Saturday, February 2, 2008

In Which I Vex the Neighbors

We are installing a satellite dish on the roof. We spoke to one of our landlords about it. He said fine. Technically, we should get permission from the City, but landlord said not to unless we get busted.

Monday, while the workers were here, a strange man knocked on my door. Well dressed. Suit. Cashmere overcoat. Violating Fabulous Russian Girlfriend's Second Rule (the First Rule is to go to the hairdressers she recommends!), I opened the door to this stranger. We have double doors, and I could see through the peephole the guy was pulling on the outside door as I was unlocking it. Very odd.

"Hello . . ." I say, looking confused. We stare at each other for a moment. "Can I help you?"

"YOU DON’T SPEAK RUSSIAN?!" he says angrily.

" . . . no . . . I'm sorry," I say very meekly.

"VHY NOT!" he barks.

"Because I've only been here a month . . .” I say, my voice getting smaller and smaller.

Then the light bulb goes off. This is my Russian teacher, who I have not yet met.

I smile a big smile and say, warmly, "ROMAN!" and start to extend my hand, except I realize in the middle of doing this that I am trying to shake hands over the threshold, which, I now know, is a big no-no in Russia.

"Oh, right. The threshold," I say, stepping over it in an exaggerated step.

Now outside my apartment door, I shake his hand and say "Nice to meet you. I'm The Expatresse."

Well, as it turns out, it is NOT Roman the Russian teacher. Angry Man won't tell me his name or title or anything, but in a forceful way tells me, in pretty good English, that I don't have the right papers permitting me to install the dish on the roof.

“Would you like to come in?” I’m thinking the stairwell is no place for a serious discussion. “I’ll make coffee . . . or would you prefer tea?”

“NO!” He looks horrified, and even steps back slightly before continuing to harangue me.

My heart is pounding like crazy, but I just act very polite and respectful and say things like, "Yes, sir" and "Oh dear!" I keep pressing him for a business card because I figure surely I will need to contact him again to show I have the proper paperwork.

I push.

“YOU CAN GET SOME PAPER!” he orders.

No, I want a card or a badge or something to help me figure out who the hell this guy is.

I ask again, politely, "Don't you have a visit card?” This is really confusing to me. “You represent the building? The City? What office?"

He just shakes his head, and finally gets out his wallet and begins fishing for a card. He pulls out a pen, scribbles a number on the back, and announces, “MY MOBILE!” and leaves me standing there, holding the card.

Back in the safety of my apartment with its two sets of locked doors, I look at the card. It is all in English and gives his title as Deputy Minister of what I consider a ministry that is totally unrelated to the issue at hand. It is nothing to do with building codes or labor. Let’s just call it the Ministry of Silly Walks, for lack of a better title. I wonder if it even is his card. I realize it isn't even a mobile phone number, but a land line.

What follows next are a series of conversations involving me, the Spouse, Dieter (the guy who sold us the dish and arranged for the workers), the workers, and Tariq (the landlords’ Man Friday).

Dieter believes the problem is our neighbors, the nice family who has the other apartment on our floor: they must be upset/offended/whatever that we did not ask their permission. Since we don't (yet) have the proper papers from the City, they will call the police if we continue.

Dieter calls me while I am walking home from school with Skittles.

“Go over there tonight! Take them a bottle of something tonight and beg their forgiveness,” he counsels.

But what? And how? If we have committed some sort of faux pas already, I want to get the protocol down for any sort of summit talks.

“Vodka!” he says. “Take them vodka . . . no! Whiskey is better. All Russians already have vodka. Whiskey is good! A nice American whiskey. But don’t spend more than $20.”

“But what am I supposed to come away with?” I ask. “Just their word to back off and a handshake?”

“Right!” he says. “Oh, and take your kids with you."

So Skittles and I stop at the liquor store, and I begin to wonder where Dieter buys his American whiskey because there ain’t nuthin’ in the $20 range. I walk out with a medium sized bottle of Johnny Walker Black Label.

Back at home, Skittles draws the neighbors a nice picture. We wait until about 7:00 p.m., which is quittin' time for most Moscow businesses, and ring their doorbell. Their teenage daughter answers, and says her parents are out until at least 9:00 p.m.

Well, 9:00 p.m. is past bed time for Skittles. But Dieter thinks it’s not too late for a social call. I’m thinking Dieter wants this project finished so Dieter can get paid. I’m not calling on anyone after 9:00 p.m. This is not Spain.

So a few days pass during which both the Spouse and I poll Muscovites and more experienced expats about the scenario. No one we talk to can quite understand why the neighbors would care if we mount a dish on the roof. Further, no one can fathom why they would send the Deputy Minister of Silly Walks to convey their message.

“Russians are direct people,” says Fabulous Russian Girlfriend.

