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

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.

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

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.’