MiR 077 My Life in Russia Stories – Shopping

You’re listening to the Mark in Russia broadcast # 077, and I’m Mark.

Today I’m going to continue with my Life in Russia series and I’ll talk about food shopping here in Chelyabinsk from a foreigner’s perspective.

You really should go to my website at: www.markinrussia.com to listen to this, or at least open the page to read the show notes, regardless of where you are listening to this. The reason for this is because the show notes also include several photos to help you get a better idea about what I’m talking about.

The whole process of food shopping has changed a lot since I first arrived more than 11 years ago and I would have to say that apart from prices, all of the aspects of shopping have changed for the better.

When I first arrived there were from few to no supermarkets here in Chelyabinsk, and you need to remember that this is a city of more than one million. There were a ton of “Produkti” shops, which are typically small shops with about 20% of the products found in a typical 7-11 back in the States, and for those of you that don’t know, 7-11 is just a chain of very small neighborhood markets. The only thing that these Russian markets had was a huge selection, or perhaps better to say, “quantity” of alcoholic beverages and the 2nd largest selection was of snacks specifically geared towards the consumption of alcohol. It wasn’t funny, but rather depressing.

Many people did their shopping at outdoor markets. For the foreigners who may be listening to this podcast by accident or something, I need to give you a reality check. If your idea of an outdoor market is one where the person who grew or raised the food is there proudly selling the fruit of their labor, you are thinking of someplace else, perhaps it was a Norman Rockwell painting you once saw in a book. Here an outdoor market could be more aptly described as a rather dirty place where angry people buy products from angry rude sellers. A place where cars are not allowed, but if you don’t watch your step you may get run over. First I have to warn you about the experience of waiting in a line in Russia, which is rather unique to Russia I think. Not at an outdoor market, but elsewhere, you simply arrive and ask, “who’s last?” Usually someone will say that they are. Now mind you, there is absolutely no organization to this line, or really any reason to even call it a line. You may know who you are behind now, but apart from that, you really have no idea of how far back in the line you are. First, there is usually no line, second, you don’t know how many people are in front of you, only who you are directly behind. You can’t even begin to imagine the stress level created by this total lack of a system.

Now, something that I try to not do, and also tell other foreigners to not do. My speech goes something like this, “ try to stay away from judging how things are done in another country. What may seem like a stupid way of doing things is merely a different way of doing things. Don’t always see things through the lenses of your own culture.” After being here for several years I realize that some things are just plain stupid and this “who’s next” system certainly is.

Well, let me get back to the line at the outdoor market, or reenock, as they are known in Russian. Here people try to actually get in a line, as I define the word “line”, but here is what happens next, or at least used to happen years ago. As you and others are trying to wait in a semi-orderly line, someone will inevitably come along towards the beginning of the line and pretend to be looking at the products or prices. Oh yeah, I forgot to mention; everything is put away where you can’t touch it, well, this isn’t always true with fruit and vegetables. Anyhow, this person, usually an old lady, after fake looking at the prices and products will then “sidle” into the line up near the front, causing stress and anger with everyone else. Bear in mind also that you will wait at half a dozen of these little kiosks to get the different things that you wanted to buy. Each time this same situation may be acting out. As I said, or at least should have already said; shopping at an outdoor market sucks and is not meant for a non aggressive person.

Now, when you reach the front of the line be prepared to encounter a rude ignorant person. There will be no welcoming smile, or even a, “how may I help you?”, no, usually you will be greeted with a “what?”. After you have told them everything you want and they have put it in a bag that you better have remembered to bring, then they will tell you the total. You better have exact change also, because these people are such poor business people, or for that matter, human beings, that sometimes if you don’t have the exact change, they won’t even sell you the goods. You see, they don’t want to give away any of their change.

After being here for several months, I thought that the actually change (as in coins) had some sort of much greater value than paper money and I had a large bowl of coins that I would not even use. As I now understand, wackiness breeds wacky thoughts.

As I was in the county longer, some Western style supermarkets began to open up. Now, I’m a person who believes in small businesses and also believes in doing my part to support small businesses, but in this case I’ve got to say. I eagerly await the day when every one of these filthy miserable markets are out of business and shuttered for good. This is one situation when I enjoy seeing the big guy step on and crush the little guy. In this situation they remind me of roaches and deserve to be crushed.

OK, now that I have the outdoor market crowd angered at me, which is truly a joke since most would be too stupid to figure out how to turn on a computer, now I’ll also get the ethnic Russians pissed off also.

