Russia: St. Petersburg Self-Service
By Cam Robbins
The people who pushed past me on the streets of St. Petersburg, Russia fit the old Soviet stereotype: they wore dark coats and frowns. Men in their late teens and 20s dressed in ambiguous military style jackets that looked more than Army-Navy Surplus cast-offs, but less than military issue.
Still, it was difficult to imagine breadlines or khrushchovka—prefab, concrete mass housing—partly because the sour-faced people were in stark contrast to the pastel, columned European-style buildings around them and partly because St. Petersburg is now a bustling center of commerce. Nevsky Prospect, the Madison Avenue of St. Petersburg, is lined with shop windows proudly displaying overpriced vodka and caviar. And mere steps away from people hawking canal rides is a packed McDonalds restaurant.
In the middle of this modern, capitalist city I discovered a relic of Soviet society: the full-serve grocery store. It was around the corner from my hotel and roughly the size of a convenience store in the United States. Less than a quarter of the walls were lined with shelving or refrigerated cabinets, leaving great expanses of exposed, dirty white paint. The tall ceiling made the walls look barren.
Instead of rows of unfettered products, everything was corralled in pens against the walls, including the salespeople. The largest space in the store was the open area in the middle, where customers move freely from counter to counter.
To my left an older man in a blue smock was penned behind jewelry cases packed with chocolate bars. He sat on an overturned milk crate and had the worn look of someone counting the days until retirement. He stared at me as I walked in but didn’t move; the man had no inclination to help until absolutely necessary.
To my right was the deli counter. It was the largest enclosure in the store, with enough room to fit copious amounts of meat, cheese, a deli slicer and a woman in her early 20s. She tied her black hair in a kerchief that matched the splatter-paint accents of her blue smock. The woman cleaned the slicer, looking up every so often to see if I needed something and occasionally smiling.
I’d come to buy some bread and cheese—a lunch I’d started to rely on during my travels. In addition to being cheap, brown-bagging lunch took me into foreign grocery stores where I could catch glimpses of everyday life.
I had braced myself for a completely different grocery experience in Russia: Cyrillic alphabet, caviar and black bread. My guidebooks even mentioned that some grocery stores still operated under the old Soviet model of creating jobs through redundancy. But now that I was faced with penned workers and food, I was anxious. My thoughts were scattered; I didn’t know where to begin ordering lunch.
I surveyed the store again. Toward the back was a bakery counter where a pleasant-looking middle-aged woman chatted with the only other customer in the store. Across from this counter were shelves filled with bread. The bread was out in the open, unattended, and ripe for the taking. So I did what any normal, veteran of the self-service world would do; I made a beeline to the shelves and grabbed a bag of rolls.
With that one bag in hand I felt more in my element, but as I was holding the only self-serve item in the store. Once again, I was forced to confront the inevitable: asking for help.
Three years prior, I had taken a year of college Russian and learned the basics: key words and how to conjugate verbs. A few months before this trip I’d pulled out my old books to practice. I was diligent at the beginning but lax when it came to the more difficult chapters (i.e. the ones that would have been helpful). While I could recite family members and tell everyone zdravstvuyte (hello), all question words and most basic nouns escaped my brain as soon as the plane landed in St. Petersburg. The one useful word that stuck was eta (that).
Equipped with my pointer finger and eta, I managed to order slices of white cheese and a salami.
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