The Spouse proposes we invite them over for drinks this weekend. But how to do it? I rarely see them. I post the etiquette question on a local expat forum:

Should I write a note in a nice card? If so, do I attach it to their door or put it in their mailbox? Or should I lurk and try to catch them when they are home (stress!) I know they go skiing. Do I specify a day, or can I say "Either Saturday or Sunday around 14:00"? Then there’s the question of how much food to provide. My understanding is that the Russians load the table so the guests have a better chance of finding something to their liking. So what? And how much?

Should I have them RSVP? This has International Incident written all over it.

On a trip through the Vienna airport, the Spouse brings me some prosciutto, a favorite of mine that is prohibitively expensive in Moscow. But before I can tear the package open, he suggests I save it for the neighbors. “It would be a nice treat to share, don’t you think?”

Sigh. Yeah. I put it in the fridge.

Meanwhile the discussion on the forum is fast and furious.

Don’t invite them in writing. Do it in person, says one.

Keep it casual so they don’t feel uncomfortable, suggests another.

Then advice starts getting more specific and more useful: Knock on their door, and ask them over for tea. Bring out some vodka or a good whiskey. Wine for the wife. Offer cookies or cakes, but have things like sausage, pickles, and cheese ready if they start drinking. Have something on hand to cook quickly if everyone starts to get too drunk.

Another, extremely useful note comes next: When in Rome, do as the Romans, so try to get Russian pickles, some marinated tomatoes, a nice local cheese. Some cold cuts, but no coppa and parma and bresaola. Splurge on some nice, dark bread. Have a box of good quality chocolates, something to drink, but again not over the top because it might look intimidating. Try SOUTHERN COMFORT whiskey, which my Russian friends just love. Don't make an 'appointment,' but just ring the bell and invite them straight over. Oh, and don't take out their garbage anymore.

So the good news is the charcuterie from Vienna is mine, mine, mine!

Back on the forum, jokes begin to fly about the level of damage I’ve done and the best escape route from our apartment.

I laugh and explain that, to date, the neighbors have said nothing directly to us. No voices have, in fact, been raised. Further, I'm still taking their trash with mine to the dumpster if I'm heading that way . . . I'm a good neighbor and a sport!

There was a resounding chorus of “YOU WHAT?” from the forum members.

“That’s not polite. That’s bizarre! Stop it at once!” they tell me. “You will appear stupid or crazy or both.”

“But we talked about it,” I explain. “They apologized for leaving their bags in the hallway. ‘We make a lot of trash,’ the wife confided. I said I do it too . . . but if I'm going I'll take theirs along . . . we invited each other to borrow a cup of sugar or whatever from time to time.”

Now once I accidentally shut the elevator in their faces. I thought the wife said, "I'll just wait" as the husband was locking the door. I don’t think they have as many locks as we do, but these things do take time. So I let the elevator door close. As she wrestled it open, I realized she had said, "Please wait." I apologized immediately and said something about it being early, not enough coffee, mea culpa, mea culpa.

But neither the Spouse nor I could see them being upset enough by the trash or the elevator incident to dispatch the Angry Man to our door. They have lots of international friends if I understood them correctly. They gave me language school recommendations. It just didn’t make sense.

“But remember when our Slovak neighbor recycled our trash,” the Spouse points out an amusing and horrifying story from our Bratislava days. “Maybe they feel the same way you felt then.”

Good point. The Slovak neighbor was well meaning, but I was mortified. I concede about the trash at least.

So all week I have been slinking in and out of the elevator like a furtive rat, afraid I will see them in passing. I walk right by their bags of trash on my way to the dumpster, even though it rankles my Unitarian heart to do so.

On Friday morning, as I return from taking the kids to school, I see they have pizza boxes in the hall. Pizza boxes with a website on them. In English. For a pizzeria that, maybe, just possibly, delivers!

But I have my hands full and nothing to write with. I figure I can unlock my 34 locks, go inside, set down my things, take off my coat and boots, and go find a pen and paper. I’ve seen these boxes in the hall before, but never could remember the name of the pizza place once I got in the house. But this time! This time, I’m going to write it down.

As I open my front door to go back out in the hall, I see the elevator doors close. It was the neighbors, taking their empty boxes down to the dumpster.


In the meantime, the Spouse has done a bit of sleuthing. Turns out that Angry Man is a neighbor, and is the Deputy Minister of Silly Walks, but he lives another wing of the building.

How he came to know about our dish and why he cares remains a mystery. But our neighbors are not involved in this at all.

That’s a relief.

But what to do with one medium-sized bottle of Johnny Walker Black Label? Neither of us can stand the stuff.


miamibob said...

This situation is very fraught. Fraught I tell you. (Don't you just love that word?) Maybe trying to get the right paperwork is an option? At the very least it should be good for a blog or two. By the way, your verification checker has spit out some very interesting words. Take for instance this one right now: szjjpotp. That must be Russian for the sound popping corn makes?

valentina said...

Keep the Johnnie Walker for the next crisis as surely there will be another. Or track down the disenchanted neighbor and leave it for him with a note.

OH the road to detente never did run smooth...

Anonymous said...

Send the JW back to OH. Your sister-in-law loves it. Just don't tell your mother-in-law. I don't want to hear it.

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