Saturday, March 08, 2014

Moscow (Part IX - PINs and Needles)

Click here for Parts I, IIIIIIVVVIVII and VIII.

I managed to communicate to the hotel receptionist that I'm having a problem accessing money and I needed to reach friends in Israel. She kindly gave me a code for the hotel's wi-fi and said I could pay her back later (the hotel charges 100 rubles per day for wi-fi access, the equivalent of 10 NIS or $3).

I emailed my roommate and then sat on pins and needles waiting for her to write back. She was out of town . . . wouldn't be back until at least tomorrow, if then.

I emailed the Buxners. Since they were caring for Wylie, they had the key to my apartment. They could get into my apartment and find the piece of paper with the code to my credit card. Since the card was new, I knew exactly where that paper was, thank goodness.

While I waited for them to respond, I emailed Rusina and asked her to call me. On the phone, she said that indeed I have a problem, since one cannot pay for Metro cards with a credit card, only cash, so I wouldn't be able to get far until I was able to access an ATM. For example, the Matrushka Doll Museum was out of the question until I was able to get a Metro card (or get cash to pay for a taxi – either way I needed cash).

She suggested that while I wait for the Buxners to respond, I go to the JewishMuseum and Tolerance Center. It was just a few blocks from me and I could pay for my ticket with my credit card. Its proximity also meant that I wouldn't be pushing myself too hard, physically.

Relieved to be making productive use of my time at last, I walked to the Museum. Actually, I plodded. Every step was an effort. At first I went the wrong way and though I quickly realized the error and doubled back, I was upset to have wasted the energy, even if it was only a block's worth of steps.

I got to the Jewish Museum. It's located in what clearly used to be a large warehouse, and the entrance was around the other side. I walked the long path around the museum, and discovered that on the other side of the path was . . . a Jewish school. I knew it was a Jewish school because there were about 70 kids playing outside for recess, and all the boys were wearing kippot and tzitzit, and all the girls were wearing skirts. Based on what I knew of the Day School scene in Moscow (thanks to my job), I knew this must be the chareidi school, one of a few different Day Schools in town.

I was tired, but more importantly I was at last seeing my miracle, so I sat on a bench on the path and watched the children playing. A Jewish day school in Russia! They were learning Judaism at school, openly, without having to worry about the KGB arresting their teachers. Who would have thought, when I was growing up, that I'd live to see this? These children had been born after the fall of the Soviet Union. They had no idea how lucky they were, or how special their school is, but I knew. I wished I could hold onto what I was seeing and save it to show my friends and family.

Finally I continued on, step by torturous step, to the Jewish Museum entrance. I went to the ticket counter. The person there spoke English! He said a ticket is 400 rubles (40 NIS/ $12). I handed him my credit card. He swiped it.  

And then he turned a little machine to me and asked me to enter my PIN code.

So I took my card back and walked away.

It turns out that in Russia, as in many other countries (but not in any places I've ever lived), you cannot complete any credit card transactions at all without the PIN code. In the USA and Israel, you just hand over your credit card, they swipe it, you sign the receipt, and you are done. In Russia, they require your PIN (later, a Russian colleague in Israel told me that she was appalled when she discovered how easily someone in Israel could, in theory, fraudulently use her credit card). Intellectually I think the Russian way makes much more sense. But right now, their intelligent credit card security culture meant that I could do nothing, nothing at all, until I heard back from the Buxners and they went to my house to find my code.

I emailed them again. I'm sure I sounded like a mad woman, and in fact, they later confirmed that they thought I was a little nuts, because who goes abroad without money? They didn't yet know all the details of how I'd gotten to this point. But in any case, they were not at home. They were out celebrating their first wedding anniversary and wouldn't be home until late. They'd try to get to my house tomorrow . . .

I called Rusina because I didn't know what else to do. I was so embarrassed; she's not a friend, but a work colleague (though friendly and helpful), and here I was, in the very unprofessional condition of being sick and broke.

She said she'll think, and get back to me. A little while later I got an email from her. I was to meet her at a Metro station about a 15 minute walk from the hotel, at about 6 pm, when she was on her way home from work. She'd feel comfortable loaning me the equivalent of a few hundred shekels, enough to get me started, and then I could go straight onto the Metro and be at the Bolshoi well ahead of the ballet at 7 pm.

I was relieved and grateful, but also nervous. Now I really needed that code, not just to enjoy my travels and be safe but, more importantly to me, pay Rusina back as soon as possible.

But there was little I could do until I met Rusina at the Metro at 6 pm, so I went back to bed for another nap.

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