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Peace Corps, July 1, 1997

Guss & Mary Go Shopping

Gus and Mary are joe-cool volunteers!

Mmmmm.. chips!

Two of the best people I know in Russia just happen to be Peace Corps volunteer couple in Nizhny Novgorod. Gus & Mary have the best outlook on life, joy with a bit of wisdom, that I can only hope to emulate one day. People like them are the main reason I occasionally regret the path I took when the PC program fell apart for me.

Every once in a while, we chat by email, and then today, out of the blue, I got the email below. It is too good to keep to myself, so read and enjoy!

November 4, 1998


By Mary & Gus Nizhny Novgorod, Russia

Prior to my leaving for the Peace Corps there was a commercial on the radio that I found particularly irritating. One of the well known department stores was having a sale that lasted for only 12 hours. The prices were so good in every department that they encouraged the shopper to stay all day. Their slogan 'Shop till you drop.' The TV commercial advertising the same sale showed an exhausted women collapsing on the couch with bags every where. Even without my Peace Corps experience this encouragement to buy to excess hit a raw nerve. This commercial began resonating in me shortly after I arrived in Nizhny Novgorod Russia in October 1997.

There are no supermarkets in Nizhny. Shopping is done at 'renoks,' out door markets. The closest equivalent to my USA experience was a flee market where everyone has a six foot table to display there wares. One of the differences in Russia is no matter what the weather the 'renok' is open. Indoor grocery shopping was very limited. I located only one western style store that had produce. And they were very expensive compared to the 'renok.' So no matter what the weather every Saturday morning Gus and I headed out to get the supplies for the week.

The market is only three blocks away but the walk was filled with mud, uneven walking surfaces, three tram crossings and one busy street. Unbeknown to us, Russia was suffering from the effects of El Nino. October brought winter early and we made each trip through rain and or snow. I was never sure which was worst.

There are no check out counters in the 'renok,' you pay at each stand. Which means every purchase requires the removal of gloves to fish out the required change. This often done while balancing an umbrella and holding a shopping bag. I looked like Mary Poppins. Still struggling to understand numbers, especially when they are slurred, fumbling with unfamiliar currency (Monopoly money), and trying to make the mental transfer into a dollar amount I understood, complicated each stop. By the end of each shopping trip my fingers were usually numb.

On one particular day, when I ventured out with out Gus, my fingers were so cold as I began my trip home carrying heavy bags I had to stop twice, put my bags down, and rub my hands together. By the time I got home I could no longer move my fingers and had to wait till they thawed enough to untie my hat and take off my coat. I paced the apartment for 30 minutes trying to warm my fingers. They were too cold to place on my torso and burned so much I could not keep them under my arms. I vowed that next October I would avoid this painful experience by stocking up on stables before the bad weather set in. But nothing is ever the same in Russia and October 1998 offered a new challenge.

After a seven week absence from my Nizhny home, four weeks in the states, a week's vacation in Hungary and two weeks travel to various Russian cities doing workshops I returned home on October 17th. Not only was I concerned with the weather conditions but a new crisis had arisen with the devaluation of the Russian Ruble. The American papers were filled with stories of empty shelves: sugar, flower, coffee, and toilet paper were no longer available. All imported products were gone. And, continued the reports, they were not being replaced. No foreign country trusted the Russian ruble. Frantic emails to my husband from the states left me with little confidence that he was out there buying what ever was left. I know Gus well enough to know two cans of peas, two cans of corn and a jar of tomato paste was his definition of filling the shelves. But I was wrong.

Calls from every female Peace Corps staff in Moscow and the help of one female Peace Corps volunteer in Nizhny meant Gus had purchased: five cans of peas, five cans of corn, three jars of mayonnaise, ketchup, vegetable oil, salt, flour and several cans of fish. All this, the few things I had brought from the states plus care packages from several friends in the American Embassy meant we would not starve.

But I had grown use to the availability of familiar products from Proctor and Gamble, Nestles and General Mills. And my sophisticated taste buds had grown use to imported cheeses, frozen vegetables from Belgian and all kinds of fresh fruit. I was still worried. I use many Russian products but numerous items I enjoy are not from or produced here.

So after arriving on the 17th I hurried to the market. It was not as bad as I thought. There was food on the shelves. Sugar, coffee, and flour had reappeared at higher prices of course. Each day found more products but no imports. A trip to the Michigan Avenue of Nizhny, Bolshia Prokavaka, found the first store devoid of anything imported. I traveled down the street to the next shop and hit the jackpot: corn flakes, frosted flakes, and cherrios. I bought the last two packages of edam cheese and they had Gouda. But no peanut butter could be found anywhere.

My definition of full cabinets and my husband's differ. What if the Moscow Times was right. What if all the products on the market are from the warehouse and supplies begin to diminish in November or others predict by January. I decided to fill the house with staples just in case. I began my 'shop till you drop' campaign.

Every lunch hour found me at the 'Yarmaka,' the shopping area across from work. After two weeks the cabinets are bursting. My husband laughs 'you're looking more and more like your parents' he kids. As I use each item I quickly replace it. Anything imported I grab. It will be gone shortly I reason. And so, I steel myself against winter and the Russian ruble crisis I search the house for one more hiding place for another can, wish for a refrigerator larger then 100 square centimeters and wonder what could happen next as I mumble 'shop till you drop, shop till you drop.'

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