Vladimir, Russia - Ancient Rus grew up in the clutch of towns northeast of Moscow that is now known as the Golden Ring. The whitewashed walls of these once-fortified cities still stand, in many cases. The golden spires and onion domes of their monasteries still mark the horizon, evoking medieval Rus. Bells ring out from towering belfries; robed holy men scurry through church doors; historic tales recall mysterious, magical times.
This is where I will be spending the next week. I have left the big city behind, opting for the charm and tranquility of provincial Russia.
For the first time ever (in Russia), I am the driver. I decided to rent a car to save time, as many of these towns are accessible only by slow and sporadic buses. I am always a little nervous about driving in an unfamiliar place, but driving in Russia is particularly daunting to me. Traffic in the city is an absolute nightmare, and it always seems like the drivers abide only by parking lot rules. But I picked up my car on the outskirts of the capital and left town, thus avoiding the worst traffic.
"Do you know the way?" asked the helpful lady behind the rental car counter. Not exactly. I mean, I know what it looks like on the map. Basically, I had to make two turns - one to get on the ring road circling Moscow, and one to get on the highway heading east to Vladimir. It seemed simple enough - and amazingly, that's exactly how it worked. Two turns, two hours and two hundred kilometers later, I was in Vladimir.
That's when things went awry. I didn't know where to park. But there right in front of the ancient Assumption Church, I saw the big blue "P" symbolizing a parkovka and I went for it. No sooner did I make that fateful third turn, when a police officer appeared in my view, and he waved me over to the side of the road.
The Russia GAI - or traffic police - are notorious for harassing drivers and extracting bribes. They are allowed to pull drivers over arbitrarily, and they often do. I knew that my documents were in order and I was not aware that I did anything wrong, so I was not going to play any games with him.
This guy approached my car, introduced himself, asked to see my documents - all in a very professional manner. He then informed me that I had made an illegal turn - I have no idea why that was an illegal turn, but apparently I did not see the sign. (Later I went to check, and in fact there was no sign that said no right-hand turn. But there was a sign with two arrows - one going straight and one turning left, so I guess that means you can't turn right.)
Regular readers will remember that in yesterday's blog, we learned the Russian word for "penalty" or "fine". The shtraf, the officer informed me, would be 100 rubles. Four dollars. I was stunned.
Of course, I had already prepared a little speech, so before I could think too much about it, I answered that I would not pay him anything. If I did something wrong, I explained righteously, he should write me up in the proper way, and I would pay at the police station or wherever I was supposed to go.
The officer looked mildly amused. He assured me that if I he wrote me up and I did not pay, I would not be allowed to leave the country. Apparently they would stop me at the border. (I am skeptical of this, but who knows...?)
I assured him that I would pay. "So you want me to write this up with all the papers?" he asked skeptically. "Yes, please."
So he did. My shtraf is the same - 100 rubles. But I have to go to the Sberbank and pay it, instead of putting the money in his pocket. Hell, I don't have to worry about points on my license or increases in my insurance rates... I might as well do my part to support President Medvedev's war against corruption.