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Focus on Safety




I was still fuming as we left the factory's offices and crossed the slushy street toward the factory's apartments where I would be spending the night. I was so angry that I didn't notice the grey slush spattering my pants legs as we tried, and failed, to cross the street without too much sartorial damage. Youri, sensing my black mood, and embarrassed at how I had been treated, said little.

We stepped onto the sidewalk and followed a worn, dirt trail in the snow leading toward the dilapidated building which housed the factory's employees. I wasn't looking forward to spending another night in this miserable hovel. I knew what to expect: No heat, no hot water, noise throughout the night.

Youri led me up the chipped, concrete steps to the entrance, which was nothing more than a heavy green-painted metal door with a bare light bulb above feebly lighting the entry. The light began to swing in the wind as Youri opened the door, and again as the heavy, metal door loudly slammed shut. Because energy costs are so prohibitively high, Belorussians have installed metal doors which are weighed so they will close immediately upon being released. They don't really close in the normal sense; they slam loudly and forcefully. You could easily lose a finger if you were a bit careless.

I followed Youri down a dirty, institutional hallway. Large pieces of paint had peeled off the wall in the past and never been painted over. The previous coat of paint, a camouflage green, showed through where the latest coat of paint had worn away. Lurid, lime colored linoleum on the floor had peeled back in large patches over the years, making walking a bit treacherous. I stumbled several times over sections which had only partially peeled away from the floor.

Youri instinctively knew how to avoid the worst linoleum patches, and I quickly learned to follow his patch closely. He led us toward a closet-sized cubicle from which an old crone, hearing our approach, stepped out into the hallway and blocked the way.

In Belorussian apartment buildings, someone is entrusted with keeping the keys to each apartment. The fact that you may own the apartment in question is irrelevant--everyone must hand over their keys on exiting the building to the guardian. And when you return, you must present yourself to her cubicle in order to pick up your keys again. This is a throwback to Stalinist times when government felt a great need to closely track the comings and goings of its own populace. And, today, Big Brother is still watching. Only it's Big Sister now. Or, more accurately, Big Babushka.

To make this process as painful as possible, the oldest, meanest woman in the city is usually elected to be the keeper of the keys. It has been said that there is noone as regal in Buckingham Palace as a lowly doorman. It is the same case here. These old women guard the keys zealously, considering them prized possessions not to be given up without a fight.

And now, she stood before us, her breath hanging in the freezing air as she coldly looked us up and down. She especially didn't like me.

Youri, who must have met her a million times in the past, asked for the key to the guest apartment. The old crone did not answer, and instead stepped to the side so she could give me a cold review. She frowned, nodded her head sharply in my direction, and asked something in a rough voice of Youri.

Youri rolled his eyes (she did not see it) and repeated his request. The old woman shook her head 'no,' and walked back into her cubicle, leaving the two of us standing speechless in the hallway.

Youri does not possess a forceful personality, so this represented quite a dilemma. He looked at me for help, and realized that with my limited Russian language ability I could do little...and then followed the old woman into her lair.

This is never, ever done. If the old woman decides you don't get the keys, then you don't get the keys. And that's that! Custom dictates that you are allowed to try again in a few hours (a present of either hard currency or hard liquor often does wonders).

Youri had no money and was a teetotaler to boot. Then, for the first time since I have come to know him, I saw Youri angry. He began to yell at her, followed her as she tried to flee, and punctuated the one-sided discussion by jabbing the top of her broken chair several times with his finger. It was an impressive sight.

The jabbing with the finger seemed to do the trick. Reluctant to strike her colors, the old woman was reduced to growling something under her breath as she reached deeply into her pocket and extracted the key. It was as old and worn as she was.

Still angry, Youri snatched the key from her hand and stormed down the hallway. I walked behind as quickly as I could, down a double set of metal doors, the middle of which stank strongly of urine, and down a darkened hallway to the guest apartment, the door of which was covered in the traditional Belorussian fashion with leather with brass spikes. The leather covering, I think, says "Welcome." The brass spikes add, "But don't get too comfortable."

