The Zen of the Line

1999 > Russia

Some days it actually pays to wait in line

Talk about speed!

I took the hydrofoil instead

too much order in the world!

And this is an orderly line
The day before I left I my journey along the Volga River cities,
my friend Dave asked me how I felt to be traveling all the time. I know his
workaholic style, so I knew what he was really asking; was traveling around
Russia worth giving up my cushy expat job? I took a moment to think about
that question, and I told him that some days, when I was moved by a sight,
sound, speech, or emotion, I though I was doing the right thing, but other
days, when I spent it waiting in a line, I felt that I’d made a mistake.
That waiting three hours in a Toglatti train station just to ask the dezhorniya
when the train left Samara and got into to Ulyanovsk, was a waste of my brief
moment on this Earth. I was wrong.

I waited three hours to ask those two questions, and I’d do it again. Well
I did do it again, this morning even! I waited in line for three hours with
Lidia as she applied for a visa to visit Scotland. Why? Because in those
three hours in Toglatti, I wrote a letter to a friend of mine who is headed
to Kosovo as an Army MP. I wrote to her about the beauty and insanity of
lines in Russia. How Russians have developed a system, over the countless
hours and countless lines during Soviet times, to actually accomplish something
with nothing.

When you approach the end of a line here, you ask who is last, and stand
behind them for fifteen minutes or so. Then, where there are a few people
behind you, you ask the person in front of you to save your place. Then you
step into the next line and repeat the process. After you have two, or maybe
even three spots, you dance between them till one is close to the window
you need to get to or you just have a seat and rest your feet. Just before
your turn, you return and reclaim your space. If you are lucky, the window
will still be open when you get there, but you don’t give up your place in
the other lines until you’ve done your business at the first window. You
never know it might close in front of your face!

The big problem arises when the person who was saving your place in one line
goes to his other line, or leaves completely. Then you have to try and reassert
your place in that line before the people behind you forget you were there.
This happened several times to different people while I was in line in Toglatti,
and the ensuing babushki shouting matches was a sight to be seen! I only
wish my cussword-Russian was better so could have learned a few things about
those ladies’ mothers!

Now, as I type this, I am smiling at the memory of those ladies fighting
tooth and nail for every spot in the line. Yes, that three-hour wait was
worth every second. Worth more than the hundreds of dollars, PwC would have
paid me to work that day. Worth more than all the vodka in Russia and all
the tea in China, combined.

Yes, Dave, I couldn’t be happier with my decision to leave the corporate
rat race, and I don’t regret it a minute, a dollar, or a three-hour wait
in line. I’ve leaned something amazing after two weeks of lines in the provinces,
something my father thought I’d never learn: patience.