Wednesday, December 30, 2015

Mosh Pit Grannies

I went to Billa the other day.

Billa is the closest grocery store to my house. It's about a 12-15 minute walk from here, and there are no stairs or under crossings along the way - it's important to know these things when you're carrying your groceries on foot or hauling a wheelie cart.

It's not big. Big is Metro. Big is Auchan. But you have to drive to those places, and my car is not parked anywhere near my house, so it takes about 4 hours of my day to shop there. I'd say Billa is only about the size of a small CVS drug store in the states, but I can make it work.

It isn't fancy. Fancy is Zelyonyi Perekryostok, which I really like. But it's a 20 minute walk, with multiple sets of stairs to maneuver.  Also: when it's freaking cold out, those few extra minutes seem painfully long.

Fancier still is Azbuka Bkusa. And it's actually about as close as Billa.  But I refuse to pay the equivalent of $5 for 4 tiny cucumbers. Also, one of the checkers there is a HUGE heavy metal fan, and once, when he found out I was from the U.S., he followed me around the store, from the produce section, through the dairy aisle, past the bread and all the way to the exit, telling me everything that is great about America and rattling off all of his favorite metal bands. It kind of scared me a little, so now when I go back, I have to go in disguise in case I run into him again.

Billa, though. Billa is for regular folk. It's mostly the babushki on pension who shop there, because it has a decent selection and reasonable prices. They seem to fill their carts with one banana, 2 cans of mystery meat, something pickled, some bread, and maybe a head of garlic. That's it. I like to imagine what, exactly, they're making for dinner. The men who shop there are usually buying a can or two of Russian beer, some sausages, a loaf of bread and cigarettes.

Meanwhile, I'm there for the produce. Ever since our vegetable kiosk shut down, Billa is the closest place for veggies, so I wander the aisles doing this delicate mathematical dance, trying to figure out if I can fit a bag of potatoes AND a cabbage in my wheelie cart, and how many apples can I haul back home, and how many bags of lettuce, because they're light but they take up a lot of space, and will I still have room in there to buy some jam or crackers? It's never good when you buy too much food and you end up hauling bags of groceries in addition to the wheelie cart. So there's a lot of strategy that goes into a typical shopping excursion.

Billa is normally crowded, but not scarily so.  All nine of the registers are usually open, so the lines don't get obnoxiously long. And the what-will-she-make-for-dinner-with-that? game is always fun.  Most every time I go there, some babushka stops to ask me a question, so I get to work on my Russian. Once it was a cute little granny who needed help reaching something on a high shelf. Another time, one of the grannies couldn't read the boxes, and she asked me to help her find a box of loose black tea, no not that because I'm on a pension and I can't afford that, is there anything cheaper? Are you sure that's the cheapest one? How about that one over there? My glasses just aren't strong enough, is that one loose tea because I don't want tea bags? (That time I wanted to buy the tea for her - she was really stressing about the twenty cent price difference between two boxes of tea. But I didn't want to offend her by handing her money when she wasn't asking for help. She was just making conversation. What to do, internet?)

Billa has these little stickers that you can collect with your purchases. I don't know; I don't collect them myself. But you can paste them in a little booklet, and when you have a certain number of stickers, you can collect a prize, like a tea pot or something. Once a granny spent 10 minutes telling me what she was saving up her stickers for, so that day I collected my stickers at the register and handed them over. She beamed with excitement. A few other times, I've collected the stickers and asked a nearby granny if she wants them. They usually say no, so I just answer, oh, okay, I'll just leave them here in case somebody else wants them, and then the granny relents and says, well, she may as well take them if I'm really sure I don't need them.

All this to say, I like the Billa babushki.  They can be sweet and chatty when they want to be. And they love those stickers.

But you know when they don't want to be sweet and chatty? In the days leading up to New Year's Eve, when it's cold out and the shelves are looking barren and half the city is vying for the last three mandarin oranges in the bin, those grannies turn ugly. And it turns out they can throw an elbow when they need to get to that bin of potatoes.

The vegetable section is two aisles wide and three long - about the size of a gas station convenience store. But yesterday, there were no joke about 30 people pushing carts in that tiny area. And when I say "pushing carts," I mean "pushing carts into each other." About the 10th time some granny rammed her cart into the back of my legs because I wasn't moving out of her way fast enough, I turned around, gave her the evil eye and said "hold on there, Tiger, because I can hurt you." (I said it in English, though, because the reality is, you don't want to mess with those grannies. I mean, sure, I work out. But they survived World War II AND Stalin.)

Anyway.  The point is that all those sweet grannies turned ugly, and so did I. It was every man for himself in that produce section, and the worst part of it? They were all out of lettuce and cauliflower anyway. The two things I desperately wanted. So it was a wasted trip. I found enough things to fill up my cart anyway, changing dinner plans on the fly. No roasted cauliflower for dinner, so how about frozen broccoli instead? No cilantro, but they had some not-overly-wilted basil and a lone head of cabbage, so my Mexican-style bean soup turned into minestrone right there.

The checkout line was long, but thankfully the guy behind me didn't feel the need to shove into me with his cart. So there's that.

When it was my turn to pay, the checker asked "do you collect stickers?" I looked at the sea of babushki fighting their way through the checkout line and sighed. No, I told her. No, I don't need any stickers today.

I'm hoping to avoid the grocery store until after the New Year holiday has come and gone. Those babushki...


JWJones said... [Reply]

I can see those grannies, and laughed out loud at your description of the veggie section derby. I, too have been asked to grab items on top shelves.
When I was little, we had those stamps. You could get all sorts of things, like small appliances.
Thanks so much for this post. You're a wonderful writer.

sdfoodie said... [Reply]

Hi there! I just found your blog, and I love your voice. My husband and I are actually being posted to Moscow in the next few months (date still TBD) and this has helped me to wrap my brain around the big adventure that we're about to embark on. Your descriptions are great and I can't wait to go through some of your older posts to soak up as much as I can!

Donna said... [Reply]

@sdfoodie - congrats on the assignment - Moscow is never boring! Email me if you have any questions. Happy to help.

Please. Write your own stuff.