In Russian, when you use transit without a ticket, it’s called “riding like a little bunny” (ехать зайчиком). I, of course, have never ridden little bunny, and I would never do such a thing– it is illegal and wrong to avail yourself of public services for which you have not paid. But if I had ever gotten in a pinch, and if I had decided, in that pinch, to try the little bunny, and if I had had the bad luck to get caught this time, here’s how it would have happened.

First of all, a little about the Tbilisi metro transit system. A ride on the metro or bus costs 50 tetri (about 25 cents), which, on the metro, you pay to an actual human, and on the bus, you feed into a little machine, which then prints out a ticket. You can also buy a card for 2 lari, which the actual humans will refill for you upon request. There is nowhere to refill your card outside of metro stations, and Tbilisi does not have many stations.

When I first arrived here and caught the bus from the airport into town, I attempted to pay my 50 tetri with a 1 lari coin and discovered that no, the coin machine on the bus doesn’t accept 1 lari coins. A stranger paid my fare. Thanks, stranger!

OK. Back to hypothetical yesterday. I surmise that I would have been riding to the ethnographic museum, which is a sprawling area (52 hectares, if that means anything to you) dotted with real houses that were shipped here from around the country in order to show how people used to live. Also, the museum is on top of a mountain at the back of a park. It’s pretty far away from the center.

Probably I would have hopped on the bus and then discovered that my metro card was empty. No worries–I have a 50 tetri coin in my pocket. At this point, it would be too early to worry about the trip home. Cross that bridge when we come to it.

Well, let’s assume that I did, within a few hours’ time, come to that bridge. I would have gotten on the bus and scanned my card again, just to be sure. Then I would have fed in my 1 lari piece in the hopes that maybe it would work. It wouldn’t. Finally, I would have pulled out an old ticket (so as to not be obviously bunnying) and sat down. After all, I would not have seen any controllers up to this point–what are the odds that the one time I don’t have a ticket, I get caught?

Not zero. That’s what the odds are.

Word on the street is that this is how controllers work in Tbilisi: they don’t get on the buses. They stand at the exits (most buses here are of the minibus variety, and have only two doors, so they’re easily blocked) and ask to see each person’s ticket. If you happened to get caught without a ticket, the first thing you would probably do is make it clear that you have no idea what’s going on. This is easily done in a city where the word for “ticket” looks like this: ბილეთის (biletis). The controller would say something in Georgian, and you would respond, “Ich verstehe nicht,” picking the language that they are least likely to speak. You would show them an old ticket and act confused when they didn’t accept it. Somehow, you would both switch to Russian, but you would be careful to guard your accent so as not to sound too Russian.

Probably at this point they would ask to see your passport, so they could write you a ticket on the tablet they would be holding. You would hand it to them, and the expressions on their faces would be so bewildered that you’d think that they’d asked for your passport and received a sandwich.

“Georgian citizen?”

What could they be talking about? There is a little eagle with the words “United States of America” on the front of that passport.

“American citizen. America. USA.”

“But you live here? You study?”

“No, I’m a tourist.”

They would leaf through your passport, carefully inspecting the (completely irrelevant, by the way) four Russian visas. Finally they would come to that elusive front page, which is somehow always so hard for citizens of other countries to find (I think because they expect it to be printed directly inside the front cover, not one page back).

One of them points at the line under Surname/Nom/Appellidos. “Khaaaarrrrr…. din? Khardin?”

“Yes, yes, last name Khardin.”  Russian pronunciation. It seems the thing to do.

Over time it would become clear that these controllers had never been confronted by the possibility of one human having four names. They would be very unsure as to how to proceed. You, aware that quite recently the police force was among the most dangerous groups of people you could run into in Georgia (not anymore, though), would be happy to cooperate. “Last name Khardin, First name Ketrin. And this is my middle name,” you would explain, pointing to each field as you read it. Do you need to explain that Americans don’t have patronymics? Do Georgians? You would probably decide that no, it may only confuse the little dears further.

“First name Katherine?”

“Yes.”

They would exchange rapid Georgian for a moment. You may have noticed that the cover on the tablet had flopped closed. Is it possible that your very name, the most basic unit of your identity, is so bewildering that you’ll get off? It can’t be.

One of the cops would shake her head in frustration. “How is your name written in your passport?” The standard way to ask for someone’s full name in Russian.

“…That is my passport.” You would fight to maintain a deferential tone, free of sarcasm. Perhaps you would even succeed. Perhaps.

More Georgian. You want to help, but at this point their bewilderment is as bewildering to you as whatever caused the bewilderment is to them.

You become aware of a grumblegrumblegrumble FWUMP accompanied by the unmistakable stench of second-world transport.  The next bus has pulled up.

Their heads snap up. You feel your passport being shoved into your chest as they rush to their positions before the next generation of little bunnies gets away.

If this had ever happened, you would have walked away feeling very lucky, indeed.

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