Youri turned the key in the lock, pushed open the door, and fumbled along the interior wall for the light switch, which clacked on loudly. A bare light bulb over the formica table in the kitchen came to life. I don't think there's a lampshade in all of Belarus.

Two metal chairs with burgundy upholstery kept the little table company. The kitchen had no cabinets, nor was there a sink (the tap in the bathroom providing multiple services).

I was keen to see the bathroom, easily the most important of all rooms in Belarus. I didn't like what I saw. The walls were painted in a horrible "pistachio meets radioactive cloud" color combination. Beige pipes crisscrossed the interior walls. The sink was filthy and cracked, but it was a great improvement over the toilet, which was unspeakably bad. It was missing the lids and the interior of the bowl was streaked with sedimentary layers of earth-tones. Tiles had come up in their entirety and been discarded. Beneath them, black sections of cross-hatched grout had captured dust and dirt, none of which had been swept up over the years.

"Does it have water?" I asked Youri. He nodded his head vigorously in reply with an "of course" expression on his face.

"Hot water?"

He shrugged.

I picked up my suitcase and carried it into the sleeping area which was nicely paneled with wood on the walls and floor. Small carpets broke up the wooden expanse of the floor. The bed, while rather small, looked more than sufficient. An ancient black and white television stood on a rickety TV tray. The rabbit ears antenna resembled an early version of the Sputnik, and dwarfed the set itself.

"The director will be arriving in just a moment," Youri said as he walked into the kitchen and returned with one of the chairs. I sat on the bed. We chatted for a few minutes about his family but it soon became obvious that Youri was only killing time as he waited for the director to make his appearance. This made conversation difficult.

We sat and stared at each other; he on the chair, I on the bed, both of us uncomfortable. Time began to drag.

"Would you like to watch television?" Youri asked, suddenly seized by the idea. Not awaiting my response, he walked quickly toward the TV and pulled a plastic knob. The set came on with a sharp pop and a bright circle of white light appeared in the middle of the screen. It slowly grew larger until it had filled a quarter of the screen, at which point it stalled.

"Needs to warm up," Youri said with an grin.

A loud buzz of static, immediately followed by the appearance of a great hulk of a man in a business suit reading from a typewritten piece of paper, announced that the television had not given up the ghost. The microphone in front of the man, I saw, was shaped like a miniature nuclear reactor. A quarter-full glass of water stood to his right. The man stopped reading, drank from the glass, and continued reading in a monotone, never once looking directly at the camera.

"Perhaps another channel," Youri suggested and turned the channel selector to the right. Static. Another turn of the knob. More static. Another, desperate twist, and then images of beautiful Belorussian girls taking part in a folklorish dance festival filled the screen. They were elegant and moved--flowed is a better word--effortlessly across the stage. Their costumes were dazzling. Compared to our other option, this was just what we needed.

But one can only watch folklorish dances for so long. I caught Youri stealing a glance at his watch after half an hour. He saw that I had noticed the gesture and smiled. "Any second now," he assured.

So we watched more folklorish dances, one after the other. It eventually became unbearable, even for Youri who used to take part in a folklorish dance group in school. He looked at his watch again and said "Ten more minutes and he will be here. For sure."

Ten minutes became half an hour. Half an hour became an hour. The girls danced on.

Suddenly, a loud knock at the door shook us out of our stupor. Youri shot off the bed and strode to the door and opened it eagerly.

A short and square set man with a black cap on his head and cigarette in the side of his mouth (not the director) stepped inside. He shoved a cardboard box filled with boxes and cans toward Youri and then walked away. Youri carried the box to the kitchen and placed the box on the table.

"It is our dinner," Youri said, gesturing toward the box. "It means the director will be here in just a few moments. Would you like to watch some more television?"

"Sure," I said resignedly, and followed him to the bedroom where we watched folklorish dances for another half hour. I kept myself amused by rating the girl's attractiveness each time the camera came in for a close-up. Belorussian folk dancers hovered around the 6.4 mark, which I found surprising. But another hour of this, I knew, and I would find myself rating the men.

"We will wait ten more minutes only," Youri stressed, "And then we will look at the food."

