Monday, October 13, 2008

In Which I Buy a Cheese

In Russian class last week, Baboo learned these verbs: "to speak," "to watch," and "to smoke." (Huh?)

They then learned the following dialogue:

"Here's a cigarette."
"Thanks, but I don't smoke."

Okay. I think there is something about the construction that works best in this scenario. But couldn't they save it for Russian 200? They are ten years old, after all. But in the French school, I suppose it's never too soon . . .

On a different topic, I went to the dry cleaners today.

I have been dreading this, and putting it off since last spring. It's never convenient. They will certainly ask me questions. In Russian. Questions like "Name?" and maybe "Address?" I'd rather have my teeth drilled.

But my winter coat is dirty, and, in fact, has been dirty since last spring. In fairness, I did try once, in early September. Alas, the little kiosk that was formerly a dry cleaner is now a shoe repair place. I even walked past another shop this week, only to discover, to my great delight, that this outlet, too, is no longer. I was off the hook.

Then, one day last week, while waiting for the light to change at an intersection near the girls' school, my eyes came into focus on a sign across the street from me. A dry cleaners! Ah ha! But where?

Crossing the street, I realize the dry cleaners is a drop off kiosk inside a small grocery store. How long it has been there is anyone's guess since I am deathly afraid of this grocery store.

It is one of those old Soviet style stores where everything is behind the counter. It is language intensive. You have to talk. Once I went in to buy a Diet Coke and couldn't figure out how to open the cooler, so I just ran away.

Dealing with the dry cleaner is bad enough! But at least this is all I need to deal with inside this store.

So today, on my way to pick up the children (they are done at 3:00), I bring along my winter coat. This is it. I'm going in. At 2:50 p.m., I take a deep breath, girding my loins, as it were, and I enter the grocery store.

Sitting in the dry cleaner booth is a very nice woman. She's one of those Russians with strong Tatar heritage, which means she looks like she could be Japanese. But her name tag says her name is Ludmilla. I'm excited I can even READ her name tag.

"Hello," I say in Russian. "Good day. I'm sorry, but I speak Russian not very well." I'm pulling out everything I've got.

No problem, she reassures me. She has a kind smile. This will be okay.

"This?" I say, producing my coat and putting it on her counter.

"Sure, sure, no problem," she starts looking it over. It has a faux fur collar and cuffs.

"It is synthetic?" she asks.

"Da. Synthetic," I reply. Hey! This is going to be easy.

She gets out a binder, and starts flipping through pages, looking for the correct price for this cleaning job. In my (other) coat, I am starting to sweat. I can feel the drops begin to roll down my sides. I look at the clock. She turns a page. She turns a page. She turns a page.

"Ah!" Her finger lands on a page. She's found it. "The price is 720 rubles."

Since I was expecting something between 500 and 1000, this is pretty much right on target for me.

"Good," I say.

But now she's flipping pages again. She turns some more pages. She runs her finger down the page. I look at the clock and sweat.

"Oh," she has made an adjustment. "710 rubles!" Well, that's better. Whatever. Just give me my receipt so I can get out of here. The clock moves towards 3 o'clock.

She puts the binder away and begins to write the receipt.

"Family name?" she asks.

I show her my visiting card. This is fine. She writes my name on the form.


I point to my Moscow number on the card. She writes it, slowly, saying each of the ten digits aloud: "zero . . . nine . . . six . . . one."

At this point we are interrupted.

"Pardon me," a woman wants to ask a quick question about price. Out comes the binder again. She turns a page. She turns a page. She turns a page.

Bored now and still sweating profusely, I get 1010 rubles out of my purse, ready to pay my 710 rubles and make the change situation easy.

The interloper has her information and leaves. Ludmilla returns to the receipt process.

She writes in the date of drop off and the date of pick up. She writes what seems to me to be a description of the item. It goes on. And on. And on. From time to time she picks up the coat and examines it, and then writes another paragraph. WHAT IS SHE WRITING? The Great Russian Novel?

She finds a worn spot in the lining. Obviously, this is where I sat, probably while driving. Not good news, as this is only going to get worse. I have no idea where to get the coat relined in Moscow. But okay. Defect noticed and documented. I won't be able to cry foul later when I pick it up.

It is now 3:00 sharp.

She is still writing.

After what seems to me to be another full ten minutes (but was probably more like another 60 seconds), she puts down her pen.

"710 rubles," she says.

I hand her my 1010 rubles. She sets it carefully on the counter and finds her cash box. It is a small, plastic box, like a piece of Tupperware without the lid.

She begins to count out change for me . . . "One hundred . . . two hundred . . . "

She stops. She doesn't have change. She doesn't have 300 rubles to give me. I have some other money, but not something that works with her change box scenario.

I turn towards the cheese counter behind me. Surely this is a common occurrence. Surely the grocery store will make change for her. I raise my eyebrows towards the cheese counter.

As if reading my mind, Ludmilla brightens.

"Why don't you BUY something from the shop so they will give you change."

Please, God, no. Anything but this.

What I want now, is a Diet Coke. But still ouchy from my last attempt to buy one, and dubious that my attempt to purchace a 30-ruble item with a 500-ruble note will be met with smiles and flowers, I reject that idea.

Okay . . .

There's a line in front of the part of the store where they sell vodka. I really can't wait that long.

Cheese counter it is. We WERE out of cheese. I had just used the last of it this very morning, making eggs for The Spouse. I could use cheese. I guess.

I approach the cheese counter. Cheese Lady stands up and eyes me warily. I stab at the glass case with my index finger.

"This . . . cheese . . . please." I smile hopefully.

On her side of the display case Cheese Lady miraculously points to the very cheese I want.

"You want the WHOLE thing?" She is incredulous. The crazy American woman is buying an entire package of cheese. It must weigh . . . a whole 500 grams! (That's roughly a pound, for you non-metric types. And while I am digressing, I will confess that, in the interest of artistic integrity, I fished the wrapping out of the garbage can, where it was already buried beneath the children's uneatten penne, so as to make this entry just that much more real for you. I care that much.)

"Da. Whole thing," I tell Cheese Lady.

She snorts. "Well, it's your rubles . . . "


She weighs the cheese. It costs 249 rubles. I have a 500. I set that on the counter and say "I have nine . . ." as I start to count out nine rubles.

"FORGET THE NINE!" she barks. Okay, okay! Sheesh. I collect my cheese and my change.

So the rest is boring. I took back my 1000-ruble note and gave Ludmilla a 500-ruble note and two 100-ruble notes. She still had the ten-ruble note on the counter. She finished writing War and Peace on the receipt. Without the coat, but now armed with a cheese, I was not that late to collect the children.

P.S. I stopped at the liquor store on the way home. To get, you know, vodka.


elektrokuhinja said...

When I see those "over the counter" shops, I always run away. Even if my russian is not that bad at all. I like to see and to touch what I'm buying.
So, you see, you're not alone. I suppose that happens very often, foreigners enter, see what kind of shop that is, and just go out. I can understand.

Frédérique said...

Your expat stories are fabulously fun to read. Life in Russia sounds like quite an adventure. Keep writing!

-from a French-Canadian expat in New Zealand

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