Wednesday, June 30, 2010


I arrive in Moscow Friday morning, thankfully ending a journey void of blog material. Dima, our usual driver, dislocated his shoulder last night so his friend Ivan meets me instead.

Striving to improve future trips after my earliest jaunts for our Moscow Lighthouse Project, I surveyed the travelers upon return. While all respondents were unfailingly constructive, they took a dim view of the included breakfasts. So starting with our third Moscow foray, I asked the hosts before I left home what foods they hoped to see on the table. Most suggestions were predictable, though there was one request for chocolate and Coca Cola.

On the way to the hotel, Ivan stops at Ashan (uh-SHAHN), a Russian mega-market that makes Super Wal-Mart look like an upscale convenience store. From a parking garage under the store, a gigantic conveyor belt carries us and our cart up one floor to the store. The cart’s rubber wheels turn 360°, but are immobilized on the belt. I try moving the basket, but fall backward into Ivan when it won’t budge. His catch saves me humiliation in front of everyone but him. The dark garage and the glacially-moving conveyor are poor preparation for the cacophonous scene unfolding inside. I commence my jet-lagged scavenger hunt armed with a sizable shopping list and pounding headache. Wall-to-wall carts are jockeyed by shoppers on missions, none predisposed toward patience. Attempts to decode Cyrillic packaging, while trying to match reasonable American requests with their Russian manifestations, might be an adventure were I less sleep-starved, but as possessed carts ram my derriere for the umpteenth time, I decide it’s nothing but a pain.

One of my easiest purchases is juice, though the selection is staggering; Ashan is not your Soviet’s grocer. I choose a brand auspiciously dubbed “Da!”, Russian for “Yes!” The “100% something” emblazoned on the package engenders my confidence in the product’s ingredients, and I don’t bother to seek Ivan’s guidance. Later in the week, when someone asks if it’s pure juice, I nod affirmatively, pointing toward the 100% claim. A bilingual observer corrects me, announcing the word after 100% says “quality”, not “juice.”

Soy milk is the most perplexing item; Ivan has never heard of it. The first worker he asks doesn’t know where it is, and tells him so with a condescending shrug that comes off as rebuke. Chastened, I tell Ivan we’ll go without, but he seems to view finding the product as a matter of honor. He asks four more workers: two who point us in the wrong direction, one who says they don’t carry it, and one who points vaguely somewhere, leaving us to wander the aisle again. No one offers to take us to the shelf, and we never learn the truth. With Ivan’s determination to find the milk, and the workers’ opposing determination toward evasion, I fear the charade will be interminable. I finally insist we stop, but even then have trouble convincing Ivan that I will e-mail the family, still at home, and suggest they bring their own.

Coffee is on my list, so Ivan leads me to an end cap display with pride in his knowledge of its location. After the soy milk fiasco, I am reticent to tell him Americans don’t drink instant coffee, and that I wouldn’t pay this price even for premium java. When he shares that one of my friends brought this coffee back to the States with them, I have no choice but to swallow hard and plunk it in the cart.

Buffeted continually as I shop, I eventually find most of the items I seek. But rather than reveling in my task’s completion, I feel dehumanized by the rush, rudeness of the clerks, and jostle of carts in our supersized pinball game. I wonder if Ivan notices the annoyance with which the clerks regard him, or that browsing is impossible in the melee, but he appears oblivious. I worry I’ll dehumanize him further by acknowledging it, but curiosity overcomes me. When I ask if it bothers him to live like this, the question surprises him. He tells me no, politely, but I can tell he’s puzzled at my suggestion it might.

We have our choice of about eighty checkouts, all open, when we’re done. Our cashier rings up our entire order wordlessly, breaking her silence only to bark the total. Despite the lack of welcome, she gives me my biggest thrill all day when I pay without her realizing I’m not Russian. Bagging our own groceries, the flimsy plastic sacks, which tear at the least hint of abuse, almost defy us to make them open. Our sluggishness adds to the spectacle, to the irritation of both the cashier and the shopper behind us.

When we finally reach the hotel, I put the food away and collapse into bed. I’ve had this room often enough that I feel strangely home. I sleep without effort, and then wake late in the evening, rejuvenated. I’m excited again, waiting for the hosts and kids, anxious to see the families who will be created on this fourth trip.

Tomorrow’s a new day, and breakfast is ready.