In America, the stop lights go green, yellow, red, green. – Go, Prepare to Stop, Stop, Go.
In Russia, the stop lights go green, yellow, red, YELLOW, green.- Go, Prepare to Stop, Ready, Set, GO!
The Nice Side of Things
Not all is crooks, crime, and government – although that might be repetitive.
Its late summer here and Balkariya is still warm. The Russian girls are very stylish, and the current style is either “Britney Spears is way overdressed”, or “Las Vegas Slut”. Young girls and women up to age 35 or so are dressed in 3 or 4 inch heals under skirts that are barely bigger than belts. Lots of cleavage is in sight, and my 13 year old niece has yet to show up in anything that would cover her belly button.
The boys do the same. Bare torsos tanned to perfection over low slung work out pants are common. This is most oversexed population I have seen since the 60’s, and I am beginning to figure out why the local school recently mandated uniforms for all students. It was just trying to keep them dressed.
It may also do something to solve Russia’s great demographic problem. As everyone knows, every year there are fewer Russians – a lot fewer. Smoking, drinking, crazy driving, and an unwillingness to put up with kids is making the population fall by a million people a year. Some cities have started “procreation holidays”. Everyone gets the day off to stay home, stay in bed, and MAKE A BABY! There are big prizes for the woman who delivers the first baby nine months from the Procreation Day. Perhaps these kids are just being patriotic.
Saturday night, we had a joint birthday party for me, my mother in law and my 13 year old niece. They set the table on the back porch, with seats for twelve people, Larisa and I and mother in law along with Christine’s parents, grandparents, brother and a few friends. I had offered to host the celebration at a local restaurant, but the grandparents loudly proclaimed that they would never set foot inside a restaurant, damned waste of money that it was.
The table could have been in Michigan or Indiana. Mother and aunts had put out their specialties. Dark toast with mayonnaise and hamburger bits, mashed potatoes, dark toast again but with fish paste, small chunks of pork and lamb in gravy, potato salad with clam bits, tiny salted fish, bread chunks, and vodka. Lots of vodka.
Russians may be drunks, but they don’t drink without an excuse, so every few minutes someone proposed a toast and everyone drained their glasses. Then the men would eat a small chunk of sausage because everyone knows that you won’t really get drunk if you eat protein in between drinks.
During the dinner, I commented that it was strange that we were drinking vodka out of half liter bottles. Even in the States, a 1.75 liter bottle is pretty standard for heavy drinkers. Uncle Victor explained that the small bottles were refrigerator bottles. When you went fishing, you took the 5 liter bottle with you.
That led cousin Uri to explain that that wasn’t always enough. He claimed that the last time he went fishing with three of his friends that they ran out. They were in the process of sending someone for more when one of the drunker friends found a half bottle of something clear lying in trunk of Uri’s car. Figuring it was booze, the friend, he said, drank it all down before he realized that it was shampoo. No real harm done, but the friend did fart bubbles for a week.
When the first meal was eaten, the pizzas and cakes that Larisa and I had ordered arrived and it started all over again.
When everyone was properly oiled, the dancing began down on the patio. Everyone danced without partners or much skill, or much rhythm, but with lots of laughter and a chance for silly photos. Worst dancing I have ever seen and some of the happiest. It got hard to remember how downtrodden and hopeless most Russians are.
Of course, it isn’t all bad news.
Outside of government, things are moving fast. This is so far in the boonies, it makes Nebraska look like Paris This is as far away from civilization as you can get without riding a camel, though I did see two horse drawn carts on the road yesterday.
But things are moving. Case in point, this is being sent to you via a DSL connection.
When socialism died about 8 years ago, there was one Univermag (department store) with mostly empty shelves, one restaurant with no customers and a few kiosks selling ice cream or carbonated water for a kopek. The village had one grocery store and there were two more in the town. Most of the food and clothing was purchased at the eternal bazaar. There wasn’t much there, but was better than the stores.
