Tuesday, November 14, 2006

Smell 'Em

While I'm no John Lee Supertaster, I'm convinced I'm a supersmeller. I'm the one who, back at the farmhouse, caught scent of the dead mice days before anyone else, and then could locate them with my nose. Not just what room the body was in, but under what chair or behind what bookshelf. If Matt has a pipe while walking outside I can smell it, outside, hours later when I come home. I smell things inside the house when I am outside the house. When Matt starts up his diesel and drives to work, I still smell diesel in my car when I drive it to work, 10 hours later. And then I still smell it after I've been driving my car for an hour.

I have this face toner that's supposed to shrink my pores because not only am I a supersmeller, I'm a superporer. The odd thing is, it smells exactly like the antiperspirant I bought in Krasnodar, Russia, when I was studying there almost 15 years ago. Every day, when I wipe it on my face, I'm transported back to my dorm room, in a place where I bought antipersperant and deoderant separately because they didn't have a product that had both in it. So I applied gunk to my armpits twice every morning, because I couldn't decide on a single product to use.

And then I think, man, cheap German antiperspirant and expensive Neutragena pore-shinker smell exactly the same. I should be troubled by this. But I'm not. Instead, it makes me start thinking about shopping for toiletries in Russia.

One thing I loved about my apartment in St. Petersburg was that it was a block away from a really nice grocery store. Because I had no car, I had to do my shopping more than once a week. I usually bought enough food to last me the next two days — the food I bought didn’t keep well, and I couldn’t carry more than the barest of provisions. Besides, it attracted too much attention, walking down the street loaded down with bags of expensive food.

The grocery store was large, clean and well-stocked. It was called Universam No. 12. It had three cats, who kept the mice away.

There were several different otdely, or departments — fruit and vegetables, dairy, meat and cheese, ice cream, bread, sweets, household products, and the parfumeria, which sold soaps and shampoos and toilet paper. Each department was staffed by a woman dressed like a butcher, with a white apron and cap, except for the parfumeria and household products — they got to wear their own clothes. To buy something, a shopper scoped out the price of what she wanted to purchase, and then went to the kassa, a line of cashiers against one wall. She would tell the cashier, “1,500, dairy,” meaning she was buying something from dairy that cost 1,500 rubles. She would hand over the money, and the cashier would give her a receipt. The buyer went back to the dairy counter, handed over the receipt, and collected her purchase. Then she went to another counter and did the whole thing over again.

It was inefficient, but I must say it cut down on impulse buying. I learned to write down what I wanted from more than one department, and read a whole list to the cashier. “700, fruits; 1,500, cheese; 250, bread; 300, eggs.” Then the cashier would run off a long receipt, and if she were in a good mood, she would make small rips between each separate product I’d rung up, so I knew where the separations were and wouldn’t hand over the wrong receipt.

I also learned to order no more than four things at a time. I found out that if I were to sit there and run off seven different otdely, the cashier’s voice would change as we went along. Sometimes her voice became more impatient, as if I were wasting her time. Sometimes her voice would become incredulous that I would spend more money. Then when she got to the total, she would say it as loud as she could without being too obvious, and people behind me would tisk, and other cashiers would roll their eyes and say, “Gospodi!” Lord!

The receipt system worked for me, although Russian numbers made me anxious. And for the first month or so, I got either much less cheese and butter than I wanted, or much more — it was hard to get used to the metric system. “100 grams of butter,” I said once, not wanting to over-order and end up wasting it. The woman behind the dairy counter looked at me, then impassively shaved off a piece of butter the size of two fingers, wrapped it carefully in brown paper, and solemnly announced that I owed her 75 rubles. Having her resize it was out of the question. I accepted her pronouncement and walked to the cashiers, ears burning.

While the numbers tripped me up, I mastered both the genetive case and new vocabulary at the universam. Eggs were sold by the ten, a desyatka, not the dozen, and so buying eggs was a double victory: a new word, and the genetive, a ten of eggs. 400 grams of clementines. A half-kilogram of cheese — two examples of the genetive there, because “half-kilogram” is really half of a kilogram. I was enormously pleased with myself — even more so when I switched to "half-kilo," which sounded so much more slangy.

Enough with the self-congratulations on grammar. There were troubles, too. Sometimes the women behind the counter tried not to understand me. When I ran out of pantyliners, I found some German ones at the parfumeria. It was always difficult to buy things at the parfumeria, because everything was all either in a display case or stacked on the wall behind the counter. The woman there was always reluctant to show a customer a product, and so I never asked. Why ask for trouble? Many of the products had little Russian labels on them, because most cosmetics and cleansing products and body care products were imported from Europe, and did not have Russian labels. Of course the pantyliners didn’t. I handed over my receipt and said, “There, right there, that blue box,” and pointed.

She squinted at the receipt, then looked slyly at me. She slowly put the receipt down and pointed to some toilet paper. “This one here?”

That was ridiculous, because the toilet paper was a third of the price on the receipt. “No, that box, there, next to the tampons.”

“This one?” she said brightly, pointing to a douche.

“No no no. I want the blue box, there.”

There are two words for “blue” in Russian. One means light blue, one means blue. I could never get them right. She pointed to a light-blue box, when I wanted the blue one.

"No, no," I said. "The other blue. I mean, the blue box."

By this time other people wanting parfumeria products were waiting at the counter, and one decided to join in the fun.

“She wants that one, up on top, the hair color,” he said loudly.

“Over here?” asked the counter worker, placing her hand on a bottle of shampoo in the bottom row.

I did not know and have never learned the Russian word for pantyliners, and the box was not labeled with a Russian word, just the price. These exchanges when back and forth much longer than necessary. Other people joined in too, and the woman behind the meat counter hollered over, “What is it she wants?” Finally the parfumeria woman tired of the game and said, “Ohhh, here, THIS one?” and handed it over before I answered. It was better not to get angry. “Thank you,” I said, as if I had been the one causing the problem.

This is what it's like, being me. All this goes through my head as I wash my face.


  1. Which is pretty much why I like you so much, even though I've never even met you.

  2. :)

    We need to remedy that. Somehow.

  3. Anonymous4:28 PM

    Don't ask me how, but I think the work you were looking for was "solfetki", or napkins. Like the ones you use on your face. Just in case it comes up again.

  4. I think you're right. Tampons was "tampaksi," and pads were something like "podkladki," or something. Solfetki certainly makes sense to me. Little napkins. HA!

  5. Anonymous10:18 PM

    I'm a supersmeller too! Like elder, like younger, I guess.

  6. And a superporer, no doubt. :)

  7. Your maternal grandmother was a supersmeller. She sniffed out a natural gas leak at the Arapahoe Street house. The gas line to the house had a pinhole in it close to the front door. She mentioned it when she came into the house and didn't rest until I could report that the gas company had, indeed, been out to repair it.

    One of my daughters later reported to her that when the gas man was there, the needle on his machine went really, really high. Don't remember which one it was but Grandma didn't need to know all of the details.

  8. Sheena6:18 PM

    When I ran out of pantyliners, I found some German ones at the parfumeria.

    Oh God, I had a sudden flashback to being on a boat trip to the Isle of Capri two years ago, and discovering that I needed pads a few days ealier than I would have expected. in Italy, the pharmacies close for two hours or so in the middle of the day, so I was running around Capri desperately trying to find something. In the end, I got them at a "tobacconist", which seems to function as some kind of convenience store. Luckily I recognised the packaging, because I wasn't going to ask the male shopkeeper questions in my very weak Italian.