16 December 2010

My True Sour Cream Shopping Misadventure, with 10 Savvy Tips on How to Approach Russian Stores

I saw the walkway getting larger through my glasses...

tried to catch myself, but landed on the  left side of my face, twisted my glasses, and later had to retrieve a lens on the sidewalk.  How did this happen, where was I, and what did this accident have to do with shopping in Russia?

A flashback to the ‘90s in New Jersey

Watching expenses, I became property agent in a former lumber yard.  I talked with renters, made a few repairs, and painted the exterior of my office and the one above.  I wanted clients to have a positive feeling as they approach our door.  The signs had to be placed just right, the grass weeded and edged, no cigarette butts lying around.

Larissa didn’t understand why I cared so much about the outward appearance of the MacDonald Insurance Agency.  She felt no one took notice until they stepped in the door. At the time I didn’t realize that her thinking was a simple reflection of the Russian view.

Attractive exteriors a waste of time... or important?

Russians care very much about what’s inside the door, but often not a whit about what’s on the outside. Perhaps a rough run-down exterior discourages extortionists, burglars, and casual passersby.  Few Russian small businesses would keep statistics on what attracts people to their shops. 

Try to visualize a small  shop that you frequent. What does it look like from outside?  Your vision I guarantee you is different from what you will find in the high rise neighborhoods of St Petersburg. 

Russian Sour Cream Was My Downfall

We get the best sour cream, smooth cottage cheese, and meat from a store that just opened this year. This shop sells healthy food straight from their farm. It’s true... sometimes the best food is found at a little shop rather than the supermarket.

It was in mid-October, two months ago, that I fell outside this store.  I had just taken off my gloves as I walked to the entrance. 

The steps are diagonal to the front wall.  The windowless heavy steel door opens out to the right, an awkward location for my approach from the alley.

Not paying attention...

I put a foot on a crumbled step, the black door swung out, and swept me off balance. I plunged face down to the broken concrete walkway. 

A nasty cut above my left eye, and another on the chopping edge of my left hand were bleeding a lot.  I slowly staggered upright and realized two women, probably a mother with her grown daughter, were standing looking at me.

Then the babuska started cleaning blood from my coat.  I realized then that it was they who had rushed out of the shop and laid me low.  It’s typical that the first thing anyone did was clean my coat, as appearances are more important than life in Russia. 

I told them not to worry, I was getting old, and falls were nothing new to me.

Another woman returned from up the street to say they were ready to call an ambulance.  I thanked her but told her it wasn’t necessary. 

Once my bleeding had been checked, I seemed cut up but OK, so the ladies departed.  Here in the big city, you are lucky if anyone helps you in any way when you are hurt or sick on the street.

They had done all they could do, never thought they should get my phone or give there’s so as to find out how I was.  They  probably were upset and shocked, especially after hearing my foreign accent.

Mission Accomplished!

I carefully stepped in the butcher shop, waited in line, and asked for the cup of smetana (sour cream) that I had come for... and some napkins for my cuts.  They seemed concerned but cautious.  It’s rare for people to worry about liability in such cases.  (They didn’t.)

Customers stared but said nothing.  Then I walked home, resting on a bench in the courtyard on the way.

Finally back home!

I was hoping that I could clean up enough so when Larissa returned she wouldn’t see I had fallen.  The damage was too much to hide.  Larissa cleaned me with care and consternation.  She said,

‘That’s it!  No more going out by yourself!  I have to accompany you.  Who would help you!  You never look where you are going!’

I didn’t argue, as I knew with time she would forget about this edict. 

Unfit for company...

The good wife said we had to cancel our invitation to our friend’s restaurant birthday party in a few days, as I looked unpresentable for social exposure... like a py-an-e, a derelict. 

I convinced Larissa we could hide some of the damage with makeup, so as to not startle or upset our hostess or other guests.

After a few weeks of welcome pampering by Larissa, bruises were less noticeable, and my back and arm returned to normal.

Here’s my list I hope you enjoy, and maybe find useful!

10 Savvy Tips on How to Survive Russian Small Stores

1. It’s wise to shave and dress well before heading out to the store.  If something happens to you, it’s important to not be viewed as just another pyane (drunk).

