200 kilometres north-east of Moscow, famed for its plethora of churches, some dating back to the 13th centaury, Lonely Planet: Eastern Europe, suggests that if I only have time to visit one so-called “Golden Ring” town (a cluster of small historic towns near Moscow), then it should be Suzdal'. As luck would have it, I have only visited one Golden Ring town, with my friend Phil, and it was Suzdal'.
But before we could get there, we first had to buy bus tickets.
The intercity bus station that services routes to the east of Moscow sits at the far edge of the city, adjacent to the terminal Metro station of Shchyolkovskaya. Fortuitously (although deliberately) I had been book-shopping that very morning, and had no ill feelings about an opportunity to read the opening chapters of Stephen King's The Drawing of the Three. (While in the bookshop, my overwhelming sense of intellectual narccissm compelled me to counter this purchase by buying both The Great Gatsby and Umberto Eco's Kant and the Platypus.)
While almost all of the Moscow Metro system is underground, there are short stretches of track away from the centre of the city that emerge above ground. When the trains aren’t so crowded that there isn’t enough room to breathe in all the way, enterprising sales-people offer trivial nick-knacks to sell, and buskers offer music, of a sort.
I heard in front of me some sounds, which I chose not to enquire about: the jangling of coins, the rattling of something mechanical and a deep breath inwards. Had I been more curious about this, and less concerned with Roland the Gunslinger and his confrontation with the mysterious creature form the ocean, it might not have hit my ear like battery acid when the woman standing directly before me began playing the piano-accordion at full volume – the only alternative to not playing that the instrument seems to offer – and singing over the top of it. She may, indeed, have been playing well, but if she was, then she was drowning herself out. I tried to pretend that she wasn't there, that it was possible to keep reading my book, that I live in a world free of war and hunger and spontaneous accordion music. When that failed, I decided to calculate the probability that this woman had of choosing this particular spot to perform: 10 carriages, on a train times four doors on each carriage times two trains running this stretch of track (one in either direction). I wanted to stand up and scream: You had 80 doors to choose from! 80! And despite the fact that your choosing any of 79 of those doors wouldn't have annoyed me at all, you still managed to choose the one door right next to me! Seriously?! But I kept my views to myself, for fear of looking like a crazy man yelling in a foreign language.
This serenade came to an end after what was probably only a few minutes, and the woman then walked down the carriage, as commuters deposited coins and small bank notes into the canvas bag slung through the crook of her elbow, departed at the next station, crossed the platform and boarded the opposite train. Even after her departure, I could still hear the accordion, and her singing – which reminded me of a vibrato-less musical saw – and I tried desperately to read my book in internal silence; but to no avail. Her music, for all that it was worth, lingered like a fart in a tent.
Arriving at last at the final stop on the line, I left the Metro system and wandered outside. A 360-degree survey of my surroundings revealed a large building with the words Bus Exchange written in Russian on the top.
Inside, and the building appeared to be much smaller – a reversed Tardis; for one thing, there didn't seem to be any access to the upper floors. The majority area of the accessible buildings was taken up by inter-city travelers, some sitting on hard plastic bucket-seats, others choosing the more comfortable option of standing. Along the far wall was a row of ticket booths, the women inside shielded from customers by a thick plate-glass window, and communicating my way of an electronic speaker-microphone.
I wandered up to an arbitrary kiosk. My time in Russia hasn't made a conversationalist of me, but I can manage the following pre-syntactic communication.
“2 tickets, Suzdal' Friday morning. Um, please.”
The woman smiled politely, tapped her keyboard with speed and purpose, then tore off a sheet of notepad and wrote 07.00 on it. She handed it tom me, and said in Russian “is this OK?”
7am? Are you freaking kidding me? There’s no way in hell I'm getting up at, what? 5.30 in the morning! I wouldn't get up that early if you set my house on fire! “… erm …”
She must have seen the look of rage and terror in my eyes, because she crossed out the number and wrote beneath it 08.10.
That'll have to do. I suppose we can sleep on the bus, after all.
“OK” I said.
She wrote down the amount that I needed to pay, sparing me the difficulty of cognating foreign numbers (a task which is made all the more difficult by the fact that, at about 30 rubles to toe American dollar, there is always at least one more digit to deal with.) I paid, then asked about return tickets.
“Return tickets? You can do that at window number 7.”
I have to go to a different window to get return tickets? How odd. Or rather, how typically Russian.
I approached booth number 7, tickets in hand, and asked about buying return tickets. This woman beckoned me in silence to hand her the one way tickets that I already had, which she promptly whacked with a large, blue stamp, then handed back to me along with a pile of cash.
Huh? What was, did, these…? Crap!
I skulked away and sat down to plan my next move. I wanted two tickets to Suzdal' and back. I also wanted to avoid showing people one-way tickets and saying “I want to return” which had proved to be ambiguous. I didn't take long to think of a solution, to adapt an approach that is nothing less than a keystone of EFL teaching.
