April 10, 2008 I Took a Marshutka Today

Posted in Rodger's Russia Book | Posted by rodger |


I took a Marshutka to the computer store today. I’ve spoken before about this uniquely Russian institution. Little 14 seat busses built into what looks like Dodge Maxi Van, they are a study in group motion. As the driver is busy driving, he can’t take money easily, so the 13 passengers pass the money from hand to hand until it gets to the driver and then pass back the change the same way. As these are short haul buses, people are getting on and off constantly, changing seats, squeezing themselves though the tiny aisles past seats which point in several directions and handling the heavy self-service entry door.

If they didn’t work together the passengers wouldn’t get anywhere.

The Marshutkas are mostly painted school bus yellow with a few white ones in the mix. Every single one of them should have racing stripe down the middle. The Marshutkas are owned by the drivers who pay a flat fee to the city for the route. Except for the usual bribes, the money they make is theirs to keep. As a result, they move like banshees through the streets. No one seems to care about saving gas, brakes or shocks. They just drive like hell to get as many passengers as possible as fast as possible. The one I was in today was racing another bus on the same route to get to the Bazaar first. My driver lost and was passed by the other one, who got the full load from the Bazaar stop. They have a fixed route, but not a schedule, so it’s a free for all fight for passengers, and remember that the driver is accepting money passed over his shoulder from the passengers behind him and making change all the while he is driving.

Russian safety tip: Do not ever decide to cross the street in front of an oncoming Marshutka. Your relatives will have a hard time getting the yellow paint off of you before the funeral.

Egg cartons are beginning to appear in Russia. However, most eggs are sold by the10 lot and handed to you in a clear plastic bag. Be careful how you carry those groceries.

Every culture since the invention of pocket change has had its fast food, and chains of fast food restaurants. Even in Pompeii, they have found the remains of a chain of identical restaurants with fast food in steam tables. (Romans liked soups, dried fish, heated vegetables, bread with olive oil, cheese, lentils, and hamburgers as fast food. They didn’t have mustard and catsup, but they served ground meat on a bun with pine nuts, lentils, and quarum for condiments.)

You’ve got McDonald’s and Taco Bell: Hamburgers, big hamburgers, bigger hamburgers, tacos, and burritos. We’ve got Plov! Meat is expensive and tough here, so most fast food is dough stuff: sweet buns, bad little hot dogs baked in a bun, deep fried khuchini (meat, cheese or cabbage filled pastries deep fried like donuts), perogi (same thing, baked), pushki, and other baked pastries, but today I had Plov!

At the bazaar, they have a long row of virtually identical fast food stalls. There are two old broken down tables inside each tiny restaurant, and each one has a large kettle out front. In that kettle, they keep a mixture of rice, beef, and carrots steaming all day. For 50 rubles (less than $2), they will dish you up a bowl of the stuff topped with sour cabbage and accompanied by dark bread. With a $1 bottle of Russian beer, you have the greatest $3 fast lunch I have ever had. Foo on McDonald’s.

Most Russians are aware of the election going on in America. Just about every one who finds out that I’m American asks what I think of Bush. Fortunately, the word “idiot” is the same in both languages. Then they ask who is going to win the election. I tell them that the polls show McCain will be an easy winner. Worries them a little, but the attitude world wide seems to be “Anyone but Bush!”

If I am talking with a woman, she will inevitable ask “How about Clinton?” Once, I muttered the word “bitch” as I tried to think of an appropriate Russian phrase. How was I to know that the women there understood that word in English and that the equivalent Russian it is a very, very dirty word? They still take my money in that store, but no one smiles at me or says anything anymore.

Maybe I’ll just start telling people that I’m Canadian.

The Russians are somewhat confused by the American politicians. In Russia, what little debate there is in a campaign is about things like how to apportion the budget, what to do about national defense, and the shortage of housing and health care. It’s hard for them to understand why a politician would base his campaign on a promise to stop homosexuals from marrying and bring God back into the White house.

Of course, the homosexual “issues” do not play here. Homosexual acts are officially legal in Russia, and there is a lot of freedom here, and no one really cares what you do in private. On the other hand, it is very much like America in the 50’s. If you are a man and another man makes a pass at you, you are encouraged to get a few friends together for a game called “pound the queer”. If you are a woman and are approached by another woman, you are encouraged to photograph the encounter for the Russian issue of Penthouse.

Of course, there are no such things as “gay pride parades” in Russia.

Of all the sad signs in the sad places of the world, the saddest must be “Remont” on the door of the elevator in our building. “Remont” translates as ‘Repair” and we live in a 9th floor apartment. These Megaliths were built at the height of the communist era. Nine stories tall, normally grouped in batches of 3 to 5 buildings around a play area, these are the ones you most often see in pictures of Russia.

Most Russian apartment buildings are built five stories tall. The price of an apartment depends a lot on what floor it is on. No one wants the first floor because passersby can see into, and, worse, break into your apartment. No one wants the fifth floor because Russians don’t put elevators into any building less than six stories tall. The favorite floor is the second with third and fourth following up. In a probably related matter, it is hard to sell a gym membership in Russia.

Where do old television series go to die? Sometimes, here.

No, I’m not desperate for entertainment. There is nothing desperate about watching 6 hours of television in a language that I don’t know. I watched two episodes of “The Nanny” and one episode of “Married with Children” done with Russian actors. Since the Russian actors use the same scripts as the Americans, I didn’t need language to understand the nanny’s glee when Maxwell stood up to his mother and said that he was going to marry the nanny, no matter how low class she was.

Then there was “Kto Boss?” (‘Whose The Boss”), “Are you smarter than a 5th grader”, “Denge Taxi” (“Cash Cab”), and “Weakest Link.”

Perhaps the definition of “Hot Water” should be recognized as a variable value. Maybe it doesn’t have to be really hot. Those of you who have camped do remember that a real cold water shower is a very painful experience. If you don’t remember, come on over and bring a towel. Perhaps if it doesn’t actually cause pain, you should consider water to be “somewhat hot”. Time for my shower. More, later.


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