Buying things in a foreign country can be challenging. There is usually a language barrier but sometimes it is more than just language; it is cultural. People not only speak differently but they do things differently. And they react differently. I have had a few interesting encounters when trying to purchase things in stores and restaurants.
I moved to Moscow, Russia in the early ‘90s not knowing any of the language and little of the culture. It was soon after the coup and still very Soviet. We were living in a high rise apartment building in the suburbs and I was feeling isolated.
I determined there was bakery right outside our apartment building because it always smelled so good. I went in one day to check it out and it was packed with people. I stood and watched as people went up to the counter, looked around, and then queued up at the cashier’s cage. They told the cashier the type of bread they wanted, how many loaves, and what it cost – at least that is what I assumed was going on. Over the next few days I stopped in on my way home and watched this process, trying to catch the names of the bread people were buying. I still could not make out the Cyrillic writing under the loaves.
I finally managed to understand the name of one of the loaves — bolichka — it was a small, fat, French or Italian type bread. I decided to give it a try. I got in line for the cashier and yelled “odin bolichka!” into her cage. I had learned how to count to ten and felt confident that “odin” meant “one”. Much later I learned that Russian is more complicated than Latin and there were different ways of saying “one” depending on what you were talking about. I probably should have said odna instead of odin.
Of course she didn’t understand me and started to yell at me — “What? What are you saying? What do you want? Speak up!” Yelling at me! I quickly left the building.
A few days later, I waited until there were only a few people in the store. Using a combination of sign language and my rudimentary skills, I pointed to the bread I wanted and asked the woman behind the counter what it was called: “Shto?” I asked her how much it cost: “Skolka?”
She realized I was not catching on too quickly so she kindly wrote it all down for me on a piece of paper. I went to the cashier and handed her the paper. I paid her and returned to the counter with my receipt. I had successfully purchased my first loaf of bread in Russia. I was so happy. I felt like I should frame it.
It was delicious.
I went through this process many more times during my years in Russia. Eventually my language improved and my “Babushka” skills were honed enough that I could make transactions without falling apart. The Russian women who manned the cashier stations were everywhere and were intimidating. I learned to hold my own and even yell back at them.
I had another very different experience years earlier in Colombia when we were on our way from Bogota to the coast and stayed the night in Medellín. The morning we left, we stopped in a small corner restaurant for breakfast. All we wanted was some orange juice, coffee and rolls. I had lived in Latin America for seven years and spoke Spanish fluently with no accent. My father spoke Spanish fluently but with an accent. We went up to the counter and I asked for three orange juices – jugo de naranja. Blank stares answered my simple request. I could not make them understand what I was saying. I had to resort to pointing and acting to get three orange juices.
This was a situation where we did know the language and the culture so it was very strange. However, we were in a fairly remote area where there were few foreigners. Medellin was at 5,000 feet above sea level yet sat in a valley surrounded by the Andes mountains. It was about half-way between Bogota and the coast. This was the early 70’s before the cartels. It was still a fairly small city. We decided they saw so few foreigners, they just assumed we did not speak Spanish and could not process the fact that we did.
Kathleen Gamble was born and raised overseas and has traveled extensively. She has a BA in Spanish and has worked in publishing, printing, desktop publishing, translating, and purchasing. She also designs and creates her own needlepoint. She started journaling at a young age and her memoir, Expat Alien, came out of those early journals. Over the years she has edited and produced an American Women’s Organization cookbook in Moscow, Russia, and several newsletters. Her first book, Expat Alien, was published in 2012 and she recently published a cookbook, 52 Food Fridays, both available on Amazon.com. You can also follow her blog at ExpatAlien.com.