I’m back in Sakhalin for two weeks, having finally managed to obtain a visa for $200 thanks to an efficient agent in London and my second passport (Brits are allowed multiple passports). I’m here purely on holiday to catch up with friends, most of whom will themselves be leaving soon, and to see the place probably for the last time. I’m staying in an apartment of a friend of mine who is working up in the north of the island, and one thing I noticed when I moved in is that a few of the lightbulbs had blown. It is impossible to find quality lightbulbs in Sakhalin, the only ones on sale are cheap Chinese or Indonesian junk. If they do not shower glass over your head when they inevitably blow you are lucky, and it is not uncommon when unscrewing a lightbulb in Sakhalin to find the metal part scorched black with carbon or the glass and metal parts separated altogether. Anyway, I thought it would be a nice gesture to replace the bulbs, plus reading in gloom hurts my eyes. However, buying lightbulbs in Russia is, as with so many other things, not quite the same as buying lightbulbs anywhere else. So if you ever find yourself needing to buy lightbulbs in Russia, here’s how you do it:
1. Go to a hardware store.
2. Approach glass counter underneath which four dozen different lightbulbs are arranged in a grid, each with a label underneath.
3. Wait at counter in the hope of some assistance.
4. Grow a beard.
5. Take note of the six or seven staff loafing about nearby doing nothing, all of whom ignore you completely.
6. Identify the man in charge of lightbulb sales, wait for him to finish serving other customer. By this time, beard will have grown completely and you may shave and start again.
7. Greet the man in charge of lightbulbs cheerfully, show him existing, broken lightbulb and ask for 15 new ones exactly like it.
8. Wait for the man in charge of lightbulbs to write your order on a scrap of paper.
9. Head for Kiosk No. 3 and wait in line.
10. Trim beard.
11. Hand kiosk girl scrap of paper.
12. Ask kiosk girl to repeat herself, preferably using the type of Russian found in textbooks.
13. Hand over money, receive change and receipt.
14. Take receipt to man in charge of lightbulbs.
15. Wait for him to finish serving other customer.
16. Collect lightbulbs and slightly torn receipt from man in charge of lightbulbs.
17. Go home, attempt to install lightbulbs.
18. Realise man in charge of lightbulbs has given you the ones with a fat screw end rather than thin screw end.
19. Judge shop to be closing in few minutes, with distance too far to cover in available time.
20. Watch sunset, attend local nightspot, get hammered, sleep.
21. Return to hardware store.
22. Approach glass counter underneath which four dozen different lightbulbs are arranged in a grid, each with a label underneath.
23. Wait for the man in charge of lightbulbs to finish serving other customer.
24. Stroke beard, now at chest-length.
25. Explain problem to man in charge of lightbulbs.
26. Thank Christ man in charge of lightbulbs remembers you and accepts your receipt.
27. Watch man in charge of lightbulbs disappear behind some doors.
28. Wait for man in charge of lightbulbs to return with a form in his hand. Beard.
29. Watch man in charge of lightbulbs fill out the form, which is in three parts, takes up an entire sheet of A4, and is ludicrously complex.
30. Provide passport details when asked. Seriously.
31. Sign completed form in two places.
32. Take signed form, slightly torn and now scribbled-on receipt, and random scrap of paper to Kiosk No. 3 and wait in line.
33. Shave, recommence beard growing.
34. Hand kiosk girl signed form, slightly torn and now scribbled-on receipt, and random scrap of paper.
35. Cover ears as kiosk girl bellows for man in charge of lightbulbs to come to her kiosk.
36. Listen to heated exchange between man in charge of lightbulbs and kiosk girl, the latter being unhappy that the form only contains my passport number instead of all passport details and my address.
37. Receive receipt from kiosk girl.
38. Take receipt to man in charge of lightbulbs.
39. Collect lightbulbs and slightly torn receipt.
40. Go home, install 8 lightbulbs.
41. Wait 3 hours.
42. Replace 2 blown lightbulbs.