At All Costs – Communist Style Customer Service: The Voice Of Authority (Travels In Eastern Europe #41)

The legacy of four and a half decades of communist rule can be found all over Eastern Europe. From the towering high rise apartment buildings that ring nearly every city to the abandoned wastelands of heavy industry scattered on the fringes of urban areas to the collapsing collective farms scattered throughout the countryside, communism left physical reminders all across the landscape. These remnants of a failed system are highly visible, but there are just as many mental scars for the generations that lived through the era. Some of these I have detected while traveling through the former Eastern Bloc countries. Older generations seem more suspicious and less welcoming. Forty years ago foreigners were never to be trusted. In some places that is still the case and visitors are treated as suspects.

Service without a smile - customer service meant something different under Communism

Service without a smile – customer service meant something different under Communism

Authoritarian Indifference– Photo Finish
Communism and customer service were mutually exclusive ideas. The individual meant very little in a communist system when compared to the masses. The communists were building a whole new world, one that cultivated the impersonal at the expense of the personal. Serving individual needs did not serve the interest of the masses. Rules of behavior and codes of conduct were rigid. The state was the ultimate arbiter of the way things should be done. Authoritarianism was all the rage. If someone was in a position of authority, they were to be obeyed at all costs. There are still several generations of Eastern Europeans that act accordingly. My first experience with a person who still obeyed these tenets occurred high in the mountains of Bulgaria at a church in Veliko Tarnovo.

There was only one docent for the church, if you could call her that. The lady was a buxom, 60’sish Bulgar who wore a permanent frown on her face. She sold me and a friend our tickets, peeling them off with methodical indifference. She then opened a door allowing us inside to a drafty, but impressive stone sanctuary with rustic Orthodox decoration. As we stood in silent reverence the woman took a place near us, intently watching our every movement. After a couple of minutes studying the church’s architecture I decided to take a photo. Both my friend and I had seen nothing that dissuaded the taking of photos. I raised my camera and focused the lens. The entire time the Bulgar woman watched me with suspicion.

She did not utter a word until I snapped the photo. Then suddenly she exclaimed “No photo” followed by some unintelligible verbiage. She glared at me fiercely. I could feel the white heat of her anger. When I said in frustration, “Why didn’t you say something?” she moved forward to usher us out of the church. I wondered if there was an actual human being hiding behind her scowl. She reminded me of those minders the communists would send with tourists back during the Cold War, who told people what they could and could not do. “No” was the default answer coming from an entire generation.

No photo

No photo – enough said

Keep Your Money – Against Change
Money is another item that elicits strange responses in formerly communist nations. Try using a large bill in some places to pay with and it will likely be rejected. I experienced this most notably in Kiev. At a small shop I tried to purchase a drink and candy bar with the equivalent of a ten dollar bill. The lady signaled that I needed to give her something smaller. I did not have anything. She raised her hands as if to say oh well. Then she returned my money back to me. This seemed utterly bizarre. Ukraine is a land beset by economic woe, one would think that the expenditure of money would elicit helpful customer service or at the very least the making of change. I obviously had disobeyed a tenet of this rigid economic culture. When I reflected on this incident further, I did consider that perhaps the woman did not want any large bills because she was fearful of theft. Either way, she did not do me or Ukraine’s economy any favors.

For citizens of communist countries during the Cold War being photographed by a stranger could send them into paroxysms of fear. This was for good reason, secret police organizations such as the East German Stasi, Romanian Securitate and the Soviet Union’s KGB were notorious for keeping a close watch on their citizenry. Once a person realized they were being spied on, they assumed – usually not in vain – arrest would be forthcoming. Those who came of age during this time have a deep seated and well-founded fear of being watched.  Old habits are hard to break as I discovered just outside the gates of Krakow’s Nowa Huta district in Krakow. While trying to take a photo of the entrance into the district, I accidentally snapped it at the same time a woman walked into the frame. She immediately shrieked aloud and then quickly scurried away. Everyone on the street at that time began to look at me with suspicion. I slinked away into the nearest tram. This ended my potential foray into Nowa Huta.

The customer comes last

The customer comes last

The Pay Up Proposal – A Less Than Humorous Humiliation
By far my most memorable experience with communist style customer service took place in Lviv, Ukraine when I visited the Korniakt Palace which is part of The Lviv Historical Museum. I failed to pay the fee for the photo ticket when I entered. This was an oversight on my part as I thought there would not be much to photograph. That was until I got to the chambers of King Jan Sobieski III where I decided to take a photo of the furnishings. I did not want to walk all the way back through the museum to pay the photo ticket fee so I decided to snap my photo without a ticket. Very soon thereafter I heard footsteps, than a squat and severe woman walked up to me. She barked loudly in a voice of disdainful pleasure, “You do not have a photo ticket.” With the voice of commanding authority, she ordered me back to the entrance where I would pay the fee. I was dutifully marched back up to the front desk. She then turned and stuck her hand out asking for the money. Once I handed over the nominal sum she peeled off a photo ticket sticker which I was to wear. She then told me I was free to go. My humiliation was complete.