Russian Correspondent – Finnish Cheese & Russian Smiles

How would you react if you couldn’t find any Finnish milk in the supermarkets? No big deal, right? But when you know that the reason for the lack of that particular milk is a dismal political situation, you’d probably start to feel a bit of regret and longing towards that carton of milk.

Russia has put a ban on every fruit, vegetable, meat, fish and dairy product coming from the EU, the US, Norway, Canada and Australia. This is a reaction to the sanctions put in force against Russia by the aforementioned countries. The sanctions include financial and visa restrictions, intended to force Russia to respect Ukraine’s autonomy. The ban affects European agriculture and economy deeply; many products are now doomed to rot somewhere in a warehouse or to be sold on for much less than usual.

That is, in theory at least. For some time now, Belarus has been a gourmet country, with piles of Italian parmesan and heaps of Norwegian fish. These products enter Russia in their original packaging, with a label on them saying ‘made in Belarus’. Problem solved.

Even to us, a bunch of foreigners, the embargo starts to make itself perceptible. For example, we couldn’t find any parmesan for our exquisite student-pasta. As an inevitable outcome, we’re getting a taste for Russian products. No matter, whether it is chocolate, biscuits or cheese, they will all share one common trait. The first bite will make you frown, but out of curiosity and stinginess, you take a second bite. For your own satisfaction and surprise, the second bite will prove a bit better. Generally, one needs to get to the sixth or seventh bite to appreciate the taste. Once you finish the pack, you love it.

The day after the uneventful supermarket shopping – where the only excitement came from hunting down the last remaining packs of Finnish cheese – we went to the market to see what local Russian products were like and to hear some shouting and bargaining. On our way to the market in the crisp morning we saw vintage garments for sale, laid down on sheets along the pavement. There were kittens crammed into glass cages and skirts that, if in the West End, would easily be a firm fashion favourite. I know of at least one kitten that managed to escape the awful conditions in the handbag of a babushka. At the market you could buy anything that you’d need, from fur hats, to glittering curtain partitions and watermelons – tonnes of watermelons.

However, there was something even better than the watermelons and blocks of chocolate butter. We were delighted to see that the merchants were trying their best to communicate with us. With tasteful customer service, neither exaggerating their attentiveness nor ignoring us, they navigated us through the complicated business of buying 200 grams of cheese. It was a pleasant change from the uninterested and utterly unenthusiastic cashiers that we had seen at the supermarket the day before. The merchants had figured out from our looks that we were not Russian, and accepted our pointing as the way of communication without a problem. We were given presents, and at the cheese stand I was given a sample of the cheese to see if I would indeed like the one that I pointed at in sudden, but persistent, confusion.

What felt even better was that they accepted and returned our smiles. Russian people are notoriously known for not smiling for any trifle reason. In class, our amiable teacher had explained to us that in Russia you need a reason for smiling. If you smile without reason, they’ll think you’re a fool. Just being happy and friendly is not a good enough reason. Nevertheless, I still can’t stop. I smile at everyone, and sometimes I see in their eyes that they are pretty certain about the lack of mental capacities on my side. I can’t blame them – I don’t understand what they say, can’t answer their questions, use my hands to create sentences, and, on top of everything, I’m smiling like a maniac. Sometimes they smile back, and that is an amazing feeling, one which can only be compared to getting an A on an essay – I made a Russian smile today!

The moment my joy is over I feel rude. I feel ‘Western’ and aggressive. Who am I to force my smiles on people? Why do I think that a cashier, who has been sitting there for hours, and for very little money, should find it amusing that a foreigner have no proper understanding of kopeks? One kopek is 0.016 pence. When she was asking for another 40 kopeks (0.63 pence) and I looked lost, I can understand why she didn’t find it a good enough reason for giggling.

I can easily imagine what it is like to work in a Russian shop. I lived in Hungary for 20 years and, if I had the chance to rename my country, I’d definitely go for something like Listless-stan. The Hungarian cashiers are a unique type of dementor, yet I can’t feel angry at them. I know that their wages are impossibly low and that the management is unrewarding and troublesome, to say the least.

And of course, not everyone is like them. It’s always possible to find cashiers, baristas, and waiters – in Hungary as well as in Russian – who haven’t given up on smiling, and with admirable strength are able to stop the vicious circle of malice.

[Anna Molnar]

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