Tag Archives: shopping

Five Strange Things at the Supermarket

Paterson (Патерсон) is our 24/7 supermarket of choice in Russia. Now that I’ve gone shopping too many times, here are five Paterson oddities, or perhaps just general Russian supermarket oddities.

  1. Eggs come in boxes of ten. I always feel like I’m getting ripped off.
  2. Red caviar flavored Lays potato chips. Also: шашлик (shashlik—sort of shiskabob/Russian BBQ) flavored Lays.
  3. There are no granola bars. No chewy bars. No Clif bars. No cereal bars. No breakfast bars. No fruit-filled bars. No low-fat diet bars.
  4. Lots of mayonnaise. But no tomato sauce, damn it.
  5. Plastic bags cost 6 rubles. This is perhaps the most environmentally friendly feature of St. Petersburg (awesome subway system aside) that I have seen thus far.
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Smiling

Russians don’t smile. Not the ones that work in the service industry, anyhow. The uniquely American, “Thanks, and have a great day” doesn’t seem to have hopped on the boat to St. Petersburg with McDonalds and Pizza Hut.

At the metro, after you pass your 20 rubles through the window, they don’t even look at you before shoving a gold metro token at you. If, god forbid, you fumble for the correct bills or coins, several Russians are liable to push by you to purchase their entrance fares.

I’ll admit, it’s not like the Metro employees in D.C. are known for their friendliness either, and I’m sure they’ve put off more than one foreign tourist. But subway workers aren’t the only unsmiling ones.

I’ve already written some about the difficult cashiers at the Paterson supermarket, or универсам. From our travel guide, we recently learned that they’re colloquially referred to as гром баба, or thunder women. Makes me feel a bit better to know that Russians also incur their wrath.

Now, the woman I bought tea (another weapon in the continuing war against jet lag) and some food from today seemed nicer, or at least more low key. But she, too, hassled me as I tried to count out correct change (when the smallest common coin is 50 kopecks, that can be particularly tough). And I also learned that she spoke English—when she told me “You too slow” as I tried to put my change away while simultaneously juggling my purchases, because I had decided against purchasing another 6 ruble plastic bag.

We managed to steal a smile from a waitress today, however.

Restaurants and cafes in Russia are notorious for lacking many of the items listed on the menu. _____ нет, there isn’t any _____, is a common phrase for waiters and waitresses. Typically, food is ordered and delivered with as few words exchanged as possible, with the obvious exception of multiple “нет”s. There’s no friendly banter nor facial expressions, perhaps because tipping expectations are minimal, except in the fanciest establishments (apparently, in smaller cities, tipping means that you want to sleep with the waitress. Here, they’re more used to it.).

This means that the waiters won’t constantly bug you, asking you how your food is, or trying to move you along to make room for another table. It also means that they won’t ask you if you want something else, or offer you another bottle of water or soda—the savvy Russian restaurant-goer orders his whole meal, including dessert, upon sitting down.

There were six of us at the restuarant today, ordering Пироги, or Russian pastries, filled with anything from apple or orange to meat and fish. I actually went for a strange fried egg, cheese, and tomato dish, but only because the pastry I wanted – нет. So much of what we ordered was out that after asking for the umpteenth item and hearing the umpteenth нет, we finally earned a smile, and perhaps even a little laugh, from the waitress. Either that, or she was laughing at our mangled pronunciations of Russian food items.

Accomplishments

The jet lag has been conquered, sort of. It’s 7:30 p.m., and I’m exhausted.

In the interest of brevity, I’m going to list some of today’s accomplishments. You’ll notice that a lot of them involve purchases; talking with people in Russian is tough.

  • Rode the metro to downtown St. Petersburg to watch the Victory Day parade.
  • Bought lunch (but the menu was in English and Russian).
  • Bought a surge protector.
  • Bought water from a vendor on the street.

More later, but for now, it’s time to get out and get some coffee in the interest of the continuing flight against jet lag.

Arriving in Russia

5/8/09 – 23:00

A short flight over the Gulf of Finland, a deep blue bordered on all sides by green, set the scenic backdrop for our arrival in St. Petersburg. As we came over the city, its pervasive grayness—a slightly outmoded industrial quality—filled the hazy air. Power lines, massive apartment blocks, and factory complexes stretched through my field of view as the plane descended to Polkovo airport on the city’s outskirts.

On deplaning, we were greeted by a short, stern-faced man who said nothing as he pointed his temperature gun at each of us; no “Welcome to Russia” here, but thankfully, no swine flu either.

Past customs, the mood lightened considerably as we were met by Саша (Sasha), our Russian discussion instructor from first semester. From there, we threw our bags into a small truck with a green-canvas-covered bed and settled into a white mix between a van and a bus for our ride to Капитанская Улица (Kapitanskaya Street), situated right on the Gulf of Finland.

As we drove, St. Petersburg came into focus as a city, it’s character clearly unbounded by the industrial grayness that I saw from above. We passed a Kentucky Fried Chicken and a giant statue of Lenin, whose name the city once bore. Monuments to Tsars and Soviet soldiers filled the centers of enormous circles that seemed to give the traffic—everything from old Ladas to modern Porsches and Toyotas, and even a few American cars—some semblance of order.

Numerous supermarkets, markets, drug stores, convenience stores, clothing stores, and sundry other shops lined the streets, their gaudy signs advertrising their wares, and often, their 24/7 schedules. We strained to decipher the letters on some of the fleeting signs, and painstakingly sounded-out cyrillic filled the bus-van, accompanied, sometimes, by cheers marking the recognition of a remembered vocabulary word. Frequently though, the names were comfortably familar; Кафе (café), суши (sushi) and бар (bar) were only the tip of the iceberg.

But the city, what little of it we explored in our first hours in Russia, hummed to a beat distinct from anything that might be suggested by superficial sign similarities.

Shopping for food was a fascinating, and humbling, experience. Tomato sauce, of the kind we are so used to in America, was impossible to find at the  supermarket we went to. Also missing were spices, crackers beyond a single brand, and all the many styles of granola bar that are ubiquitous at home.

Eggs are packed 10 to a carton—strange.

The checkout aisle marked our first linguistic challenge. As the cashier rang up our bread, cheese, pasta, and massive jugs of water, she asked us if we wanted bags. We quickly declined, only to realize a few seconds later what we had done. Bags being an unfamilar word to us, we couldn’t figure out how to ask for them, except by pointing to one after the cashier had finished ringing us up.

Plastic bags (пакеты – a word I will not soon forget) cost six rubles, the cashier snarled. She waved away Tom’s 100 ruble bill, demanding exact change. The phrase «I just arrived and only have large bills» not being a part of our vocabulary, Tom dug around and handed the cashier a coin that said 5 and another that said 1. Her annoyance visibly increased at being handed a ruble and five kopecks, the cashier finally, mercifully, accepted Tom’s 100 ruble bill (worth, roughly, $3), and doled out all 94 rubles in change, pissed as hell. We quickly shoved our purchases into the bag and escaped, chastened and nervous for future shopping encounters.

Pre-planning vocabulary became the order of the day for our other big purchase – a map of the city. Fortunately, the vendor in the magazine stall was more understanding of our limited Russian skills, and the smoothness of this exchange provided a much-need confidence boost. Tom also managed to buy a memory card reader from an electronics kiosk located in, of all places, a pet shop.

Tomorrow, to wipe out jet lag, we plan to get up around 8 a.m., in plenty of time to go watch the Victory Day parade through the city center.