Monday, March 22, 2010

Orient Express

Bump. “Hey, did you just drive through a pothole?” Mrs. Mingus asked.
—Did the car go up or down? I inquired.
—Then it wasn’t a stray dog.
“You have to watch out for potholes,” she nagged.
—That’s good advice, thank you. Next time I’m driving on a road completely covered in water, I’ll try to keep an eye out for things I can’t see.
“But it’s the big spring thaw. You should expect potholes under water,” she persisted.

Võru roads are notoriously crap. Entire lakes of snow were flowing downhill, hiding asphalt for dozens of meters at a stretch. Just before we arrived at our cabin to open it up for spring, the tire went flat.

After limping back to Võru, visiting several garages and contacting the police, we discovered two other cars—locals, too—had hit the same pothole. One of the cars had lost two tires. “It’s not too deep,” Officer Kristjan stated. “But it has a sharp edge. Officially, a pothole has to be twenty-five to thirty centimeters deep to file a complaint.” A pothole that deep could rip a car off its tires. Hours later, they were just then placing a traffic sign. After the water had receded.

Driving back to Tartu took twice as long as usual, not being able to exceed seventy on the highway. Possibly thirty tire shops in Võru—all called Kummi-this and Kummi-that—and not one tire available that would fit our absolutely standard station wagon. Totally wasted day. I decided I would make it up to our older daughter, who had so suffered at the hands of her loving grandmother for so long while we traipsed across the wilderness in search of futility.

Of course, in this weather, the options were few. Lõunakeskus (the mall) had a fun park set up on the ice rink. And off we went. To Lõunakeskus. Again. Just getting the ticket was an adventure. Sold at the information desk, I waited in line only to discover I was in the wrong line. So I waited in the new line, only to discover the tickets were cash-only. “But you have a card terminal right there,” I pointed.
—And there’s a cash machine right there, the mall worker pointed. We waited for cash, then waited in the ticket line again.
—Is she under a hundred ten centimeters? I was asked.
“I don’t know. She’s four years old.”
—Well I have to know so I can enter it in the computer and sell you the right ticket.
“You’re entering it in a computer, but I can’t pay by card?”
—If she’s over one-ten, then it’s a more expensive ticket.
“So one extra centimeter costs almost twice as much?”
“Why don’t you make the cut-off based on age? Say, six years old, I suggested.
—But then we wouldn’t know how tall they are.
“But why is that even important?”
—So we know which ticket to sell them.
I breathed deeply. “She’s one-nine.”
—Fifty kroons.

There were at least ten venues in the fun park. Mostly inflatable fun houses—for jumping—and two-story air-cushioned slides. Little Mingus was having a blast. “Daddy, can I go to that one?”
—No, that one looks dangerous.

There were teenage boys whacking each other in the head with large rubber pillows.
“What about that?” She pointed at some sort of rolling tube. You climb in, and you roll. We waited in line for a few minutes, and one freed up. A man and his daughter appeared from outside the line and grabbed it. “There’s a line, you know?” I politely suggested. I was met with a “So?” and decided to just wait some more. I didn’t want to lose face in front of my own child, but the guy was much taller than I, and had much less hair. He was also wearing a leather racing jacket with an oil advertisement on it for some reason.

After three goes on the trampoline, twelve times sliding down various pillows of air and being dragged by the hand for more than two hours, I suggested we get some food. “Yes, I’m really thirsty!” Little Mingus exclaimed. We left the fun park and headed to Le Bus. A long line. Walking by that Asian/Italian place overlooking the ice, I spied fried chicken in the trough. Interesting.

“Hey, let’s go see what’s on at the four-dimensional movies here.” The next showing was “Space Rally”. “Is it suitable for little children?”
—Yes, the teenager behind the ticket machine answered. But how tall is she?
“I have no idea.”
—She has to be at least one-ten.
—Because the seats move.
“She’s one-eleven.”
The girl looked suspiciously at my daughter.
—Let’s check, she ordered. Little Mingus stood next to the tape on the wall. One-eleven.
“Two tickets then,” I triumphantly grinned.
—One hundred kroons.

The movie started in half an hour. I wanted to try the fried chicken. I took a tray and started piling on different types of food, fully expecting some things to be less than enjoyable, so I would have a backup. To be safe, I got a plate of Russian ravioli that I was sure Little Mingus would enjoy. I couldn’t find sour cream, and assumed it would be by the salt and pepper, after paying.

This was one of those places where you had to weigh your food. But I wasn’t sure which register to stand in front of. There was no one there. I mean, there were three workers there, standing and talking and occasionally glancing at me, but none of them came to the register. I waited some more. Finally, I asked, “Excuse me, is anyone working here?” Our time before the movie was running out.

