Friday, February 24, 2012

Old debt

In the autumn of 2008 I took a room in the foreign student dormitory for my first month of studies at the Minsk State Linguistic University. It didn't cost much and I paid all fees immediately when asked. If I had any receipts from this adventure, I threw them out long ago. Since the authorities chose to let me out of the country, I felt confident that everybody agreed that I had no outstanding debts.

Imagine my surprise then, when the administrator of the foreign-student language program called me out of class today and explained that I have an unpaid balance of over 42,000 rubles for the time I lived in the dormitory. I wondered momentarily if I should be shocked by this news, but then I realized that we were talking about something in the neighborhood of five dollars. OK. I can spare five dollars but I wanted to know what it was about. The administrator showed me the book she received from the accounting office, which had recently completed an audit. The auditors examined all records for the past five years and sent her a listing of all students who ever passed through her department with unspecified outstanding debts. It's now her job to contact each of these students, wherever in the world they may live, and extract money from them. Naturally she came to me first because she knows how to find me.

"OK," I said. "I see the book and I'm sympathetic to your problem. I don't mind spending five bucks to make your life and my life a little bit easier, but I want to know why you think I owe you this money."

"Oh yes," she replied, "this is your right. You should ask the Deacon to tell you the details. I'll let her know you're coming."

After class I went to see the Deacon. Back in the day when I apparently incurred the debt, I would not have wanted to knock on that door because the old Deacon never smiled unless he wanted something and he had a knack for making simple tasks difficult for me and perhaps even for all students. Even more than I disliked seeing the former Deacon, I enjoy my interactions with the new one. She is more than fair and reasonable. She is, rather, a friend and advocate to the student body. So, even though I arrived during her lunch break and she had left her door closed and locked, she opened the door when I knocked so she could speak to me. The Deacon explained that this new invoice reflected services they had failed to add to my account long ago but she didn't know exactly which services they found on my behalf. Maybe it related to electricity or heating or something like that.

"Fine," I said. "Please find out what they are and I'll pay."

She implored me, particularly by the expression on her face, that this exercise would not change the ultimate result and since I have five dollars she really hoped I'd just pay up and let it go. So I paid. The cashier printed my receipt twice, stamped each copy twice and signed each once. Then she tore the top half away from the bottom half and gave my the bottom to present to the administrator in my department.

It's not over yet. Alla suggested that I withhold evidence of payment until they give me a statement that I have paid and settled all debts up to the present time. I think this is excellent advice, though I don't imagine they're really going to want to give me such a document. I'll press the point, but cannot guarantee results. As we say in English, "You can't fight City Hall."

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