2. Be prepared to share the walkway with random cars and delivery trucks.  Don’t walk close to high buildings.  Pedestrians have been killed by icicles, flower pots, even a tire flung from a balcony.

3. Sometimes it’s difficult to tell if there is a store there , and whether it’s open or not.  Sometimes there is a coffee cup symbol, and hours of operation on or next to the door.

4. The entrance steps may be crumbled.  Water, mud, or snow rarely are cleared carefully.

5. The entrance door sometimes is a heavy black metal slab on balky hinges, with no window to see who is coming or going.  Many of these stores are rented from the city, which can be a lackadaisical landlord which tolerates unsafe drab conditions.

6. Once inside, don’t wait to be acknowledged... in Russia the customer must start the process. ’Hello, five hundred grams of ground meat.’  Pleasantries beyond hello are not customary.

7. I have a habit learned in New Jersey of asking stop workers’ names, giving mine, chatting a little, and calling each other by our names the next time I return.  It won’t happen here.  It makes the store clerks uncomfortable except for a social few, and even they feel it wrong to call me by name.

8. In a small store it’s best to have close to the exact amount ready to pay.  If you hand over a 1000 ruble note, with no apology or smile.

9. If you wake up. find yourself outside surrounded by people with plastic shopping bags, you’re probably in Russia.  Be sure to carry a folded bag, or a new one will cost around 5 rubles.  Ten years ago some people still used cloth bags, but now I see none around the neighborhood.

10. It’s your responsibility to be extra cautious about your safety... even in America.  Never assume a structure will hold you, never expect a car to stop, never approach a swing door from an awkward side.  Be alert, have fewer set-backs, and live a long happy life.


A Little Bit of News... My hair is longer, it’s cold... –10 C (+14 F, but I may wander over for a haircut soon.  So my Inquiring Report/Investigation about hygiene should be ready for our next post!

It’s a pleasure to get your Comments!


  1. Rob,

    I appreciate your tone, and I can empathize... my wife tells me on a regular basis that I walk around looking like a bum. But, as you well know, it's always with love... love laced with a frustration... but still love.

  2. Sorry about your tumble, but glad you have recovered my friend.
    You also have to have a greater awareness here - open man holes, dodgy pavements, trailing cables, general obstacles left on pavements etc. Hope you are able to enjoy Christmas.

  3. That was a fun article! Except when you fell of course...

    My favorite store is the type that is located down two flights of stairs of the outside variety. The stairs lead deep into the deep underground. No sign is even visible to tell you a store is there. Everyone just knows it is there. You find this well armored door that takes a bear to open (or a babushka.) Inside you will find a Que of people to buy cheese. (You are thinking how did they get that door open?) There could be 10 stores on the surface of the city with in 100 feet of this dirty hole in the ground selling cheese, but everyone is buy cheese from this store...

    As you say the inside of the store is wonderful but the path to get there will have 10 objects to hit your head on and stairs no more than a few inches in depth but 20 stairs almost straight down like a ladder...

    Falling is part of the Russian life that I have had to adjust to also.

    Thank you for a good post. It made my day...

    Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year!

    Kyle and Sveta

  4. Glad you have 'bounced back' from your tumble! I wonder how an American-style store would do there- following all the retail rules we have here? What do you think?

  5. Thanks Mike for stopping by!

    Mike writes Fictions From the Dead Machine... http://www.deadmachinefictions.com. which includes resonant poetry that I enjoy.

    Yes, love is mixed in with the typical Russian admonition!

  6. Comment from Rob Innis, Rob in Espana, http://www.robinnis.wordpress.com/

    Thanks Rob!

    So it isn't just Russia that has obstacle course walkways! But with your perfect weather, you can see these stumblers easier!

    Now my fall is just a vivid memory, but no marks or pain remain.

    Rob in Russia

  7. Merry Christmas and all Season's Greetings to Kyle and Svet, http://windowstorussia.com/.

    I guess this type of store has low rent and word of mouth for powerful advertising... resulting in low overhead (and low overhead above your heads)!

    Welcome back from sunny Israel!

  8. Thanks Margo for an interesting question!

    I talked this over with Larissa and she said she could train the employees to smile, say please and thank you. We think it would be a hit. We know of only one supermarket where workers are trained this way... and everyone seems a little happier!

    Here's hoping safe and friendly stores will become a trend!


Comments, Questions, Ideas