometimes these things pan out.

The village gives me the impression of being much prettier and friendlier than those I usually end up visiting. While the Belorussian countryside is inviting and warm, most villages are not. They seem determined to shut themselves off from the rest of the world, and content to stay that way. And they always look deserted. How they manage that I don't know. Smoke may curl from a few chimneys, but little else gives the impression that people actually live there.

But this village is clearly different. "It's a nice place," Vladimir says, reading my thoughts. "Many years ago there were many factories and much work. But then..." His voice trails off.

Vladimir slows, trying to find the factory. This is made more difficult by the Belorussian lack of interest in posting street names or numbers on the sides of buildings. We cruise slowly down the street and park so we an ask directions of a group of robustly plump older people stand in the street before us, shovels and brooms in hand. They smile and wave. Never before have I had this happen. I'm used to long and sullen stares, not smiles. They even offer us a cigarette, which we decline politely. They think this is funny and guffaw at the thought of someone declining a free smoke.

At least they're able to tell us where the factory is. And as fate would have it, Vladimir has parked directly in front of the factory's door, which causes a few poorly concealed grins of mirth.

We knock at the door and are greeted by the factory's director, a kind-faced man with a ready smile. Like all directors of a state factory, he is formally dressed. Over the years, I've noticed there seems to be some form of business suit protocol in Belarus. Most directors wear thick, grey woolen suits. If the director wears a darkish suit, he is either progressive or going to be difficult. The dark suited ones are the dangerous ones; negotiations will be long and difficult, prices will be ridiculously high, and there won't be any tea or cookies offered at the end.

I readily admit that I like the tea and cookies.

Female directors, on the other hand, are a total delight. They always wear a pretty print dress with a bejeweled pin or brooch pinned prominently on the lapel. And they often wear a scarf; a delicate, feminine accent. They never play power games, and are sincere, forthright and honest. I love doing business with them. Give me a woman any time (no pun intended).

The (male) director shakes our hands warmly and invites us into his office. After we are seated, I'm invited to explain the nature of my company and what types of products we sell. We chat amiably, seated around a small coffee table. A soft knock at the door interupts our conversation and the director's associate, an older woman with a warm smile (does everyone in this village smile? I wonder) enters, carrying a wooden tray with glasses for tea and coffee. And cookies.

As the woman arranges cups and saucers on the table, I suddenly come to the realization that the room is cold as an ice box! How is it possible that I didn't notice it before? I pull my jacket a bit tighter and am soon delighted to see the conversation drift from the introduction to the "Why don't we visit the factory?" phase. This sounds wonderful to me. Anywhere is going to we warmer than where I am. And the quicker we finish the tour, the quicker I will be able to warm up with tea and cookies.

I hate to sound like a five-year old, but one's perspective rapidly changes in Belarus. Tea is warm. Cookies are sweet. These are good things. And not many things in Belarus are good. So you take your please where you can find it.

We walk outside and traverse a weed and rusty pipe littered courtyard and enter the factory through heavy metal doors similar to those found at the Music Maker factory. As appears to be the custom in Belarus, the heavy doors are allowed to slam shut loudly, the sound echoing along the dark concrete hallway we stand in. I swear that the factory's walls vibrate from the impact.

As we stand silently there, giving our eyes time to adjust to the gloom, I realize that it's colder inside than out! How is this humanely possible?

The director rubs his hands to warm them and says something in Russian. I'm glad to see that I'm not the only one who is cold. Since he has done so, I feel free to rub my hands as I follow the director through one dark room after another. This is a factory?

We weave our way through the dusk between old-fashioned machinery which looks like museum exhibit of the Industrial Revolution. The going is a bit dodgy at times as we have to not only avoid walking into machinery but also whatever industrial detritus has been allowed to fall (and remain) on the floor.

We slammed the door leading to a large, blockish warehousing area. Far away, in the back corner of the building, I see see a light burning. Two or three figures leap upright and huddle around machinery. I smile. The employees are following the international dictum of looking busy whenever the boss makes an appearance. They are safe, and they know it. With those metal doors, it's impossible to sneak up on them.

The director points out many pieces of non-operational equipment which could potentially be used to manufacture products for us. We pass an automatic lathe, then a series of machines with frayed, leather belts which drill special holes, and many others Of an indeterminate purpose. All, I noticed, are covered with a thick layer of dust.

"Only about 10% of the factory is currently operational," the director says, his expression pained. "There really isn't very much to see. Perhaps it would be best to see our samples room"

That makes sense. There really is nothing to see. We follow the director to an especially dark part of the factory where he opens a heavy set of triple-padlocked doors, switches on a dim light, and stands aside to let us enter.

I step in. It feels like entering an Egyptian tomb; everything is dusty, dirty, musty. Hopelessly outdated Stalinist-era wooden toys clutter the wooden shelves which run along the perimeter of the room's interior. I examine one toy after another, and they're terrible. I note the use of lead-based paints, the rough edges, runs in the paint, and the use of nails to hold wheels in place. It's a toy safety inspector's nightmare. Everything is completely, awfully, wrong.

One of the worst parts of my job is to have to tell people--kind people like this director, whose workers desperately need jobs--that their toys aren't suited for the American market. They're dangerous, poorly made, and invariably too expensive.

I break the news to the director as gently as I can. Not a single toy will work for me. "Not a one?" he ask and stands stunned, gazing at the toys his factory has sold for so long, in such great quantities. He must cast his mind back to the days when he received regular, large orders from the ministry charged with supplying the Soviet Union with wooden toys. All this, of course, before democracy and capitalism; when times were good and everyone had a job.

