Russian Shoppertunities

A little retail therapy goes a long way…

Today we explored the Ismaylovo Market, which is basically next door to our hotel. Good thing we know where it is, because the directions in mother’s guidebook instruct the intrepid traveler to “exit the metro and follow the crowds.” Wonderful advice if everyone is heading for the crafts and antique market, not so good if you just end up following someone home…

All manner of Russian souvenirs are available at the market — from nesting dolls and Christmas ornaments to fur hats and decommissioned Soviet ammunition, knives and other weaponry. (What are the appropriate boxes to check on that customs declaration form…?)

Which one to choose?
Which one to choose?

I was warned so many times by so many people to keep a close eye on my hand bag and beware of pickpockets. I figured for sure this place would be a hot bed of thievery. Except that I probably over paid for my trinkets (because I can’t haggle my way out of a wet paper bag), no one even came close to brushing up against me, let alone sliding their sticky fingers into my handbag. In fact, even the gypsies who beg (loudly and in Russian, so I can’t understand them anyway) on the subway have left me alone.

Next stop, Pushkin Square and the largest McDonald’s in Russia. 26 check out lines, serving 13,000 meals per day. I didn’t just want to eat there for the fancy linens and the ambiance… When the Iron Curtain was lifted, Canadian George Cohon came knocking on the door of the New Capitalist Russia and opened the very first McDonald’s in Russia…the one in Pushkin Square. I wanted to see exactly what he’d accomplished. It’s so large and so busy that it’s hard to describe. I took a photo of the line ups, but even that doesn’t do it justice. Food critic review: if I had closed my eyes, I could have been eating the same Big Mac anywhere in the world, which is the point, I suppose. The only difference the packaging. A the value meal doesn’t exist. My only real disappointment was that there wasn’t a McRussian item for sale…but maybe the McBorscht or whatever only comes out once a year…like the McRib or the McLobster.

McDonald's first Russian location, opened by Canadian George Cohon
McDonald’s first Russian location, opened by Canadian George Cohon

You know how they say you shouldn’t go grocery shopping hungry? Good thing we were fortified with McD’s when we entered the Yeliseyvsky Gastronom, a refurbished 19th century food emporium that is hands down the fanciest grocery store I’ve ever entered. There was a doorman. Galen Weston could stand to fancy things up a little at Loblaws.

Have you ever seen such beautifully displayed ketchup?
Too pretty to touch

There are expensive chocolates and premium vodka and black caviar so pricey it’s behind glass. I was hopeful, but unlike at Costco, they weren’t offering samples. How fancy is this place? The lighting is by chandelier, not overhead fluorescent. The ketchup is displayed in solid wood built ins…like in an impressive wood paneled library, but where there should be works of great literature, there is ketchup and mustard.

At the end of each day my last stop before I hit the hotel is the small grocery store across the street. It’s the equivalent of a mom and pop corner store you might find anywhere in the world. Only the Russian version has the lady behind the counter and the burly guy who is security. No security cameras here…I think Boris just “makes things right”. The young woman in the corner shop has come to expect me and my terrible Russian to show up. I’ve been purchasing Russian beer based solely on the label. Today’s beer cost 60 rubles… about $1.92 for a half litre. I may become an alcoholic just for the savings.

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