My first two days in Russia were spent rationing the granola bars, dried fruit, and airplane pretzel packets I had brought with me in my carry-on bag. This was despite the fact that I have not one, but two markets within a five-minute walk from my dorm. One is even open 24 hours. What accounted for this behavior, then? Nothing more than terror of having my first shopping experience in a foreign country.
Language textbooks like to provide a lot of examples for potential conversations you’ll encounter in a new country. Convenient scripts are usually provided for routine activities like exchanging currency, finding a hotel, catching a cab, and so on. I had memorized a lot of those scripts, but I knew they would be close to worthless. At some point, the conversation is going to diverge into something different, or your conversation counterpart will use a different set of vocabulary to express what you had expected. At some point, you’re going to need to go off-script, and that may mean accepting that sometimes you just won’t be able to communicate. The key is to not let it make you feel overwhelmed or defeated, but instead to use that frustration as fuel to learn more, and quickly.
While at the checkout line for the first time at a Russian grocery store, my fears of floundering were realized. I stumbled over an easy question, so easy that it’s embarrassing to admit. A cashier asked me, «Пакет надо?» Paket, paket. “What’s a paket again?” I thought. Though I racked my brain, all I could do was shake my head and shrug a little. The woman behind the counter huffed and puffed, slapped my change on the plastic tray, and began ringing up the next person in line. Embarrassed but still determined to make this a teachable moment, I watched the next transaction from the corner of my eye. When the cashier said again, «Пакет надо», the man she was ringing up said «Да»and from beneath the counter she pulled out a beige «Гастроном 811» bag that from then on I would see nearly every day of my life in Petersburg. “Oh,” I thought. “That’s what a paket is.”
That was only my third day in Russia. Months later, I have a variety of stories detailing my failed attempts at having things go smoothly in markets around the city. Here’s an example. At many stores around the city, I have seen cashiers take a customer’s grocery basket after it’s been emptied and put it under the counter. Later, they’ll return piled up baskets to the basket stand near the carts at the front of the store. Thinking this procedure was uniform, I once left my basket on the check out line after making my purchases. As I was about to leave the store, I heard the cashier say, «something, something, девушка, пожалуйста.» My heart stopped. I thought, “Is she talking to me? She must be talking to me. What is she asking? Just keep packing up and pretend like it didn’t happen. Be cool. Be cool.” But then, again, and louder. “Something, something, девушка, пожалуйста.» I knew there was no way around it. I looked at her like a deer in headlights. «Не понимаете?» she said. I shook my head in embarrassment.
That’s when it happened. Looking me dead in the eye, she grabbed the red grocery basket, and, like in slow motion, flung the basket across the counter with such force that it landed approximately near where I should have taken it – to the basket stand by the entrance. There was a moment of silence in the store as everyone turned their direction toward me. Feeling more embarrassed than ever in my whole life, I mumbled a quiet «Понятно» and left the store.
At the same store, about a month later, I was making a routine purchase when I was tripped up by a question. To this day I don’t know what was asked of me. All I know is, my failure to muster a response made the woman behind the counter incredibly annoyed. Without a beat, she asked for my passport. I had paid with cash, so why my passport would be needed was a mystery. Shocked that she would ask for it, I was momentarily frozen until she repeatedly loudly, «Паспорт, паспорт!» while pounding her fist against the counter. A ball of nerves and in hasty search for my passport, I knocked over my wallet, which led to the free fall of all my coin rubles, which scattered everywhere on the floor. She expressed even further frustration with me that I had made a mess. After handing over a copy of my passport and visa, she was still dubious, and brought over the security guard to deal with me. He took me to a corner of the store to ask me about where I was from, where I lived, and what I was doing in Russia. My attention was split between this worrisome exchange and my concern over getting my rubles back up off the floor. After a few details about my purpose for being in Russia, he let me go.
What was one of my lowest points in Russia – a point where I really felt defeated and foolish – the woman who had been behind me in line came up to me, took my hand, and placed there all the rubles I had dropped on the floor. Seeing that I was visibly upset, she offered some words of comfort, only some of which I understood. Just her tone of voice and the look on her face was enough for me to understand the gesture she was trying to convey to me, and though I couldn’t understand everything she was saying, it was enough to really cheer me up.
One of the frustrating things about language study abroad is that our knowledge of the language is largely slanted towards standard, formal language, spoken slowly and politely. Life often doesn’t happen that way and therefore we may have trouble with basic communication on the street even while able to excel in a university setting. In classes, we may be learning about politics, history, economics, literature – and we may be expected to speak on those topics in conversation class – but we may not have a developed vocabulary for more routine, everyday activities. That vocabulary can of course be studied in phrasebooks and textbook scripts, but it’s sometimes not until someone is in the actual country where a certain language is spoken that those terms start to stick. I’ve been chided for “not knowing Russian” by many a cashier in Russia – most of them at grocery stores, and once at an electronics store. Many of my friends have said they’ve been told the same. The temptation then might be to disagree and start spouting off about energy politics in Russia or to recite a Pushkin poem, but the best reaction is to just take it in stride, as hard as it may be.
Many of the moments and incidents that frustrate and upset us will be the same moments we laugh about years from now, the same incidents that make the best stories to tell friends back home.
Just be sure to remember to take your grocery basket back to where you found it.