"What is wrong with them?" he asks with complete sincerity.

I had expected the question. I take a badly painted wooden locomotive off the shelf. Heavy runs mar its left side, but this is not my primary concern. "Safety," I say, taking hold of one of the wheels and giving it a light tug. The nail which held the wheel in place gives way, its sharp point shining sharp and menacingly in the poor light.

"But that is not how this toy is supposed to be used!" the director says with exasperation. "You can take any toy apart and create problems like this."

I admit this is true, but stress how easily the wheel came off. "In America, it's impossible to sell this toy. And in Europe the standards are even more strict. There are certain things: the use of toxic paints, the use of dangerous chemicals, sharp splinters (I held up the caboose to show him jagged mini-spears of wood jutting out from the bottom) and the use of nails to connect pieces. All these things automatically prevent me from selling the toy. It is against the law."

"But children aren't supposed to chew on their toys!" the director says, his arms helplessly wide to the side. "They are supposed to play with it on the floor, not eat it!" He bends his knees deeply and mimics the back-and-forth motion of a child playing with a train on the floor.

"Yes, older children may not. But their younger brothers and sisters, who don't know any better, may. The toys need to be safe. There is nothing I can do."

The director stands silent for a long time. He realized he is fighting a losing battle. I feel so sorry for him and, trying to help, suggest he could perhaps modify the production of the toys. "Could you use screws instead of nails to hold the wheels in place?"

"It is very hard to find good screws in Belarus," he says. "Most of them break. And they 're expensive."

I try again. "How about better paint?

"It's not possible to find lead-free paint in Belarus. You would have to buy it in the West and ship them to us. And that's too expensive."

I sigh, and then luckily spot a set of wooden blocks hidden low on the floor by a sack filled with sawdust. Wooden blocks are basically a very simple toy, requiring no paint or chemicals to build. I lift the box and ike what I see. I ask for the price, and to my immense relief, am told that the blocks are affordable. "This product is good," I say. "This product I can buy."

The director beams. We may have not done a lot of business, but at least we have done some. He suggests we return to his office order to discuss the fine details of the order I am about to place.

We step outside, and I feel the sun, intensely warm, flood my face. It warms me through and through. I had forgotten how cold it was inside the factory.

We three return to the front office, where cookies and tea have been laid out for us. The kindness and gentleness of the Belorussian people is something I appreciate so much. With glaring exceptions, they are an exceptionally warm and hospitable people.

We sit and I gratefully and eagerly (I try not to appear desperate) accept the offer of cookies and tea. I cradle the teacup in my hands, trying to draw every bit of warmth from it. Inside, it's desperately cold again.

Time flies as we sit and chat, getting to know each other better. We discuss the nature of business in our respective countries. The director asks what Las Vegas is like, how many cars an average American owns, and if it's true that most Americans carry guns on their person (this last from a recent article in the local newspaper). Three cupfuls of tea and many cookies later, I ask the director if I may use the restroom.

He hesitates.

The director throws a concerned look at his associate and says something softly in Russian. She pauses, considers, then shrugs her shoulders slightly and nods her head toward Vladimir. The director asks something of Vladimir, who responds laconically. But I note he has a faint smile upon his lips afterward.

The director gestures to me and leads me out the door to the back of the factory where we halt before a rickety, oblong wooden shed: the factory's bathroom. He stands embarrassed, knowing I'm not going to see a bathroom like this anywhere in America. I become aware that he is closely watching to see how I will react.

I step inside. Belarus seems to have the corner on the most interesting, and at times, most appalling bathrooms in the world. This one is about what I had expected. Ten or so ovals have been crudely sawn out of the rough flooring in the center of the room--they have actually been cut out of the floor! No toilet paper is available (thank God my bathroom needs today are relatively simple). Sweeps of lye have been cast across the floor in a half-hearted attempt at disinfectant.

For a moment, I wonder if I should ask if there is another bathroom available. The women's perhaps? But I just as quickly realize there won't be one. Both sexes use the same toilet. And at the same time.
The key to avoiding embarrassment in this bathroom is to hurry. Luckily, I am prepared to do that.

"I am sorry," the director says slowly in heavily accented English.

I had forgotten about him.

I'm determined not to humiliate him. I give a "What the heck!" wave of the hand and step up to the first hole. "Let's go," I say. He smiles and steps up to what I assume is the executive hole, and joins me.

We walk back to the office as friends. There, I am treated to one last cup of tea. I learn that the director's assistant makes the tea herself, gathering all the ingredients from the surrounding forest. I admit that it's very good tea, which pleases her immensely.

A few minutes later, after I have placed an order, we shake hands goodbye. Our meeting is at a end. Vladimir and I step out into the street. A tractor lowers its bucket at the curb before which we stand. The two old women we had seen before walk up with the halting gait of old age and begin to shovel dirt from the gutter into the tractor's metal bucket. A few meters further up the street, a pair of old men sweep the dirt off the street into neat, conical piles in the gutter.

It's the community's spring-cleaning program; a method used to give retirees a bit of extra cash. One of the men stops and lights a cigarette. He says something which makes his partner laugh. The two women hear the remark and join in the laughter. They shout back something either rude or coy, which doubles the men over with laughter.

It is a charming scene and so utterly human. The sun shines brightly and I notice the street is lined with plane trees with fast-swelling buds. A warmer wind begins to blow in from the west. The old men and women turn their faces toward it and smile.

It must be beautiful here in summer.