The following story is told by Christina Therrien, a student at the Russian-Amercian Journalism Institute in Rostov, Russia.
The generosity of the Russian people never ceases to amaze me. Yesterday, after ten days, fifteen attempts and three failed phone cards, I stood crying at the pay phone. It was impossible. The directions? Russian. The automated speaker chirping away in my ear? Russian. It seemed that every time I managed to take a step forward, I went flying six steps back.
I had left my dorm armed with instructions on the right phone card, the right phone to use it at, and what I thought were the right directions on how to use it. But after spending two hundred and eighty rubles on the card and a half an hour punching numbers, I felt like the Russian voice was really just telling me to give it up.
All of the sudden a babushka was standing next to me, talking a mile a minute. Despite making it clear that I spoke no Russian, she kept talking and gesturing wildly with her hands. Finally, she took the card from me and started pushing numbers into the phone while I searched frantically for my Russian phrasebook.
When even she couldn’t get the call to go through, she turned around and, seeing a young man walking by on his cell phone, called out to him and hauled him over to help. To my astonishment, he hung up the phone and came over. I couldn’t believe my New York eyes. That anyone would ever do that in the States was unthinkable. But he came over, cool as you please, and patiently listened as the babushka explained the situation.
When neither of them could figure it out, they took me down the street, arm in arm, to another kiosk for yet another card. At the new phone booth, all three of us squeezed into the closet sized space, passing the receiver among us. I watched the minutes from the card drain away with no success, thinking quietly to myself that if this endeavor were to continue, I would have to change another hundred dollars.
When it became clear that this card was no better, we emptied out of the booth and went on our merry way. Not having any idea of where we were or where we were going, I began to get concerned. I asked the boy where we were going and he answered, in broken English, “We go to find someone who knows the card.” I convinced myself that if worst came to worst, I could always jump in a taxi, and so, off we went, on the eternal quest of a transatlantic call.
At this point, the Russians had been wandering around with me for well over an hour. Assuming that they had been on their way somewhere before they ran into me, I tried to make them understand that it was okay, that I would figure it out. The babushka looked at me like I was crazy and waving her hands, cried “Nyet! Nyet!” Startled, I shut up.
Finally, finally, we turned the corner and there, like a mirage, was Phone Card Heaven. Banks and banks of phone booths awaited me, along with people who knew how to use them. I breathed a sigh of relief and, looking at my surroundings, realized I was exactly two blocks from the restaurant where I’d had dinner the night before.
Shaking my head in disbelief, I climbed again into the booth with my companions and a well-informed phone employee. After a nerve-racking 75 seconds, I heard the joyous sound of a ringing phone. Russia had finally gotten through.
After the initial excitement of reaching my mother, I realized that my Russian saviors were still standing outside the booth. Startled, I put the phone down and went out to them, thanking them effusively. Still, they made no move to leave. I scratched my head; didn’t they want to go? They’d spent the better part of two hours traipsing around town with me when I was sure they had things to do.
Was there a custom I was ignoring? Should I take them to dinner? Buy them a beer? As I was pantomiming that I thought they had places to be, they began to understand and the boy began to translate for the shouting babushka: “But you don’t know where you are! How will you get home?”
Astonished, I thanked them and told them I could find my way. They looked relieved and left together, happily conversing in Russian. I couldn’t believe it. After hours of patience, after all they had done for me, they were still going to take the time to bring me home. Imagine that.