EPISODE 4 – How to Hate Your Visit to Russia:
Don’t Carry Small Change, Try to Pay for Things With Large Notes.
I should have known better. I’ve been living here in St Petersburg for 12 years now. In a sense, I have no excuse.
But you see, the sun was shining. That Spring smell of melting snow and positively charged ions was in the air. It was a Saturday morning. The errand I had to run was local enough for me to be able to jump on my bike for the first time in 4 months and whizz over there. I wasn’t thinking straight.
What’s more, the errand was to pick up and pay for the refurbished battery to one of my power tools. I’d agreed to pay 40 dollars to get the battery refurbished, when I could just have bought an entirely new tool for about 30 dollars. But the budding environmentalist in me railed against that thought. There’s nothing wrong with this drill, other than the battery has died. I’ll get it fixed, and keep using it. I won’t add to all the stuff in the landfills. I’ll be a good citizen!
You can see it coming, can’t you? Spring in the air, and the self-righteous positivity of a planet-saver… If there’s one thing Russia’s good at, it’s bringing you back down to earth.
I cycled the mile to Ozerki, a nearby metro station. Small businesses huddle around it in their lazy attempt at profiting from footfall: at least with lots of customers, you don’t need to provide any kind of customer service.
There’s a little stolen-phone shop that acts as a drop off point for the battery refurbishment people. I arrive hot and sweaty, in a bit of a hurry. The lugubrious, grey-skinned old man behind the counter rummages through all the repaired batteries until he finds mine, breathes heavily over the paperwork, and tells me the price – 2850 roubles. I hand him a 5000 note.
“Ain’t got change.”
“Oh.” I didn’t bother asking if they took cards.
“Saturday morning. Landlord came round last night and took it all in rent.”
“Well why didn’t you give him the rent in large notes?”
“It’s just… The whole country’s like this. None of you shop owners ever wants to make any money.”
“Ain’t my shop.”
“I just don’t understand. You must have this same problem every week, if not every day. Why don’t you arrange to have change for large notes? The rest of the world does it.”
“I’ve been all over Europe and I didn’t see them doing that.”
“Have you? Well I grew up there, and I did. It’s called a ‘float’. I don’t know the word in your language.”
And on that problem-solving note, I stormed out of the shop to go and find some change, clattering my poor Brompton behind me. For good measure, I angrily stuffed the sacred paperwork into my pocket. There’s nothing more sacrosanct to a true Russian jobsworth than the paperwork. To rip or crumple it is the surest sign of contempt.
Getting change from a large note (the 5000 rouble note is the largest) is never easy. People protect the small ones like they’re their own offspring. They’ll swear blind that they have no change, though the till may be stuffed with it. They’ll sigh and huff when you threaten them with a large note. They’ll likely mutter at you under their breath, and if you’re the third person in a row to do it to them, it’ll no longer be under their breath.
The trick, of course, is to choose the right sort of store, and to buy something. Russian towns and villages are littered with stores called ‘Produkti’ – literally, ‘products’. They’re independent shops, a bit like the British corner shop, or off-licence. They sell beer and wine, cigarettes, gum, soft drinks, snacks, inedible fruit and veg, and maybe a freezer full of last year’s ice cream. High traffic, low-margin, they always have change.
“Hello” I call out, artificially cheery, “Can I have that gum, and this chocolate bar, please?”, as I nonchalantly slide my 5000 megaton weapon across the counter. Note my cunning – I asked for a chocolate bar as well, there’s no way she’ll know all I want is some change.
“Don’t have change.” She chucks the chocolate bar back behind the counter, and folds her arms looking at me. I might as well have said enough rude things about her mother to make a sailor blush.
Knowing that if there’s to be a battle, it’ll be lost by me, I make a hasty retreat, muttering “You fucking people! Fuck I hate this country! You’re useless!” all the way.
I walk along the line of shops, trying to steer the bike out of the way of the ambling masses, looking for another appropriate shop. They’re all payday loans places, or hot snack joints – the former won’t hand out change as that’s their business, and the latter won’t have any yet as it’s only 10:00 am.
There’s an old woman selling what looks like second hand tights and old shoes, spread out on some plastic on the ground. Maybe she’s done a roaring trade so far this morning:
“Hi, do you have change from a…”
“Whaddaya want?” she yells, high pitched, one eye squinting, at me.
