Second World Problems (and their solutions)

I wanted to write about the plane crash in Kazan but I keep sneezing because my apartment is dusty. The floor in my apartment looks like wood, but it’s not fooling anyone. It’s plastic. My apartment underwent a remont before I moved in. But not a full one. That is, someone put in new wallpaper, new windows. This happened long ago enough that the cabinets don’t close, that the bed has dust from the times of Lenin. This is what we call a furnished apartment. The tablecloth is a sheet of of linoleum with oranges and flowers. You can see where they ran out of money for the remont. It was the bathroom. Half of my bathroom has tiles on the floor and half has concrete. Tiles cracked in jagged shapes had been piled under the tub, itself raised on rusty iron feet, in the middle of the bathroom before I moved in. There is an old water jug filled with what might be ammonia, and someone has cut off the top of another water jug to catch the dripping of the tub faucet.

Since the walls are concrete, it’s hard to drill in for a shower curtain, and judging from the tub faucet, which is is surrounded by holes, drilled in concrete, failed goes by an amateur to fasten the thing in place, it will take a few attempts. I tried once nailing something in the wall, but the paint came off in note-card sized strips like bark, revealing giant holes. From those holes pour out ants, against which I lay goo on a monthly basis. Then about every three weeks the neighbors, to whose apartment the ants have gone, lay out  goo against the ants, and they come back. I have to say I don’t miss them, and when they come back I scream. The ants, I’m told, are in the septic system which runs down pipe between the apartments. In other words, impossible to get rid of. The stairwell is dusty and dirty, and is covered in chipped paint. There is a door which goes nowhere. I think someone put in a new door and never brought the old one outside. It’s been there for at least the 15 months I have been here. Someone is paid to clean to stairwell, but she gets paid maybe 20 dollars a month, and is armed with only a bucket, a venik (which is a broom without a handle) and a mop, which is in reality a sheet of recycled insulation poked on the end of a stick. These instruments are also used to clean the dirty courtyards. Courtyards with a second-rate mop, people.


The person who sought out the apartment for me claims she never noticed the ants which were everywhere when I moved in. The woman who cleaned my apartment before I moved in failed to scrape the piles of ants of the floor and walls, or vacuum, or apparently sweep and mop. I’m not sure what the cleaning woman did do, and when I saw her months later she said that I should hire her to come clean my apartment on a regular basis. She admitted it was dirty. “You need me to clean. That place is filthy,” she said. That idea that it was her job to clean and that fact that it wasn’t cleaned didn’t cross her mind. There are wires hanging from the ceiling, tucked above my doors, into the stairwell, onto the street, and into neighboring buildings. Electric lines for the trolleybuses are held in place by concrete weights free floating over the sidewalk, within reach of pedestrians. These lines are tucked into my building right at the window. It all seems a bit fragile. The grates over my radiator are laid in front of but a gauge too big to be secured in. The heat has only one setting: on. When my faucet stopped working, my landlord tied it together with shoelaces. Water didn’t come out, but it stopped rumbling. Until the cat jumped on it.

One day I got home and there was a second door in my stairwell with a code lock. Nobody had warned me or told me the code. I got in by guessing the code. Today, the code stopped working and one of my neighbors put in a cement block to keep the door open.

I have it good. A friend has her shower in the kitchen. A shower which doesn’t always work. Another friend’s apartment was set on fire when her sauna turned on automatically by accident. Another friend’s radiator has one setting: off.

Everything seems cheap and half-baked, and there’s no accountability. Why would someone thoroughly clean the staircase for only twenty dollars? My landlord says that she’ll have her son meet all my demands right away, and when I talk with him him promises to do everything immediately and apologizes. Sometimes he tries. I say, “Fix this.” And he says, “Okay, soon.” And that conversation repeats for months. I can’t demand more than a promise if I don’t plan on threatening to move out of the apartment. When I go out of town for a weekend, my landlord’s son, unannounced, moves in. And if I decided it was me or the leaky faucet, I think he’d choose the leaky faucet.

There are these irritating things that on certain days can bring despair to anyone. One of the things that makes Russia a magical place, I think, is that in the face of so much deterioration things sort of work out.


It is haunting to imagine that as a result of an international news story the entire world read for one day that the regional Tatarstan airlines had a convenient schedule for flights to Moscow from Kazan. This was a statement kept for lulls in the conversations for business people who fly back and forth between Moscow and Kazan often, not for the whole world to know. It’s like saying, I love that 5:23 train express cause after Harlem 125th street it goes all the way Pleasantville, so I can get to Golden’s Bridge ten minutes faster. It was never meant to be international news, but, yeah, I guess people do talk about it.

Like so many other people in a city small enough I knew people on the flight and thought about taking it. But it is banal to say almost anything. For example: I could have been on that flight. Because anyone could have been on that flight. The flight number had appeared across my screen when I was researching how to get to St. Petersburg, an unbelievably low price and a convenient time, as many newspapers reported, and wondered how they cut the costs. I wanted a direct flight and that fateful flight would have taken us through Moscow. The flight I chose was to land in the same airport only a couple of hours the plane that crashed.