Several years ago, I believe it was at the beginning of the economic crisis, many of the masterminds in Moscow decided that all of the foreigners who work at these outdoor markets were stealing these great “high paying” jobs from ethnic Russians, so in the normal Russian Duma fashion a law was passed which made it so that foreigners could not work at these markets. The ethnic Russians had been forced out of these positions and now it was their day. Now I’ll dig myself even deeper, my experience has often been that these foreigners are better sales people and more helpful at these markets, often involving their whole family in the running of their kiosk. You also need to count your change well, and if they are the ones putting your produce from a big box into your bag, you should check out the ones at the bottom, However, even if one of them stacks some badly bruised ones at the bottom, if you bring this to their attention, even the next day, they will give you good ones in trade.

Now, I’m not saying that Russian are not good workers, but when an ethnic Russian is hired to work at a stand, perhaps even still owned by foreigners, and they have no family connection to the owners, their service is epically bad. You will never encounter a case of “I don’t give a damned” bigger than in this situation. The type of ethnic Russian wanting a job selling fruit at an outdoor market would be much the same as an ethnic American who is looking to pick lettuce all day in the sun. Often, but not always a loser.

I still do go to outdoor markets for some items. For example, in early September when the prices for tomatoes and peppers are at their lowest, I go and buy large amounts of these, along with onions and other things in order to spend a couple of weekends making Salsa and also spaghetti sauce. I make enough to last a year for two reasons, one, it is very difficult to find these here (salsa more than spaghetti sauce), and also the price is very high, while the quality is not.

In this situation I’m getting my vegetables cheaper and fresher than those available at the supermarkets. Additionally, if the person working there is a foreigner (yes, the law did not work and it was vacated), they are generally curious about what you are making, particularly when you are buying the fresh spices for making salsa. Some of these spices are not usually known to be used by ethnic Russians, but rather foreigners, so they are curious as to what you use them for.

So, I guess that there is one time a year when I would feel bad if the outdoor markets were closed.

These markets even now do serve a purpose. You see, while in the west the prices at an outdoor market are typically higher than those at a supermarket, here in Russia this is not the case. So, for some people on a fixed budget such as pensioners, the outdoor markets help them buy the food they need within their budget.

Some of the more unusual sights that you’ll meet, perhaps not at the outdoor market itself, but in the vicinity anyhow, are these small Russian cars filled to overflowing with some kind of produce, including strapped to the roof of the car and perhaps also hauling a small utility trailer full. Another sight that you may meet in the meat section is the fact that they do all of their cutting of meat with a hatchet. Granted it’s a sharp hatchet. I’ve never yet seen any kind of band saw being used to cut meat, or for that matter, even a bone saw.

Well, that’s about where I’ll end my shopping episode today and next time I’ll fast forward to the present time. But please, don’t leave yet, I have a rather important announcement to make.

Today is the 25th of February 2013 and I’d like to announce that I’ll be launching the Mark in Russia Radio network sometime in the next two weeks. I’ve been increasing and improving my broadcast equipment and am only waiting for one last piece due here on the 7th of March in order to start.  I’ve been working on this and running tests for about a month now, and I’d now like to talk about this for a few minutes before I end today’s broadcast.

The Mark in Russia radio network is an experiment to introduce a number of new programs, geared towards English language Russian talk radio. Perhaps this will be interesting to listeners and perhaps not, but there is no way of telling this without trying. The network will start with a number of new programs each week with different hosts. This will not be a talking head format and I hope to offer some interesting programs. Already I have a co-host from the Silver Rain radio network who I’ll be working with on our new program, “Point/Counterpoint”. This program will start with one hour each week and will deal with a different issue each week which is very pertinent to Russians in the 18 to 30 year old range. My co-host and I will take opposite sides in the discussion and let the sparks fly. We will also be polling our listeners for those topics most important to them.

We also have two new tech shows we’ll be introducing. One will be concentrated partly on uses and projects that can be accomplished with the new “Rasperry Pi”, and for those of you who are unfamiliar with this, it is a new credit card sized computer recently introduced, which is very inexpensive, so much so that we’ll experiment with it and let you get some ideas also. My host will be Alexei for this program and either I’ll be his co-host, or preferably someone more tech knowledgeable.

This is just a small sampling of our new offerings, additionally, we’ll also host two very classic radio dramas from the golden age of radio in America. At this time one is “Dragnet” and the other, “Gunsmoke”. Two great old time radio programs.

Our plans are to start out small and build up as we get more people interested in working on this project. If you speak English and feel that you can help out, then please contact me at mark@markinrussia.com

If you’ll go to the www.markinrussia.com website now, or if you are already there listening to this podcast, please go to the rightside sidebar on the website and sign up for my newsletter, or follow me on Twitter (@markinrussia). This way you’ll know when we are planning on a live broadcast and you can join us. You’ll always be up on the most recent news and never miss anything. Don’t worry; I never spam.

Well, thanks for hearing me out till the end. Come back next week for my next broadcast, but until that time, GoodBye!!!!

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