Monday, October 22, 2012

Don't speak Russian? Bring carrots.

Susie and I live in a large and expanding collection of apartments known as Highvill. According to the plans, Highvill will eventually take up somewhere around two blocks of city space, and include restaurants, grocery stores, offices, gyms, and whatever else you can imagine. Right now, though, it's less than half finished, so I would imagine it's pretty tough to get stores to commit. There are a couple of extremely expensive restaurants (although I'm starting to think what I view as "expensive" and what the Kazakhs view as "expensive" in a restaurant is completely different), and currently there is only one small grocery store. There isn't a whole lot else. I think I've seen some offices, but it's pretty empty. A lot of this part of town is.

We live fairly close to Novella, the grocery store, so it's convenient for us. Especially so, since we can actually not have to leave the building to get to it. The apartments are build above and around interior parking decks, because leaving your car out in the intense cold during the winter is asking for problems. And luckily for us, this means that when the weather is inauspicious, we can take the elevator down and walk through the heated, covered, and insulated deck and go into the back entrance of the store. It's open from 9:00 am to 9:00 pm, so almost any time we realize we need something basic, like milk, eggs, bread, cheese, or drinks, we can run down and get it. They don't have the selection of a full grocery store, and they suffer from the same supply issues that most stores around here do, but they tend to keep most things in stock.

The staff recognizes us at this point and speaks very little Russian with a lot of gestures in case we need something. There are three or four clerks in the store at any given time, running around doing whatever it is people do at a very slow grocery store. There are also people I've come to designate as managers or owners. They do not have the smock-like uniform of the clerks. In fact, they are almost always dressed quite nicely, much nicer than American store managers. It's unsettling, to be honest. They were black or pinstripe suits and stand like guardians over the whole place (when they aren't sequestered in the hole in the wall office that is wedged near the back entrance. They never smile and sometimes have rapid, fierce conversations with the clerks about what they should be doing. Which, it seems, is sometimes nothing at all.

A week ago, we needed some smaller items, and after I managed to lock myself out of the apartment and walk to the embassy to borrow Susie's key, I made my way (back) to the store. We were planning on having salad, I think, but I wanted to pick up other stuff since you never know what they might have. I had my headphones in, listening to some podcast, since the walk to and from the embassy is boring without something to distract from the featureless, muddy stretch of roadside between Highvill and there. I grabbed a cart with one hand, and headed for the stand of sketchy fresh fruits and vegetables they had. Most of them were dirty; they don't really wash produce here, which is problematic because their local produce is inevitably covered in filthy water and pesticides. We have to take care to wash them with warm water and soap. It's especially bad with carrots, which they pull out of the ground and drop straight on the shelves.

Because of the dire state of the fresh produce whenever we've seen it, we have up to that point in our time here avoided it, sticking to canned and frozen. But a salad calls for fresh! So I was there to get carrots. I was there to try, anyway. I didn't imagine it to be much different from the U.S. Having done it now, it's not much different. But in foreign countries, small differences are amplified. Especially when you do something stupid.

I rounded the corner to the produce aisle, and at the other end of the shelves stood one of the Novella mafia. We made eye contact and we nodded to each other, neither of us caring to try to speak in the other's language. I took one of the plastic bags from the roll that had been unceremoniously dumped on the onions and started eyeballing the carrots to figure out which of them I wanted. My mistake was that my hands were too full, bag in one, and the other hand that should have been available was weighed down by the basket that I had hung at the crook of my elbow. I grabbed for a carrot and got the first one in the bag. It was trickier than I had expected, because of my hand situation, but I managed.

I was highly aware of the guy standing there, watching the foreigner try to juggle carrots. That made what happened next all the more embarrassing. The second carrot I grabbed dislodged one of the ones above it, and it began to fall. Bag, carrot and basket were unwieldy enough that I couldn't grab it, so I did the only logical thing and tried to catch it with my foot. Looking back, of course that wasn't logical. I realized it wasn't as soon as I did it. I can't catch much of anything with my foot, let alone a rogue carrot. So, instead of catching it, I kicked it hard into the shelf and it bounced to the floor.

I looked over at the manager, and he just kept staring, not giving any hint of what he thought I should do. So I picked up the carrot, and seeing that it was dirty anyway, just like the rest of the precarious stack, I put it back. I thought, "It might even be cleaner now."

With the two carrots I intended to buy in my little vegetable bag, I tried to move on to the next section of the store. But I was stopped by the dark-suited man. I felt the panic rising in my soul. I kicked his carrot to the floor and then put it back. I defiled his produce and his store... I'll be banned for life if I'm lucky. He pointing at the carrots I held and in the direction of the rest of the carrots. My headphones were in, but I didn't any of the podcast I had been listening to. I yanked the buds out of my ears, trying as hard as I could to look like I had no idea what was happening. It's unsurprisingly easy to do when you actually have no idea what is happening.

I had no idea what he said, but he took the carrots and walked over to where he had been pointing. And then past it. To the scale that you use to weigh fruits and vegetables and get a price sticker for the clerks to ring up your purchase. He punched a few buttons and it didn't work, so he called over another worker and they put in the appropriate information. Then he handed the carrot bag, complete with price stuck to the outside, and smiled, gesturing that I could be on my way.

Weird experiences are the norm when you aren't in your home country. Well, that's not exactly right. It's more like this: weird experiences are the norm everywhere, but in your hometown, you know what to expect. You've had the experiences and they don't surprise you. Even going to another city can upset your mental sense of balance, and suddenly something that you would be easily able to manage becomes complicated, and your natural impulses just make it worse. At least in this case, I learned something very useful about Astana: if you throw around their root vegetables, they will kindly treat you like an idiot and do things for you. What I need is a sack of carrots to carry around, so that whenever I get lost or need assistance, I can kick one to get someone's attention. That's the lesson, right?

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