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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Moscow Secret: Adjusting Great Expectations

Call me a coward, but I sometimes think the secret to living well in Moscow is lowering your expectations. My love affair with my recently-enclosed balcony is a case in point.


For a year and a half I've wanted to transform my useless, grimy balcony into a small room.


What held me back was not the money; it was the thought of having to deal with the inevitable fiasco.


When I finally took the plunge, the work crew did not let me down. By the time the last nail was pounded in, the job had cost twice as much as I expected. The crew came a week later and stayed three days longer than promised.


After carelessly slapping on a gooey coat of primer (which is still gooey when the sun shines on it) the crew scampered out the door as though they had a plane to catch, leaving behind a mess of scrap lumber and sawdust.


Yet I am thrilled with my balcony - ask any of my friends or neighbors. I have bored them all with detailed stories about how easily the job got done. I even tipped the crew $20.


I expected a major fiasco. Instead, I got a minor one.


Low expectations.


I wasn't always so at peace with my surroundings. I remember starting work at a Russian company three years ago and throwing a fit because the copier had been broken for a week and no one had called a repairman.


I raged at the poor secretary. "You sit across from this thing all day and you never even thought to call? "


She gave a perfectly innocent look that suggested I was out of my mind. I understand now that I was.


It's interesting to watch newcomers make the adjustment. Some put up a heck of a fight. I don't know whether to admire their fortitude or pity their foolhardiness.


I was at a hard currency restaurant Monday night as the guest of a journalist who was in town for several weeks.


When the waitress made the mistake of trying to hurry us along as closing time approached, my host did the oddest thing. He complained.


"When I eat at a ruble restaurant I expect bad service", he said in English asking me to translate. "But I'm paying dollars, and I will sit here as long as I want".


He even went so far as to offer a lecture on "how things are done in America".


A part of me - an ancient, dormant part of me - agreed with him. Yet I couldn't bring myself to translate this alien message, with all its curious righteousness.


Someone else translated and nearly brought the poor confused girl to tears.


This column comes close to being a rationalization for lowering standards at a time when we should be striving for excellence.


But this adjustment is also the reflex of a survivor. It reminds me of parents who can hold a conversation while children scream and climb all over them. I marvel at these people.


Rather than concede to copping out, I would prefer to put it this way: In Moscow we don't shrink from a fight, but perhaps we pick our fights a little more carefully.