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From: Sandy Lubkin
Date: Sun, 3 Aug 1997 16:50:24 +0000
Subject: Shopping

I promised you weeks ago that I'd tell you more about shopping in Moscow. It's certainly different from shopping anywhere I've lived in the USA. Stores come in several sizes here. Each size has a partiular kind of character.

Let's start by talking about grocery stores: "producti" or "gastronom" in Russian. (My dictionary defines gastronom as a grocery store and producti as the groceries themselves, but all the grocery stores around here simply have a sign saying "Producti". Shops are commonly not named, but just labeled by what they sell.) When we enter our local producti, (being sure to greet the cat - The US Health Department would have a fit, but I rather like having resident cats in the stores.) through the double door set (usually with the right door propped open on the outer set and the left on the inner - or vice versa), there are several counters with store personnel. We choose what groceries we want from those that are on display in the counters or on the shelves behind the clerks, and tell them what we want. They weigh any bulk items, and tell us how much each grocery item is. The clerks at our usual producti know us (that we are foreigners and don't speak Russian well) and write out the prices for us. Then we take our price list to the "cassa" (cashier) in a tiny booth on the other side of the store, and pay for our groceries. She gives us a receipt which we take back to the counter clerk who then gives us our groceries. BYOB - Bring Your Own Bags. And repeat this procedure at each counter.

Other large stores are similar. We went to several bookstores (I know this is a big surprise to you), including Dom Knigi (House of Books) and Moscow Books, Dom Igrushki (House of Toys), Dom Tkani (House of Fabrics), many producti (whenever we are out and about and see a producti, we go in to see what's available), and the Moskva (Moscow) Department Store. In general, you go to a counter, select what you want, pay somewhere else and collect your purchases. It's a little awkward, but it does work. And I'll bet that shoplifting is unheard of in these stores. Moscow Books is experimenting with the kind of shopping that Americans are more familiar with. Part of their store is the traditional counter sales. Another part is displays of books where you choose what you want and take them to a counter to pay for them. That section has a very familiar electronic security system - the exit is flanked with the magnetic sensors that beep if you try to take something through which hasn't been uncoded. Standing outside that is a very suspicious-looking security guard (I mean that he looks suspiciously at people, not that he looks suspicious himself). The largest producti in our area has a modified traditional approach. You choose what you want at each counter, and pay for it right there. Security for the stores, convienence for the customers.

(Picture)24-hour producti near our apartment.

And then there are the little stores - they give real meaning to the term "mini-mart". These stores are everywhere: they line some pedestrian undercrossings; you'll find them next to sidewalks; and they're almost always just outside Metro stations (Metro is the subway system). These little stores are just big enough for the clerk and some stock. Items that are available are displayed in the window (I've seen dried fish taped in the window). There's a small opening for transactions, and that's about all I can think of to say about that type of store. These stores sell all different types of things. Some are grocery stores. Some sell electronic goods. There are toy stores, music stores (with loud music of course), liquor stores, clock stores, delicatessens, bread stores (they do not bake the bread on the premises ;), news stands, clothing stores, shoe stores, pharmacies, hardware stores and much more. Anything that can be sold is sold in these shops as well as the larger ones.

(Picture)Icecream stand outside Dom Tkani

My favorite place to shop is a yarmarka. It's a market in the traditional sense. People set up stands and sell their goods. It's a great place to find a bargain. There's some competition because there are many people selling vegetables, fresh meats, cured meats (sausages, bacon, smoked chicken and fish), and other stuff. Most of what we buy at the yarmarka is food, but there's a whole range of items available - again, anything that can be sold is sold there.

(Picture) The market outside our metro station

I was concerned at first about buying meat here. The meat is often displayed in the open, just lying on a plate on a counter. When the weather warmed up, I started seeing flies buzzing around, landing on the meat. Yuk. But all meat sold in Moscow is sold frozen, even if you buy it in an actual store. We cook our meat well, as a precaution, but we're probably safe. I've also found a couple of stands where the display is in a glass-front freezer and they give you meat from another freezer, (rather than giving you the chunk of meat which was on open-air display) so I've started buying from them when I can.

One thing about shopping in Moscow - while just about everything is available, it isn't always easy to find. When we moved into this apartment, I noticed that there was a hot-air popcorn popper. We've been looking ever since, and just yesterday managed to find some popcorn. (It was yummy!) Some weeks, the meat stores (I can't really justify calling them "butcher shops") have only beef, other weeks only pork, other weeks a variety of meats are there. That's why we've taken to looking in every producti we see. You never know what you'll find. I know of two producti that sell peanut butter, but many which sell chocolate-hazelnut spread (like Nutella). I haven't seen any corn chips around, but a wide selection of potato chips are sold - including "new" Pringles.

Much of the packaged foods we've boughten have come from other countries. A lot of packages are labeled in many languages. Romanian, oddly enough, is among the easiest for us to understand, easier even than Russian. We bought a jar of instant coffee (any other kind is difficult to find, and very expensive) that was packaged in Holland from coffee beans grown in Africa or South America for an Australian firm and sold in Russia -- very cosmopolitan.

I amend what I said about everything being available to "almost everything." Baking powder is unknown in Russia. I've found that I can get by without it for cakes and such. They raise just fine without it. I made baking powder biscuits once since we got here, but I substituted extra baking soda for the missing baking powder and they were barely edible. But you can make reasonably good biscuits from Pillsbury Blini Mix (actually repackaged pancake mix).

With summer here, there are a lot of fresh fruits and vegetables available. It's usually best to get them at the yarmarka - they seem to be fresher there. Watermelons came into season a few weeks ago and huge bins of them appeared in the markets.

(Picture) The watermelon stand at the market outside our metro station

There's another melon, an American-football shaped cantaloupe, that's just appeared, but it's still pretty expensive at 20,000 roubles/kilo ($1.60/lb). Our watermelon was more reasonable at 2,000 roubles/kilo ($0.16/lb). Both this season's and last season's potatoes are being sold. Last season's have been marked down quite a bit. A bargain if you don't mind a bit of spoilage.

And, of course, this being Russia, cabbages are available everywhere. I haven't seen many beets. But at some point, I'm going to try my hand at the two best known of the Russian soups: shchee (spelled with two letters in Russian ;), a cabbage based soup, and borshch, a beet based soup. We've had both in cafeterias since we got here, and they were delicious (remember, this comes from someone who doesn't even *like* vegetables).

Sandy (Cannady) Lubkin
Currently in Moscow, Russia

All text and pictures copyright 1997 Sandy and Bela Lubkin, all rights reserved.