I push the bike on further to the end of the row of shops.
“Fuck I hate Ozerki.” I have to make an effort not to say ‘Russia’, just limiting my anger to this miserable region of high-rises and office rats.
I’ve already spent 10 minutes looking for change, and all I’ve found is aggression. I turn the corner, cross a road, and walk into a women’s accessories shop – garish nail polishes and cheap sunglasses. The two middle aged chatterboxes don’t even look up. I decide to try the direct approach.
“Hi, I don’t suppose you’ve got change for a 5000 have you?”
“Ha! Change!” It’s funny, apparently.
“What? Why not?”
“Saturday. Go into the bank over there, they’re legally obliged to give you change.”
“Rubbish, they’ll just tell me to piss off.”
“No no, go to the cash desk and they have to change notes for you.”
“Well why don’t you go there yourselves and get change for your customers?”
“Can’t leave the shop, can I?”
I walk over to the bank, all freshly renovated, the staff in new uniforms, and an electronic queueing system controlling things. I stare at the screen, realising that there’s a problem with the programme – half of the screen is blank, while the icons are shifted half a screen to the right. I see one that says ‘Cash, pensions’. I don’t need a pension, but I do need a cash operation. Number B24. The overhead screen tells me it’s on B20, so not long to wait. A22 races ahead to A30. C and D look like they’re making record time. B21 comes up. As I’m about to harrumph, an old woman raises her voice:
“Where’s the desk I need?”
“Over there, where the young man is.”
“I don’t need a young man, I need desk E!” she yells, to much sniggering, and then walks off in his direction.
“God, I don’t have time for this!” I mutter exasperated.
Half an hour now since I set off to get some change and I’m still nowhere nearer. Eventually my ticket comes up.
“How can I help you?”
“Hi, I need a cash operation, I need to change this note into smaller notes.”
“I can’t help you with that. You should have pressed…”
“What?! What should I have pressed if I want to do an operation with cash? This is cash, right?”
“Yes it is, but you should have pressed the ‘currency’ button.”
“There wasn’t one. Your machine’s broken. And anyway, this isn’t a foreign currency. This is Russian currency, and all I need is some change.”
“Yes, you need to press the currency button. Oh, and you’ll need your passport.”
At this point I truly lost it, and switched into English.
“What the fuck?! Why do I need my passport – which comes from the words ‘pass’, to travel through something, and ‘port’, a port, a place where international travellers pass through. Why the hell would I need a passport to break a rouble note into smaller denominations? I don’t even want to convert it into a foreign currency. Just roubles!”
In a remarkable display of calm she replied:
“I don’t speak English. German, yes.”
So I repeated myself in Russian, shouting over my shoulder as I stormed out of the bank. This was getting me nowhere. I seriously considered just leaving, forgetting about the repaired battery – all this hassle, just because I was trying to be a good citizen. I tried going into a beauty parlour, but they told me to get out with my bike. I tried a notary’s office, who said the same. Finally I found a little coffee window, and managed to buy a coffee I didn’t want to get change that someone else needed. The coffee was remarkably good, but still she didn’t have a 50 rouble note – so I had to go back to the first produkti, and buy some gum after all. This time she did sell it to me.
“And no, I don’t need the bloody chocolate now.”
I clattered my way, coffee spilling, back into the stolen-phone shop, in such a fury that if I’d had to say a word, it would have come out as a ten minute tirade of abuse. Fortunately, I got away with slapping my notes down on the desk, pulling out the crumpled paperwork, and staring into the middle distance while he fiddled about. Not a word was said, and as I went to leave, the other guy in the shop, newly arrived, looked up to see how it was that a transaction had been undertaken, evidently to both parties’ satisfaction, without a word being said. I gave him no clues, leaving in silence, cursing Ozerki as I pedalled away.
1) Don’t go to Ozerki
2) Always carry change. Go out of your way to collect the stuff.
3) Take your passport with you.
4) Think clearly before the red fog descends: all I needed was a 50 rouble note in change. I had a 100 and a 5000, yet for some reason I was set on changing the 5000, forgetting about the 100. Silly, silly boy.
5) Nobody in Russia has ever heard of a ‘float’. Don’t expect them to. They never will.
Take these lessons to heart, and you can avoid another of the reasons for hating Russia.