This is a post from a friend of ours adapting to life on the mission field in Moscow. I thought it had some humer to it...
Happy Valentine’s Day! God is love. Let us love one another.
Let me tell you just one story that might help you understand what daily life is like for us. This is the story of Me and the Potato Man.
The potato man, like many merchants here in Russia, sits on the street all day in freezing cold temperatures, selling his potatoes. He always looks a little bit dirty, kind of like the potatoes themselves. He is missing a few teeth and has replaced a few with gold (that’s really in style here). His fat fingers are brown and calloused and cracked up from the cold. Even in minus 20 degree weather, he can be found on the street selling his potatoes. Remember that the side streets were not designed for cars. They are walkways for pedestrians or horse and carriage that have been converted into narrow streets for vehicles and pedestrians. Many people walk and take public metro, instead of driving. It is likely that hundreds of people walk by the potato man every day. There is always a line-up of people waiting to buy his potatoes because his prices are good, and he has to have new large sacks brought in to him several times a day. His outdoor "store" consists of a scale (for weighing the potatoes in kilograms), a big bag full of plastic bags (to put the potatoes in), and a wooden crate to keep his bottom off the freezing cold pavement when it isn’t busy. His cash register is his pocket.
When I first arrived in Russia last fall I did not know the language or the currency or the customs. I found shopping in the market rather stressful since I needed to know how to ask for the groceries and I needed to know what I was buying. That’s why I chose instead to walk a little ways to the "western style" grocery store. After a few months of carrying potatoes on my back along with all the other groceries, I decided to try to buy potatoes from the potato man, since his little spot on the sidewalk is very close to our apartment. Well, my first attempt was a disaster. I knew the word for potato and I knew my numbers, but that was about it. I just happened to arrive when he was low on potatoes and was waiting for his next bag to come. He tried to tell me this, but I had no idea what he was saying. He snickered at my ignorance of his language, and finally, when he saw I was not going to leave without potatoes, he reached down to the bottom of his pail and got me some potatoes, but when I got home I realized what he had been trying to tell me. The potatoes weren’t in great shape. I ended up throwing out half of them.
That put me off the potato man for a while. But, since he sits on my path to the metro, I see him daily (and he sees me – and I’m sure he also talks to his buddies about "the foreign lady who tried to buy potatoes but didn’t know anything"). I noticed that he always seems to have a line-up of customers. So, his potatoes and his price must be good. After the horrible experience of being falsely accused of stealing a measly pack of gum at the "western style" grocery store, I decided I would give the potato man another try. Besides, I had learned some new words. I knew how to say, "Half a kilogram, please." So I plucked up my courage and went back and used my new Russian phrase… "Pole kilogram, pazhaloosta." But I wasn’t expecting him to talk back! I had no idea what he was saying. But he wasn’t giving me any potatoes. He spoke louder at me, trying to get me to understand his Russian. I had no idea. But he wasn’t giving me potatoes. So I left. On the walk home I mulled over his words and figured that he only sells potatoes in one or two (or more) kilograms – not half kilograms. It took a few more months of walking past the potato man every day to pluck up enough courage to try again. This time I looked up some phrases in my Russian handbook and wrote them down. I practiced saying them over and over before leaving the apartment. When I got to the potato man’s spot on the street, I stood for 5 minutes and watched people purchase potatoes from the potato man, listening to every word. People stared at me, wondering what on earth I was doing standing there watching them, but I wanted to make sure I knew how to do it right. I could see that the potato man was looking at me out of the corner of his eye. But he knew what I was doing. When I was certain I could do it, I got in line. When it was my turn, I stood before the potato man, with my head held high and said, "Daighetey mne dvah kilogram, pazhaloosta." The potato man looked at me, smirked, and weighed out my 2 kilograms of potatoes. Then I said, "Skolka stoit?" I already knew the answer, though, because I had been watching others buy 2 kilograms of potatoes and then hand him 30 rubles. So I already knew that he would say, "Tritsat rublie" – about 75 cents, and I had my roubles ready. On the way home, with my potatoes in my hand, I smiled at the babooshkas gathered in the park to walk their dogs and gossip with each other. I was so happy. What a feeling of success! I had bought potatoes, just like a Russian woman, no smile, no nonsense, chin up and head held high.