2 х Москва à Суздаль 08.10 1/5
2 х Суздаль à Москва днём (afternoon) 3/5
With this scrawled on the back of a supermarket receipt, I approached a cashier’s window (a different one from the first, of course. A man must save face wherever possible.) I slid my diagrammatic request through the small gap under the window between us, and looked at the woman I hoped would sell me the tickets I wanted. She looked at the paper, then back at me.
“I can only sell you tickets to Suzdal'. You'll have to buy tickets to come back when you’re in Suzdal'.” She said.
“Um, to Suzdal', OK?” I replied. “But I must buy tickets to Moscow in Suzdal'?”
“Yes.” She said.
When it comes to Russian, my ability to form an understandable Russian sentence far outstrips my ability to understand what people have said to me. At times I’m left feeling like a retarded parakeet.
Valid, one-way tickets in hand, I made my way back to the Metro, and sat down in the train to read my book, as we headed back towards town.
Jangling coins, something mechanical, a short breath inwards.
I propose a new measuring scale for lateness – let's call it the Marshal Punctuality Index (MPI), in honor of the Marshall brothers of Christchurch. Those who have met them will know.
The base unit of the MPI scale is the difference between the time between one is technically late, and when one is unsalvageablely or irredemptively late. Consider, as a hypothetical example, checking in for a local flight from Nelson airport. Let us assume for argument's sake that the required check-in time is 60 minutes before scheduled departure. If one arrives at the airport 60 minutes before scheduled departure, as they are expected to, then their arrival at the airport scores a 1.0 on the MPI.
At the other end of the scale, with a 0.0 on the MPI is the absolute last moment at which one can arrive and still achieve the desired result (in this case, to board the plane). Let's take this time to be 10 minutes before take-off. This gives us an MPI differential – the difference in time between 1.0 and 0.0 – of 50 minutes.
Let us, now, imagine arriving 35 minutes before departure time: exactly half way between the requested 60-minutes-before and the 10-minutes-before that we can realistically get away with. This gives us an MPI of 0.5. However, arriving 85 minutes before – requested time plus 25 minutes – is a prompt MPI of 1.5; and anything less than the golden 10-minutes-before will leave us with a negative MPI, which is to say, we blew it, and missed the plane.
There are other variables that can affect the MPI score. For instance, a man with a minor physical disability, such as a broken leg, would probably subtract about 0.1 from his MPI (that is, he would need to allow an extra 5 minutes to get to the flight); a more serious disability, such as being blind or in a wheelchair, would demand a subtraction of something closer to 0.5, or even more. Likewise, carrying fragile luggage, or traveling with children would also affect the MPI. (I feel that the MPI could easily be applied to social situations; indeed, it may be a more appropriate application for it: the differential would be greater for parties than for films, for instance, and +/- variables could include personal familiarity between the arranging parties, the formality of the situation etc. but, as any undergraduate will tell you: That is outside the scope of this paper.)
An MPI variable that I tend to underestimate is the affect of having only a rudimentary understanding of the local language and culture. When I first arrived in Russia, it was almost as bad as -1.0, that is, things took twice as long for me to do as they would for a local. As my understanding of the language develops, this variable looses some of its affect. Although my command of Russian still limits me to the most rudimentary of human interactions, it is stronger than it was: maybe -0.4, if things go well…
You may have assumed that it was a pretty close call for the bus. I could have said that; or I could have written something like:
“Running now. My memory of the layout of the underground route from the train to the building – which corner to turn, which flight of stairs to ascend – was being tested, as much for speed as for accuracy. I had been here only once before, almost a week ago, and I was doing battle with my mind to overcome the unerring uniformity of the subterranean labyrinth wending from the Metro to the air outside. As the clock ticked over further past 8am, and closer, second by second, to the moment at which the bus would depart, we had no time for false turns or backtracking. I had to gather myself, and my breath, and make a decision. There was no time left for mistakes…”
I could have written something like that. But I didn't, for three reasons. First of all, my reaction to running late isn't to gather my wits, weigh my options, and bite the bullet. I'm much more inclined to respond to my own tardiness by saying, “Oh, look. I'm running late. Again.” Second: writing dramatically is best left to people like John Grisham and Stephen King, people who are demonstrateably good at it – and God-only-knows how many half-arsed Grisham wannabes there are in the world. I prefer to stick to what I know: pseudo-academic prattle suits me much better.
Third-and-final: this is my blog. I am both staff writer and editor-in-chief. As such, I don't need to justify what I admit and what I cut.
Did we make it to the bus? Well, yes, of course. Writing about our trip to Suzdal' entails a certain amount of getting there first.
Not that simply boarding the correct bus was any guarantee of that…