Monday, August 30, 2010

Lenin's Logs

(Because I leave for Colorado tomorrow, I am writing two posts today.)

In recent months I have become mildly obsessed with Eastern Europe. To explain how my interest arose would be a long and ridiculous story, so I'll spare you all the tale. For now, I'll just say that these days, I study with the music of Goran Bregovic, Gogol Bordello, Leningrad, or Garik Sukachev playing in the background. I almost get hit by cars on a daily basis because I am reading Vladimir Sorokin or Aleksandar Hemon while crossing the street. I carry Russian language flashcards in my purse. (The only phrase I've managed to memorize is, "It is snowing"!) A Soviet era painting of Lenin carrying logs heroically is on my computer desktop background. I constantly bombard my Russian friend (whose surname I am SO envious of, because it means "magpie") with questions about Russian authors and history. I haven’t yet learned to make kvass (which I read about in a Sorokin novel), but I’ve been looking for recipes online. Uh… yeah… I’ll let you all know later how that turns out!

So now you all know why I was so excited about finding the Russian neighborhood when I was in San Francisco. That is why I took the bus to Outer Richmond. My first goal was, of course, to find food.

I walked into a cute Russian deli/grocery store, where I was greeted by the smiles of four adorable middle-aged Russians who were standing behind the counter—three women and one man. I suddenly felt very shy. They were all looking at me in expectation, as if I might actually know what I wanted. My face turned red and I giggled stupidly. I looked for a menu and was relieved to find one. Then I realized that it was printed entirely in Russian, and I don't actually know ANY Russian food vocabulary, or any vocabulary outside of “It is snowing”. One of the women smiled at my helplessness and asked if I'd like to buy something. "Uh...I want to try Russian food, but I don't know what to order!" I confessed with an embarrassed grin. "What do you like?" she asked. "Everything, really," I said. "Ah! That's the kind of customer we like!" she said, laughing, and she set about piling food on a plate for me. While she prepared it, I walked over to the beverage refrigerator. From what I could tell, it was filled with all kinds of Russian (and other Cyrillic-alphabet-using countries') beer. I had no idea which one to choose, but I finally saw a bottle that caught my attention on the very bottom shelf. It was green and had a fascinating picture of some sort of melon or squash on the label. Oooooooooooo! I had to try that one!

So I went up to the cash register and paid for that and my food. I sat down at a table, opened the bottle, and poured the contents into the cup that had been given to me. Imagine the glittering excitement and surprise in my eyes when a liquid of the most unearthly green came pouring out into the cup! The photo I took does not do this green justice! The color was like something from the Land of Oz. It looked like a magic potion... something that could turn Alice big or small. I took a sip, and found that it was not alcoholic at all. It seemed to be some sort of unbearably sweet soda. (I saved the label, and when I showed it to Magpie, he said it claims to be some sort of Georgian fruit drink. I don't think there was any real fruit to be found at all in that enchanting greenness!)

Here is a photo of the meal and drink:

Before I left, I thanked the lady who chose my food for me. "It was really good," I told her. "I think I could live in Russia!" She gave me a look that told me I was pitifully naive about the realities of Russia, and said, "No. How about you live here? Just come to our shop every day!"

I then walked up the street, past the Russian Orthodox church (see my post on San Francisco's churches). I walked past several Russian video stores, many of which had clearance carts of 1990’s Russian romance novels for sale on the sidewalk. Soon I found myself walking into a shop that sold all kinds of Russian trinkets, cards, and lacquerware. An endearingly homely old man stood behind the counter. He kind of looked like a used car salesman, and appeared to be trying to talk an elderly Russian woman into buying a watch that she obviously thought was a piece of junk. I wandered over to a shelf of used books as they haggled. Among the books were mildewed encyclopedia sets, pulp detective novels, and—jewel of all jewels!—a hardback children’s fairytale book with wonderful illustrations!

By now, the elderly woman had left the store (in disgust, I think), and the owner was looking at me curiously. “Those are Russian books,” he said, just in case I thought they were, you know, Arabic or something. I asked him how much the fairytale book was. “Nine dollars,” he said. “Because it’s nice. Pushkin!”

Fairytale book in hand, I wandered over to the counter, where a bunch of Soviet Era pins were displayed on a piece of felt. I asked the owner about one with a matryoshka doll on it. “You know, it is thing carved of wood,” he said. “Nice carving, very nice.” He picked up a gaudy painted wooden goose from a nearby shelf. “Like this, carved of wood,” he said. “Ooooooooooooooh, I see,” I said, and then chose some pins. Here are the ones I bought, in a bag with Mr. Volovnikov’s (the owner’s) business card:

I recently showed the pin with the matryoshka doll to Magpie. He told me the pin is from some toy company, and that the matryoshka doll is decorated like a civil war soldier. Oh, and that fairytale book? Magpie says it’s not by Pushkin. And just the other day, I discovered a pencil price written on one of the inside pages: $7.50. Dare I say that Mr. Volovnikov deceived me?


  1. The best thing about San Francisco is the diversity! Coming from a small farm in Michigan I don’t know if I’ll ever get over the fact that every one of the world’s cultures can be contained in a patch of land only 7x7 miles.

    I will be frequenting Mr. Volovnikov’s shop soon, I’ve got to meet this fascinating man in the flesh…

  2. I can teach you how to apologize for your terrible accent, ask when someone's birthday is, and say "thanks mom, that was tasty" in Russian.

  3. I love the tone of this whole post. You seem so shy and nervous, but it's totally endearing and perfect for the situation.