It seems that all expats in Russia have their favorite story of standing in line for hours. Standing in line or “Occupying the Queue”
is a storied tradition, and indeed a skill that I have taken some pride in mastering.
I have occupied the queue in train stations, banks, stores, government offices, and even for cash machines. But a recent situation involving a government office showed that sometimes you don’t occupy the queue. Instead, the Queue can Occupy You.
Due to the need of a stamp on a particular piece of paper, I went to a local government office some weeks ago. Since I saw that the office would open at 2 p.m. and be open until 8 p.m., I made an extra effort to come at 1:45 p.m. Upon seeing the hallway outside the office already jammed with stamp hopefuls, I quickly searched for the kind citizen in charge of the queue order list and was promptly informed that I was number 46.
Since there was 6 hours between me and closing time, I figured number 46 would certainly fall within the range of reasonable belief, so I staked my spot in the corridor and engaged in friendly chatter with fellow queue occupants. It is interesting how much you can learn while standing in line for a government office for 6 hours. I believe that if I were to stand in that line just a few more times I would be able to pass the Russian bar exam and open a fully legitimate legal practice. After everyone feels comfortable with the queue order and then gets a bit bored, we begin to each share our life stories and our specific situation that has brought us to this point in our lives where we are all standing in a hallway outside a government office sharing our life stories about our specific situation that has brought us to this point in our lives where we are all standing in a hallways outside a government office.
In general, there is a sense of camraderie, and legal advice is given freely from one queue occupant to another.
Long story short, I met a lot of interesting folks, but the office closed at #43. I will say that the kind government official stepped out of the office into the somewhat uncongenial atmosphere of the hallway at 7:45 (uncongenial, because now many ascertained that they would not make the line in time and were disturbed by this notion) and quickly asked about our specific situations that had brought us to this point in our lives where we were all standing in a hallway outside a government office for 6 hours, but would now need to go home with our specific situations unsatisfied. I shouted from the back of the huddled mass a concise explanation of my specific situation. The government official took a look at my paper and perceived that I had been standing this whole time without the right paper anyway.
So, I went home.
To receive this particular stamp, they open the office twice a week for six hours. The next time the correct day came, I went some hours in advance and quickly understood that I wouldn’t make it in time.
So, I went home.
Somehow this did not affect my good humor. So, although I was strangely enjoying the process, I did ultimately want to succeed, regardless of how much I could learn while standing in the hall.
The next time the office would open at 2 p.m., so I went the day before at 3:30 p.m. Imagine my delight when I found out I was only #4 on the list!
The kind keeper of the list asked for my phone number and told me she would call if they needed any help. I felt quite bad for her, because she was standing outside there with her small child, taking care of a list for the next day. But I also realized I had made great tactical error, because I had arrived by car, and it would need to be someone with a car who would be responsible for the list that night.
Sure enough, that evening around 9:00, I received a phone call. It seemed that a whole system of list guarding in the parking lot outside the government office had been set up for the next 18 hours. There was only one small spot that needed to be taken care of, and would I be willing to help out? You guessed it, at 2 a.m. I was pulling up to the parking lot outside the government office in my car and was to be responsible for the list.
You see, the problem is, if someone starts a list and then leaves in the middle of the night and someone else comes at say 3 a.m., that person at 3 a.m. will start a rival list. The result is usually unpleasant. So, it is necessary for someone to always be responsible for the list.
I sat in my car, listened to some music. I sipped coffee out of a thermos. I was generally thankful for warm weather. I was half awake. I even managed to pen a couple more tweets.
I was told that someone would relieve my list guard duty at “around 4:30 or 6 a.m.”. I was delighted to have a young lady pull up in her car at 4:30 and cheerfully assume responsibility for the list. I had signed up only one person during my time on duty, a man who had some business also related to a cast on his arm, I think. But he asked me to make a special note next to his name that he really would be there, even if he was a little late.
Short story long, I went back a few times later that morning to insure that the list was still secure. It was, and at 2 p.m. I was still #4.
Somehow #’s 1-3 didn’t have their paperwork correct and were quickly dismissed by the inspector and told to fill out paperwork in the hall. And soon enough, my lovely wife and I were inside the office (!) with a giant sheaf of papers for us and our four children. It turned out that most of our paperwork was filled in correctly, but not all of it. Happily, the inspector inspected the filled in paperwork while we madly wrote pages of further paperwork in what was ultimately a successful attempt. We were not banished to the crowd filling out paperwork in the hallway.
I had previously calculated that the workload for the inspector to receive one individual was on average twenty minutes. I can say that my estimation was not too far off the mark because it took him an hour and half to review our family’s paperwork.
We were so happy to have the new stamp in our papers.
But I will say that the feeling of general happiness and goodwill between us and the rest of the occupants had somehow evaporated by the time we exited the office 90 minutes later. We kept our heads down and walked to the exit as 70 formerly fellow occupants shouted what we owed them. I can’t remember everything, but one young man said that I owe him “a beer, a 5 liter bottle, no ten of ’em!”.
That poor guy was #8.