In the early 90’s my husband went to work in Moscow, Russia as a freelance journalist and decided to stay and live there. After a while, I followed him over there. I arrived in Moscow knowing very little about the country and nothing about the language. The Soviet Union had formally dissolved in 1991 but the city I landed in two years later was still very Soviet. The streets were poorly lit, there were no neon signs, or many signs at all for that matter. People did not generally speak English and were leery of foreigners. It was an adventure for me but not an easy transition.
I determined there was bakery right outside our apartment building because it always smelled so good. Fresh bread in the middle of winter, yum. I went in one day to check it out and it was packed with people. I stood and watched as people went up to the counter, looked around, and then queued up at the cashier’s cage. They told cashier the type of bread they wanted, how many loaves, and what it cost – at least that is what I assumed was going on. Over the next few days I stopped in on my way home and watched this process, trying to catch the names of the bread people were buying. I still could not make out the Cyrillic writing under the loaves.
I finally managed to understand the name of one of the loaves – bolichka – it was a small, fat, French or Italian type bread. I decided to give it a try. I got in line for the cashier and yelled “Adin Bolichka!” into her cage. I had learned how to count to ten and felt confident that “adin” meant “one”. Much later I learned that Russian is more complicated than Latin and there were different ways of saying “one” depending on what you were talking about. I probably should have said Adna instead of Adin.
Of course she didn’t understand me and started to yell at me – “What? What are you saying? What do you want? Speak up!” Yelling at me! I quickly left the building.
A few days later, I waited until there were only a few people in the store. Using a combination of sign language and my rudimentary skills, I pointed to the bread I wanted and asked the woman behind the counter what it was called. “Shto?” What? She told me. I asked her how much it cost. “Skolka?” How much?
She realized I was not catching on too quickly so she kindly wrote it all down for me on a piece of paper. I went to the cashier and handed her the paper. I paid her and returned to the counter with my receipt. I had successfully purchased my first loaf of bread in Russia!! I was so happy! I felt like I should frame it.
But it was delicious.
I went through this process many more times during my years in Russia. Eventually my language improved and my “Babushka” skills were honed enough that I could make transactions without falling apart. The Russian Babushka is a fearsome entity. She is a grandmother who always wears a scarf and feels it is her duty to scold you. It doesn’t matter who you are.
“You should button your coat”,
” You should not sit on marble”,
“You should wear a hat”,
“Your son should put his gloves on”,
“What is wrong with you, why don’t you do what I say?”.
She is everywhere and she is intimidating.
These are the women who manned the cashier stations in the Russian shops.
As someone who knows only to well how hard it is to learn a new language and fit into another culture… I loved this story!
I bet you have some stories to tell as well!
Oh yeah, and I probably will…
It was easier here – didn’t have to Babushka-proof myself. But counting! Different words depending on whether you’re counting money, or days, or people … or to whom you’re enumerating (though that’s relaxing a bit these days, unless you’re talking to a very venerable Venerable!).
Sounds similar to Russian, you have to know what your are doing in order to figure out which word to use…. There are so many variations. Now I know why pidgin English came about! It is always in the present tense!
Always one tense? What bliss!
wow scary lady i would be in tears most of the time, lol
It was an adjustment but you couldn’t take it personally. 🙂
Mmmmmm…. Fresh baked bread. I want to get myself some of that. So delicious.
ochen horosho! (that is my non-cyrillic way of writing well done!) I was a Russian major in college and went to Moscow and St. Petersburg (the Leningrad) in 1989. What an interesting country! I would love to go back. Glad I found your blog. I am a wanderer to my core and it looks like you have had some great adventures! And how about that black bread in Russia – I was not a big fan of that one…
Ahh the black bread. Definitely an acquired taste! Welcome.
Loved this story. Would love to hear about your experience with a babushka.
I will have to work on that!
I would have been so intimidated in that shop. I remember buying a bottle of wine in Switzerland–while attempting to be polite by speaking French–and I couldn’t believe how hard my heart was pounding.
I would run out too 🙂 I ran into a few Russians in both Turkey and Tajikistan and they can be very intimidating people – both men and women. Like everyone else though I think it is a part of their heritage and culture to be that way and they don’t always* mean to scare the crap out of everyone ! Funny post – thanks
I’ve been there! Well, not to Russia, but to that moment when you’d rather just run out of the store than try to continue saying what you’re obviously struggling to communicate. I’m pretty sure some Russian babushkas are masquerading as German grandmas too, because I’ve gotten a lot of advice here. 🙂 Thanks for a great story.
Thanks for stopping by. Ha ha, they are probably everywhere!