„Hello sir. How may I help you?”
Well that’s what he could have been saying but seeing as he was muttering in some God-forsaken tongue he may just as likely have been telling me to shove all and sundry where the sun don’t shine. At this I was slightly taken aback. I had been reassured by the travel agent that everybody in this Eastern European country spoke English, at least to some degree. I guess the Russians won that war. Brr, chilly, chilly.
„Yes, yes! Do you speak English?”
He looked at me a little dumbfounded, poor Commie, so I chose to slow it down and raise my voice. This would surely help!
„Yes sir. A little.”
He gestured with his thumb and forefinger as he said this. Poor bastard, probably never had a proper education, certainly not under that fellow, Chew-Chess-Coup, or whatever.
I smiled to show that I appreciated his efforts. Christ, maybe I should have brought some treats along for the guy.
„How I may help you?”
I waited. Was it a dramatic pause, or a grammatically mixed-up question? I guessed the latter.
„Well my good man, I’d like a room.”
„Yes, which room? For strangers we have 2 room…”
„ For strangers?”
„Yes. You are stranger, yes?”
„Of course, but that’s only because we’ve just…oh, okay. I see what you mean. Stranger. Foreigner. Yes, yes. I am.”
I laughed at this. I couldn’t blame the young chap for that one. Just as well he didn’t ask me if I was an alien. Ho ho. An awkward silence, then:
„Oh yes, em where were we? Rooms. 2…only two!?”
The guide book said this particular area was crawling with tourist hotels. Maybe they just didn’t…ah well.
„It seems today but 1.”
„One! Well okay. Is it good?”
„Excuse me sir?”
Good intonation by the way!
„I mean is it a nice room?”
He giggles a little. I mean at first I just want to reach over and punch his lights out, the condescending…but then I notice he seems a little embarrassed.
To hell with caution. Here I come. Captain Adventure!
„Okay I’ll take it.”
He looks at me a little oddly. I’d forgotten. The uneducated buffoon probably thinks I want to remove the room from the building!
Okay. Again. Nice and loud and slow.
„You want to go there now?”
„Yes, yes. I want to go there now.”
No, no…I’ve flown all this way so I could go there tomorrow, next week, next year. Jesus, this was surely a case of lost in translation.
„Alright. You go this corridor. Go on first right. Go straight down. Three door on left. Room 404.”
Well done. Thought he might crack for a second but no…his nerve held well.
„Okay. Thank you.”
I stand there for a moment and he smiles back. I shift my weight a little. Maybe he needs to be stimulated into movement, those directions having worn him out.
Nothing. I hold out a little more. Maybe its Ruskie etiquette. Nothing. The sliding doors at the front of the foyer shuffle open, then close, then open…
„And my key?
He’s thinking. I can see the steam rising. And then that smile, half giggle again.
„No key. You needn’t key! Just go there!”
Wait a sec. That time there was definitely a slightly patronising tone. The little…
He shifts his eyebrows. Is he holding back? Is he actually suppressing a laugh? Why that little…
„No key? Interesting. Well, See YA later!”
I shove my joviality in his face. We saved ye monkeys from the gulags. You can’t rise me that easily.
Incredulous, I march off in the direction he had indicated, expletives abounding under breath.
No key, I kept thinking.
What? Was it voice or retina activated? Fingerprint ID? Ridiculous. They didn’t have that info. Hey, and they didn’t have my passport…That’s IT! They must have some kickass new technology. Maybe this is some swanky experimental place like I’d seen on Discovery. All connected up so even your own personal bank card could drive the rental car, operate the penthouse lift…
Well judging by his directions I was very much ground floor. Room 404. Odd number for the ground floor. Still maybe it was a code for foreigners.
Jesus only two rooms for foreigners. Really hush hush stuff. Maybe it’s an ex-KGB building.
Anyway. Room 404
I try the door. It opens easily in front of me.
… „It’s okay Martin, it’s okay.”
A consoling arm reaches over and around the old man in the corner.
„You can finish it tonight, I know you can.”
Others in the room shout encouragement but the man named Martin is inconsolable.
Minutes pass by. Then John, or Joe, the leader, or organiser, or whatever turns to me.
„Jim isn’t it?”
„So could you…”
„I’m sorry to interrupt…” but I am curious „how long has he been coming here?” I point to the man, the haggard old man, named Martin.
„Oh Martin, he’s been with us for 5 years now.”
„5 years…and he doesn’t seem to be getting any better.”
Martin tries to interject, sniffles, snorts, clears his throat and tries again. As he looks up I realise he’s not as old as I’d first imagined. 40 at best, but the gaunt features and thinning grey hair make him look older.
„I’m getting better,” he manages doggedly. I nod. Jesus, he’s a mess.
I return to John, or Joe, or whatever.
„Uh huh” Still in a daze after what I’ve just seen.
„So would you like to tell us what it was like for you the first time you went to the APEH (tax) office?”