It was not until my first trip to Russia, in the summer of 1998, that I realized that shopping for cabbage could be such a harrowing adventure. Learning how to cook schi (traditional Russian cabbage soup) required the development of a tougher psychological hide than my wimpy Midwestern existence had prepared me for.
My initiation into the dangers of shopping began on my first day in Russia. My companion picked me up at the airport and escorted me to central Moscow. Before we even entered the apartment, I asked him if we could first check out the mom and pop grocery store across from his building. Even though I was exhausted from the flight, I was intensely curious about everything Russian. I knew that in this post-Soviet period, Russia was no longer the evil empire it had been in the Reagan years. Still, I was hoping it was still a wee bit wicked, at least enough to make my trip halfway around the world worthwhile. Also, on the practical side, I assumed that I would be shopping at this store frequently, and I was curious to see what kind of goods it contained.
It took a few moments after entering the burrow of a shop for our eyes to adjust to the darkness. We were the only customers. The owner, a burly middle-aged man, stood behind a long counter with his arms crossed. He glared suspiciously at us. Most of the goods were stored on the shelves behind the counter, so browsing was not an option. We stood near the doorway for a few moments while I looked around. Although we were not there for long, maybe only a minute or two, the owner was clearly getting impatient with us.
It wasn’t long before he barked: “Sashamashadashabaryshnikovbrezhnevharascho.”
“Let’s go,” my companion muttered to me, and we turned around and left.
Except for a few words and phrases, I did not speak Russian, so I had no idea what the bark meant. I asked my companion to translate for me, so he did, somewhat reluctantly. If we were not going to buy anything, the burgeoning capitalist had yelled at us, then we should get the fuck out of his store. Apparently the idea that the customer is king had not yet caught on in Russia.
Although I decided not to go back to that shop, I was, on some level, pleased with the encounter. It suggested that perhaps Russia would live up to its scary reputation and that my trip would be worth the fare.
For the rest of my stay, I frequented a shop two or three blocks away, a leftover from the Soviet times. As with the Barker’s shop, all of the goods in this store were placed behind the counters, which were zealously guarded by the clerks, like so many Cerberuses guarding the gates of hell. To buy anything, customers had to ask the clerk to get whatever they wanted for them. And to make the process as inefficient as possible, customers had to stand in separate lines to order each type of food (produce, meats, etc). After a customer ordered the products, the cashier told them how much the food costs. Next, the customers had to move to a separate line so that they could pay the cashier for the food. After paying for the food, customers had to stand in yet another line to show the clerk the receipt and collect the goods. This procedure was then repeated for every category of food. This system not only maximized inefficiency, it also maximized the amount of customer contact with the clerks. Thus, the potential for scary encounters was high.
I remember one day in particular, after having been in Moscow for a few days, when I decided to make shchi (a traditional cabbage soup). First, I stood in the produce line. Given my extremely limited Russian and my frightening experience with the Barker, I was intimidated by the rotund, middle-aged woman behind the counter. I felt a little bit like Dorothy trembling in supplication before the Wizard of Oz.
“Please,” I said in my garbled Russian when it was my turn to order. “Threes carrot and thank you two cabbage.”
The clerk gave me a disapproving look and barked out the price: “yapeeshuperom.”
I did not understand and looked blankly at her.
She repeated the price: “yapeeshuperom.” Seeing me stand there dumbly set her off on a harangue: “Sashamashadasha baryshnikovbrezhnev dvapivapazhaloosta.”
Although this dressing down was not as scary as the Barker’s had been, it was frightening enough to give me a little bit of a thrill. Perhaps this is what it feels like to ski down a steep mountain slope.
“To write, excuse me,” I mumbled, and made writing motions with my hand.
She rolled her eyes, but understood and wrote down the price on a slip and handed it to me.
Grateful for her condescension, I scuttled off to wait in a second line—the cashier’s—to pay for my produce. When it was my turn, I handed the young brunette a fifty-ruble note for my 24.85 ruble purchase. In response, the cashier replied, “Bolshpriviborsch.”
Here we go again, I thought. I knew by now that my blank look would be enough to get her going, and I was right.
“Tchaikovskyrimskykorsikov yapishuperom yanepaneemayonichevo,” she went on, this time in a louder voice. Eventually, the cashier gave up trying to explain anything to me and instead pointed to the 85 cents in the price and held out small coins in her palm. Now I understood that she was expecting me to give her the exact change. I did not have the change, so I simply shook my head and continued to look at her in mute supplication. Finally, with an exaggerated sigh and a rolling of her eyes, she gave up on me and gave me back my change, counting it out slowly and loudly to signal her displeasure.
By this time, I was so intimidated that my adrenaline was starting to climb and my heartbeat was almost in the aerobic zone. I started to understand the appeal of extreme sports. I was frightened, but in a thrilling way. This was getting good. I walked back to the previous counter, eager to claim my hard-won cabbages and carrots. I was puzzled, however, to notice that the lights were off and the produce clerk was no longer there. I looked around the store, confused, wanting to know where my cabbages were. A woman was sweeping the floor. Seeing the confused look on my face, she started in on me. “Dvapivapazhaloosta bolshoischiborscht mishadachadostoevsy!” she yelled.
Wow. Three scoldings within the course of maybe fifteen minutes. Could bungee jumping be better than this? I began to feel my moral fiber toughen. I could get through this adventure and would be the stronger person for it. I noticed that there was nobody left in the store and I realized that the store was closing for lunch.
“Please,” I said to the woman. “Cabbage and carrot?”
“Sashamashadasha baryshnikovbrezhnev” she replied, but went behind the counter and retrieved my package.
Although I still had other purchases to make, I had to leave because the store was closed. As I walked out the door, I was tempted to raise my vegetables over my head in a sign of victory. In the soundtrack to my life, the theme song from Rocky should have been playing.
I had maneuvered the minefields of the evil empire and emerged victorious. This was fun.
As I stayed longer in Moscow, I realized that the denizens of this store were not particularly surly by Russian standards. They were quite ordinary, in fact. Although at first I thought they were yelling at me because I was a foreigner, I realized this was not the case. (In fact, many times, the scolders did not know I was foreign. They simply thought I was a feeble-minded Russian.) Russians will scold anyone. And although any Russian—young, old, male, female–feels entitled to yell at strangers, scolding is the particular specialty of older women—the babushki. It does not matter that the scoldees are strangers, or—like me—might not even understand what our offense is. The important thing for the babushki is to let us know we are wrong. I believe they consider it their civic duty to keep the idiots in line.
They have their jobs cut out for them.
When I told Americans about getting yelled at in Russia, they were appalled. “What a horrible place,” they said. They don’t get it, I thought. At least for me, it was not a horrible experience. In fact, after awhile, I felt a little disappointed if I went out in Russia and did not get scolded. Why is this? Am I a masochist? I don’t think so. Rather, I realize in retrospect that on some level I envy these women their freedom of speech. Living as I do in the land of Minnesota Nice, I am obligated by social custom and the law of capitalism (to always please the customer) to be polite at all times. I could never get away with calling someone a blathering idiot, no matter how blatheringly idiotic he may be.
The older I get, and the more fools and knaves I encounter, the more painful I find the constraints of politeness. I fear that one day I will snap. I will don a Russian scarf, sit in my office and tell whoever comes by what romanovpushkinblinis they really are. I know that if I do this, I will lose my job and the entire capitalist system will come crumbling down. I will become a minion of the new evil empire of Minnesota. It might be kind of fun.