And so began the second world problems. Our flight was delayed since the Kazan airport was closed. One can imagine two of the most famous bureaucracies combined to make a night 20th century short story writers would be proud to call their own: Russian government officials and airlines. We were put up in a hotel, but at first told we’d have to pay for it, and I’d have to register my visa with the hotel (which would be a pain to have to re-register when I arrived back in Kazan). We were told we would leave at nine in the morning the next day, but left at nine at night. The airline promised that we wouldn’t be left behind (A direct quote from the Rossiya airlines representative: Don’t worry sir. Our representative will not forget you!) and leave us at the hotel: The representative forgot about us and left us at the hotel. Our names were on the list like everyone elses, and you wonder about the other people on the flight: When five people who you’d spent the last two days with and had dinner and breakfast with and whose names you knew and what they were doing in town didn’t show up for the flight, and you recalled how they were worried about getting back to work on time, what did you do? Insist we not leave without them? Or keep quiet? Or raise your voice to ask, Hey, I dunno about everyone else, but I just want to get the hell home so I don’t have the weight of having to fly on my mind anymore?

We called the airline who told us that the bus to take us to the airport was at the hotel we were at when it was clearly not. They trust the data more than an eyewitness. It’s strange being told you are looking at a bus when you’re not. Buses are pretty big and hard to miss.

They couldn’t tell us if our plane would take off or when. Nobody knew at the airport phone number (which was busy the first five times we called). Not on the airline hotline. There was no manager to speak to, no higher-up. Better to just try our luck at the airport.

But we got a hold of somebody through the hotel (whose receptionists had for an hour been insisting that it wasn’t their responsibility to help us. You think, why insist it’s not your problem if you’re going to help in the end, anyway?), hired a taxi and made it to the plane, and the flight was fast and fine, and even though the man sitting behind us felt it necessary to accuse me of wasting his time, we took off. We circled the airport twice (remember, the Tatarstan airlines plane crashed when trying to land) and the whole vessel rocked back and forth and shook and there was dead silence. Suddenly, ants in your pants drawer, opened cabinets and chipped paint didn’t seem like such a big deal.

When we stopped moving, people gasped thank god, and told each other to have a good evening and get rest.

You know that bus ride to the tarmac from the terminal? Everyone’s eye were glued to the window looking for remnants of destruction.

I feel that by the time this would make it posted on the internet, readers will have forgotten.

The thing that struck me most is that in the end we made it home less than twenty-four hours late. With all the lies, and surreal bureaucracy, and general tone of insult people use as a shell to keep their fear away, everything worked out in the end. At least for me.

But soon the bureaucracy revved it’s engines again.

I had set my visa renewal process before the trip, and when I came to the visa office I was told I was too late (I arrived a day later than I had said I would), that I was holding the whole visa processing behind for everyone, and only when I said I was late because an airplane blew up (when this was the only possible explanation and they knew it) was I met with sympathy. The conversation went from “Where the heck have you been?” to “What a tragedy!” in under a second.

So, my visa was going to come in just under the wire, maybe, if I hurry up and come back tomorrow. I’d need to pay another three dollars. A bribe? No. Do you feel like telling me why I need to pay you money instead of just saying, “That’ll be three dollars,” when no transaction has taken place? I needed to pay three dollars because, guess what, I had to re-register my visa anyway (unrelated to my stay in the hotel). So if you’re new to this, you have your visa, your migration card, and your registration, and they’re all on cheap, flimsy paper and you’re supposed to have them with you at all times everywhere you go. Everytime you go to a different city you have to register that you are there. There is a grace period so for short trips it’s effectively unnecessary. I didn’t want to register in the hotel because I’d have to register when I returned home again. But I had to register when I returned home again, anyway, through the course of getting my visa prolonged. So all that worry was over nothing.

This is a big deal, because if you’re caught with an invalid registration and visa you can be deported and set with an automatic ban on new visas for at least five years.

When I arrived the following day it was revealed that my visa had been issued even before my leaving town over a week before, and the office had forgotten to call me. That, or they had lost my phone number, which they had written on the back side of some voided contract and left under a pile of Chinese passports. (Then again, in some other copy of some documents, they surely had my phone number, which I had provided several time.) When I had swung by the previous afternoon, the visa had already been sitting on the desk in front of us. The women in the office had just forgotten about it.

This is so typical. To anyone who has lived for an extended period of time in Russia it will ring a bell. They get you all excited and worried.But they’re doing the paperwork faster than they can even keep track of, and cleaning up disaster sites at an incredible rate. Sometimes you’re not lucky. There’s no use in predicting.

I was stressed by the whole situation, the infamous bureaucracy. But even bureaucracy doesn’t take planes out of the air like that.

Think about the greenpeace ship. These protesters were taken illegally from international waters. They were accused of being pirates, which they’re not, then hooligans, which has no clear definition, and now they’re being freed!

They pass a law against gay propaganda, and then come out and say they won’t enforce it against foreign nationals holding hands on the skating rink.

I can’t say that Russia has a good air safety record. In fact, I’m concerned that it was human fault, and lack of standards and an abundance of slackery that caused this flight to crash. We’ll never know. That kind of tragedy, however, isn’t reserved just for poorer countries, or less organized countries.

I can’t say, either, that it’s pleasant to have to run around jumping through hoops in search of finding the right person you need to talk to. It does, in fact, suck. It could be better and should be better. But it’s okay.

Sometimes it seems like you’re done for, that you have filled out all the wrong forms and are living in the wrong place. But if you’re patient, and take matters into your own hands, as though by magic it comes together. The line between real emergency and pretend emergency makes itself clear in the face of a tragedy.

I got home. I got my visa. I replaced the faucet in the kitchen myself, and bathtub still drips and the cabinets don’t close. The ants have subsided for this month. The door is held open with a cement block.

It’s going to be okay.