A middle-aged woman of a clearly nervous demeanor lifted a finger, instructing me to wait again. Finally she walked over and motioned me to place my plate on the scale. No hello, no apology for the wait, no eye contact. She then made a brushing motion with her hand. Time to remove my plate. I began to suspect she might be mute, but then—at the exact moment my eyes were resting on her chest, looking at the nametag (her name was Krista)—she looked at me and said, “Two hundred twenty-six kroons.” I looked at my food in disbelief. Rice, a portion of ravioli, a chicken leg, a few meatballs, some sort of Asianesque sauce, a piece of stale bread and a Coke. It occurred to me later everything was soggy, and so weighed much more than it should. I felt cheated.

After I paid, I carried the tray up the stairs to the table Little Mingus had chosen, overlooking the rink. Remembering to ask for sour cream, I bounded down the steps and looked again. Nothing. There were three sauces in the trough, under the sneeze guard, but they were labeled as something else. I asked Krista, “Do you have sour cream?” She pointed at the sauces. “But which one is it? The only white thing here says mango sauce.”
—That’s it.
“That’s sour cream?”

I poured some out into a mug—the small plates stacked up wouldn’t hold this liquidy mixture—and asked if I could just pay a couple kroons, rather than wait in line again, my child unattended atop a three-story balcony. No, I had to wait. When I was in front again, Krista didn’t like that she would have to weigh the mug separately, then weigh the sour cream, then do math on her calculator. She just waved me on, nervously instructing me to go away. “You don’t want me to pay for this?” I wanted to be certain. She shook her head. That was very nice of her, but I couldn’t figure out why she’d wanted me to stand in line again if she wasn’t going to charge me.

Back upstairs I realized we had no napkins. Back downstairs I couldn’t find any, except for a cupful of nicely folded napkins just behind the counter, far off to the side. I just walked back and grabbed a couple. Krista didn’t like this. “No, you can’t go back there!” she shouted, drawing the attention of people down below on the ice, next to the loud air compressors.
—Well, what do you want me to do then? I asked, showing her the napkins in my hand.
“Right here,” she said, indicating a paper towel dispenser next to the register.
—But it’s empty, I told her
“But you can’t take those red ones in your hand.”
—Why not?
“You have to take these.”
—There’s nothing there. It’s empty.
“The ones you have are for people ordering from the menu.”
—You have different napkins based on what food you order?” I asked in surprise. She just nodded. I pretended to sneeze on the napkins in my hand, and proceeded back upstairs, now unhindered by Krista.

Little Mingus didn’t like the Russian ravioli. “Daddy, it tastes like the swimming pool” It did actually. There was a faint chlorine flavor to it. The fried chicken leg, however, was decent. Any Suthna or other farner who happened to be in Tartu would have a place to go in the event of a sudden craving. I can only imagine what the look on an Estonian’s face would be if I were to tell them that fried chicken is, in fact, a dish best served cold.

The sauces on the other foods, though, had that gelatinous quality that suggested they were nothing more than mass-produced sauces of starch, artificial flavoring and coloring, and water. I could feel my carotid artery tugging on my jaw, trying to keep it from opening. We ate a little of it, as we were very hungry.

Movie time. It was fantastic! Essentially a roller coaster on some sort of asteroid in deep space, it was a very good simulation of a supersonic carnival ride. I was so engrossed in the experience that when it ended, and we were splashed with water, I feared for a moment that the people in front of us had vomited. It hasn’t happened to me before, but I have seen it. Of course, we weren’t moving, so any sort of gastric aside would not be propelled onto the faces of people further back.

We both finally stopped smiling a few minutes later, when we saw this strange creature lurking by the children’s indoor playground—not the one on the rink. Limpa, a local soft drink mascot. “Don’t be afraid of me,” came the raspy voice from somewhere near the creature’s head. Little Mingus froze, grudgingly accepting the box of sugared water thrust into her palm.

We went back to the fun park for another hour, then called it a day. Back at the car, I noticed the spare tire had deflated a bit. I drove to the Statoil in the parking lot to use their air pump. Unbeknownst to me, the nozzle was broken. It wouldn’t create a seal, but it would let air out. About half the air in the tire, in fact, before I could pry it off. Strange glances were made at the man frantically pumping on a bicycle pump from his trunk, while standing next to an air compressor—one of the several dozen in the area.

Back home we just played with Legos. No lines, you can build what you want, and the little tires don’t go flat.

1 comment:

Ragne said...

Ha-ha-ha, well written! Specially the part about the food, describes perfectly my own thoughts on those few occasions i have visited the Oriental Express. It truly is one of the worst places in Tartu and if it wouldn't locate in the shopping center (meaning plenty of hungry visitors with limited choices), it would've met it's deserved demise already long time ago. By now it's also infamous for giving quite a few people food poisoning.