Saturday, October 25, 2008

Flashback Friday: The world is not enough

Those of you who are tired of stories from Russia will be glad to hear that I think this is the last Russian Flashback Friday for a while. Those of you who want more flashbacks from Russia will probably be glad to hear that I'll come back to this topic sometime in the future. There's just so much to tell.

I've titled this post "The world is not enough," because if there's one thing I learned in Russia, it's that there is never enough. Enough of what, exactly? You choose, and you'd be right. Unless you chose surly female employees, because there are actually plenty of those in Russia.

But seats on the bus? Certain kinds of food in the grocery stores? Daylight hours in winter? Time to leisurely exit the metro car before the doors SLAM shut? Nope, not enough.

I learned this lesson pretty quickly at my first job in Moscow. I was briefly a substitute teacher at the Anglo-American School of Moscow (whose name still sounds vaguely racist to me, even though I know it technically isn't), but I gave that up when some students' families hired me as their English tutor. Their apartment building was loosely associated with a hotel next door and so they told me I could use the hotel's minivan-type shuttle to get a ride from the center of the city, where we lived, to the outskirts, where they lived. Getting there was never a problem; it was getting back that first taught me the cruel lesson of scarcity.

The first time I tried to take the shuttle back into the center, there were a dozen or so other people waiting for it, too. The shuttle could only hold 11 people. We all stood around like we totally didn't care if we made it on the shuttle or not, but as it pulled around to the front of the hotel, everyone nonchalantly sauntered towards it, trying not to look like we were in a hurry even though that's exactly what was going on. Then, when the door opened, everyone took cuts in front of everyone else without actually appearing to do so, and we were all unfailingly polite during the whole process. It's an art, I tell you, and it's one that I figured out very quickly. I think there were only a few times that I didn't make it on the shuttle, and when that happened, I still put on a happy face because I knew that yesterday, it was someone else's turn to be left behind, today it was mine, and tomorrow it would be someone else's again. It was just fate - another favorite Russian concept.

There was no such polite display, however, when it came to the IKEA bus. IKEA, business genius that it is, ran a free bus from two metro stops out to their huge store outside the northern outskirts of Moscow. It was a well known fact that lots of people rode the nice, clean, dependable, free IKEA bus to IKEA, and then walked to their real destination nearby, but IKEA didn't seem to mind. Plenty of people also rode it to IKEA itself.

One Saturday in December, we were waiting for the IKEA bus. There was a larger crowd than usual and we knew it would be a fight to get in. And even if we got in, then it would be a fight to get a seat. Otherwise, we'd have to stand for the whole ride. The bus pulled up and everyone flocked en masse to the open doors. We had to wait for the previous passengers to disembark, of course, but as soon as they were unloaded (at least I hope everyone made it off), we all pushed and shoved to get in.


We could tell it was hopeless from the beginning, so Jeremy took this picture of the hilarity. In a stroke of Russian entrepeneurship, which isn't always easy to find, a few microbus drivers hanging around the metro stop offered to take anyone who didn't make it on the bus to IKEA for a few rubles each. That's what we ended up doing, along with a lot of other people who apparently didn't shove hard enough.

Even exiting the bus and going into the store was always a rush, which always puzzled me. Was there something inside that IKEA was actually going to run out of? From the way we all acted, yes, though I never figured out what it was.

The melee was even more dramatic on the way back to the metro from the store, because we all had our bulky purchases and 10-ruble ice cream cones to wrangle while making a mad dash for a seat on the IKEA bus.

Besides seats on semi-public transportation, one other thing there was never enough of was certain kinds of food in the grocery store. It took me a long time to get used to planning on buying an essential food item at the store, and then getting there and having it just...not...be...there. The first few times it happened, I figured the person in charge of managing inventory just hadn't factored in mine and Jeremy's brand-new patronage of the store. Except then it continued for the entire time we lived there. You would have thought they would have just ordered a few more cartons of orange juice every month, but there it is. I specifically remember buying one brand of orange juice (J7!) until that was gone from the shelves, and then another brand, and so on until every single kind of orange or orange-derived juice was completely gone. And it was still a few more weeks until more appeared.


How this store could manage stocking "man's jampers in gift package" and "sacks for dust" but not orange juice is beyond me.

Of course, this only led to hoarding once the juice/tomato sauce/cereal/yogurt/bread appeared again, which certainly wasn't good for anyone. At least, it wasn't good for our arms when we had to haul it all back to our apartment on foot.

Sadly, a great deal of this "there is not enough" attitude has stayed with me over the years since we left Russia. It's only recently that I've realized that in America, a line is generally respected, and nobody is going to try to cut in front of me and possibly take the last [whatever]. If the store doesn't have any today, they'll probably have some tomorrow. And I think it's pretty safe to say that unless gas prices get a lot more expensive, there will always be room for me on the bus. Thank goodness for that!

3 comments:

Liz Johnson said...

It was that same way in Romania - the shelves were always sparsely stocked and rarely refilled. I wonder if it's a post-communist thing or something. I dunno.

Suzanne Bubnash said...

The learning curve when graduating from communism to capitalism is apparently still in process over there. Part of that would be not having developed smooth 'supply lines'.

That feeling that there's never going to be enough of ___ [fill in the blank] is common among people who have experienced serious deprivation. Growing up I saw how people of the Depression generation had simple needs but sometimes hoarded, a symptom of fear that there might not be enough of that item in the future--in reality they could buy it at the corner store any time, but they didn't seem to be able to rewire their brain to change that thinking.

Jeremy Palmer said...

Bridget is in that photo. Can you find her? She even has a hat similar to a Waldo hat.

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