Half hour later, I once again trod behind Youri as we entered the kitchen to survey what our dinner was to be. Youri seemed quite excited. He took his seat eagerly and reached into the box, proudly withdrawing a heavy loaf of dark bread. "Bread!" he announced.

He reached into the box again and lifted a glass jar with rusty lid aloft. Pale, purple lumps in a mauve liquid swirled as Youri put the jar onto the table. "Beets," he said with a smile.

Another glass jar was removed, this time with bleached yellow cucumber forms inside "Pickles. Very good," he said.

A quarter wedge of old cheese in grease paper was laid alongside its semi-edible bottled cousins. Youri then held a cookie in the air. "Cookie," he said, rustling through the box. "Only one."

Two dull metal tins were fished out, each with a key attached to its upper surface. "I wonder what this could be," Youri said, puzzled. He inserted the key into the metal strip of one of the tins and turned it briskly, exposing contents that had a distant resemblance to corned beef. What I saw looked decidedly unhealthy. Great clumps of bright white fat floated in a watery liquid and snuggled up to small sections of gristly meat. There was no way that I was going to eat that.

"Meat!" Youri shouted like a lottery winner. "I told you the director would take care of dinner."

I didn't answer. "And let's see what we have in here," Youri said, reaching with barely concealed excitement for the second tin. An incredible stench filled the area after the first few turns of the key. "Salmon!" Youri announced, eyes wide. "We have salmon!"

I'm not a person who fancies salmon as it is. But this was not salmon. And if, somehow, somewhere, sometime in the past, it had once been salmon--it was salmon no more. It smelled. It was putrid, rancid. It was just plain off.

In his enthusiasm, Youri had forgotten that we were still one person shy of a dinner. He seemed quite saddened at the prospect of having to wait longer before tucking in. "We will wait ten minutes more for the director," he said with downcast eyes.

"It's been over two hours, Youri," I responded. "Face it, he's not going to come."

Youri considered this and then nodded. "You are correct," he said, and stood up. He found
two plastic plates and knives and forks in the bedroom. Since Belorussians do not use napkins as a general rule, our table was quickly set.

"What will you start with?" he asked.

I was in trouble and knew it. I didn't want to offend Youri, but neither was I going to put my health in jeopardy. "I'm not much of a meat eater," I said. "I think that I'd be happiest with bread and cheese."

"No meat? Great, more for me! I'll give you the cookie!"

I ate my bread and cheese and was grateful for it. As I watched Youri greedily wolf down the meat and salmon, I realized how incredibly blessed we are in the West. Youri devoured the contents of both tins, and swabbed the inside of both containers with bread so as not to miss a single bit. True to his promise, I got the cookie, while Youri finished the beets and ate several of the pickles.

Our dinner was over. It was late and we were both tired. Youri felt the need, however, to keep me company until the director came. We sat in silence on the bed for long minutes.

"He's not going to come, Youri," I said softly. "You should go home to your wife."

Youri considered this sadly. "Yes," he finally said resignedly, "I think you are once again correct. He will not come."

With a sigh, Youri stood up from the bed and shook my hand. I walked him to the door. "Lock the door behind me and bolt it," he cautioned. "Do not open it for anyone but me in the morning."

I promised him that I would. He smiled once again, gave a feeble wave, and stepped out, closing the door behind him. I walked back into the bedroom. A glance at the television confirmed that the folklorish dancers were still performing. I turned the channel selector but could only find a documentary about the harvesting of wheat. Not enough to keep my interest. I turned the set off.

I did a little work on my laptop, then undressed, turned off the light and crawled into bed. As I lay there, I listened to the night sounds. Outside, the cold wind buffeted the window. The light pattering on the window told me it was snowing again.

I thought about my wife and son, so far away. Upstairs, a young child cried out. A rough adult voice shouted in response. The child didn't like the answer, as children the world over rarely do and whines a response--and then the savage sound of heavy blows being dealt out penetrated the thin walls. The child screamed in terror.

Dear Lord, it was the same scenario as a year before. What must this child's life be like?