When I got here five years ago, kiosks were everywhere. They were the first, quickest and cheapest way to capitalism. For those of you unfamiliar with a Russian kiosk, it is a 3 meter square building with one wooden side and three sides which are glass from the waist up. Wares are displayed in all of the windows, so closely packed that you can’t see into the kiosk. Each of them sells everything from beer to bread, to pencils to toys. There is a small window in the front though which you shout your order and a surly clerk inside tosses something similar to your order through the window and demands payment in a mean voice.
Even then, there were some signs of real life. An enterprising businessman offered to build covered brick bus stops for the city in exchange for the right to have a miniature food mart in each one. It was very small, but you could actually walk inside, order over the counter, and expect a clerk to attempt a smile when she handed you your change
However, most businesses were primitive. A woman on the main road near us sold school supplies from her front room. She had only a sign with an arrow on it in front of her house. No indication of what the arrow was for or what, if anything, she was selling.
Now, all over, people are learning and things are changing. It’s like watching a garden bloom and I enjoy seeing it.
Today the lady selling school supplies has removed the curtains from her front windows so that you can see the school supplies and the sign out front has pictures of happy children and specifies good cheap paper and pencils.
Two years ago, the attitude everywhere was “You bought it. If it breaks, tough luck. It ain’t ours anymore.” This year we purchased a television set. The store specified that if there were any problems in the first two weeks, they would replace the set from stock and if there were any problems during the warranty period, they would arrange the repairs. They are learning how to get customers and make business.
The bazaar is still the center of commerce. It’s open from 8 to 1 every day and sells everything you find at a super Wal-Mart. It’s low tech, low cost selling space and has for a hundred years been the center of business in this town. The variety of goods and services is enough to make you smile. Today we saw a man making keys on the street in front of the bazaar. He had an antique key machine and he had shinnied up a light post to steal power to run it. Good man doing a lot of business.
But the bazaar is molting from the outside in. Open air stalls are being replaced by small permanent buildings on the bazaar grounds and the place is being surrounded by tiny but modern techmarts (appliance/computer stores). When our water heater died this week, we purchased a new one from a techmart that was a miniature version of Bestbuy.
There are still kiosks in town, but they are now nice miniature stores where you walk in and see products on the shelves or walls, and they now each sell one type of product. From where I am sitting I can see kiosks selling school supplies, toys purses, blouses, snacks (ok. Beer) and lingerie. One product line per kiosk. There are still of a few of the old kiosks around the older residential areas, but they are going fast.
One strange bit of merchandising is the “Products” store. The word means the same in English and Russian and “products” stores usually carry food, but may have electrical supplies, panties, kitchenware or towels. All “products”
The newest phenomenons are “Minimart”s, “Supermarkets”, and “Magnet” stores (also supermarkets). There are now two Supermarkets in town, three Magnet stores, and many Minimarts. I wondered for a while why they used the English names. There are good Russian equivalents. Minimart in Russian is “Melinkee Magazine”. Then I realized it was for the same reason that we call crescent rolls “croissants”. A crescent roll is ten cents and a croissant is a buck. Foreign words are sexy even if they are English foreign words. Yesterday, on a bus ride to a big city, I saw a small broken down building pretty much in the middle of nowhere. It had white paint where there was paint, tasteful cardboard over the broken window in the door, a slight lean to the left, and a sign that said “Minimart”.
There is, of course, some pain and dislocation. New businesses are killing the old ones. As the flowers bloom, the weeds are weeded out. The Univermarg has been closed several months for renovations and may never return. I am certain that kiosk owners aren’t happy and former kiosk workers are probably getting pain in their faces from the new happy expressions that they have to wear. (Those who cannot be made to smile usually compromise with a wooden face or a smirk.)
The price of progress, a pain in the face.
In America, the stop lights go green, yellow, red, green. – Go, Prepare to Stop, Stop, Go.