The problem with food is that, no matter in what obscure corner of the planet you find yourself, you’ve got to have it. And in order to have it, you have to find it, and then somehow procure it. In some places this means you go hunt and fish, in others you pull victuals out of the ground and pick them off the trees.
Cabbage and potatoes are staples of the Armenian diet.
In prosperous countries foraging for food is done in your local supermarket, which is the size of a small banana republic. You hunt around with your shopping cart and harvest items off shelves and from bins. Easy to do for most of us trawling the shopping emporiums of the modern world.
But here’s a story of one of my shopping adventures not in the culinary paradise of the Gourmet Giant in Virginia, USA, nor in Albert Heijn in my native Holland, but in a small neighborhood grocery store in Yerevan, Armenia where I lived for six years. I hadn’t been there long when this drama took place.
Just a Few Eggs, Please
I’m in a small shop not far from my house where the neighborhood housewives go on foot to buy their daily needs. In a place like this, checking off the items on your grocery list is a tricky and humbling task for people who don’t speak Armenian or Russian. I’d be one of these people. Shopping can be an exercise in frustration, or entertainment on a good day. There are reasons for this:
In these little neighborhood shops you don’t pick things off the shelves. Most of the items are kept safe behind counters of which there are several, each tended by a fierce-looking matron with dyed hair – red, black, orange. (Hair dying is the GAP, the Great Armenian Pastime. Everyone participates – teenagers, menopausal mamas, grannies, and even the men. I felt obliged to join in to show respect. But I digress.)
Dairy is sold at one counter, bread at another, processed meats, eggs and canned foods at a third. A few shops have fresh beef, pork and lamb for sale as well, usually in rather large hunks that have not had the benefit of a designer butcher’s knife. This would be sold at counter number four. Sometimes shops carry a small selection of fresh fruit and vegetables in season. A small selection because there is no big selection.
For vegetables and fruit you’d best go to the large covered markets, such as Mashtots market on this photo by Rita Willaert. In the summer these are wonderful places to shop as you can see.
So here I am, an illiterate, you might say, in my corner grocery store. I can’t read the labels, and I can’t speak the language and I’m hungry. I’ve managed to get the bread, the rice, the tea because they’re recognizable and I pointed at them. Now I want eggs. I see no eggs. Where are they? How can I point at them and then raise ten fingers when they are not in sight?
I learned the word for eggs weeks ago, but it now escapes me. It has skipped away, hiding somewhere in my memory refusing to come out like a naughty child behind a sofa. Armenian words have a tendency to do that because they’re not like any other words in any other language in any other place on the planet. I explore every nook and cranny of my brain and cannot find the Armenian word for eggs. I can find it in several other languages, but none of these will do me any good. What to do.
This is what I do: I make the shape of an egg with my fingers. I look at the sales matron with big pleading eyes. She asks me something. I don’t know what she is saying, but she’s not understanding me. We are not getting anywhere, and something else is called for. Something more drastic than mere sign language.
I flap my arms and cluck like a chicken, then follow my performance by once again making the shape of an egg with my fingers.
Four stout mamas are looking at me in stunned silence. The dairy lady, the bread lady, the salami-and-beans lady. All with neatly coiffed hairstyles circa 1973.
I know why they are staring.
In Armenia people take themselves very seriously. You dress very neatly, no wrinkles allowed anywhere. You always have your hair done right and your shoes polished. You do not go around clucking and flapping your arms like a chicken. What would the neighbors think!
Here I am, crazy foreigner, making a fool of myself. It is unthinkable.
Then laughter erupts, rich and full-bodied. The kind of laughter that happens when you’ve not laughed for a long time because life is tough, but now, here’s this weird foreign woman clucking and flapping her arms, how can you contain yourself?
Laughter subsides. My counter lady turns around, steps aside and points at the eggs that have been hiding behind her body.
“Ayo!” I nod eagerly. “Ttass hat,” I say and hold up ten fingers in case she doesn’t understand my sorry Armenian.
She carefully puts the eggs in a plastic bag and shows me the amount I owe her by tapping it out on a little calculator.
I pay. I smile nicely. I say shnorrekaloodjoon, which means thank you, I kid you not. I turn and walk to the door, trying to look dignified, which is, of course, a lost cause.
I’ll be the talk of the neighborhood, but hey, I’ve got my eggs.
NOTE: In the last few years, modern supermarkets have come to Armenia, but the small shops still reign in the neighborhoods.
* * *
So tell me, have you ever made a fool of yourself on purpose, out of necessity? Or not on purpose, for that matter?
What a lovely surprise to read about an expat who lived in Armenia!
I am Armenian myself (although born in Lebanon) so it made me smile the way you told the story and pronounced the words. Yes, Armenian is a very difficult language.
Thanks for the good read!
Oh and by the way: Egg is “Havgid” 😉
Nice to meet you, Dan! Thanks for the nice comment. “Havgid” must be western Armenian for egg. The Armenian spoken in Armenia itself is quite a bit different. The word for egg there is dzoo (transliteration, of course).
How to buy tomatoes in Lebanon My first week in Beirut, and I was making good progress with Arabic. I could count to ten and had mastered ‘Beit faadi?’, the question you asked when you were trudging the streets looking for accommodation. (No pampering staff in those days – let them find their own place to live.) OK, maybe I couldn’t understand the reply, but at least my question drew a response. Time for my first solo shopping expedition, and I’d pulled out all the words I needed from a phrase book: Please = mindadlakCan I have/ give me =… Read more »
I carry a small notepad and do a lot of sketching! I’m a bad artist but it usually works.
Oh that’s hilarious! When I lived in China, I would try to buy some veggies in a small market where everyone stared and no one understood me…
These days my antics are contained to embarrassing the kids! 😉
I love your egg story and can see you flapping your wings. I have been lucky to find stuff in most countries. English is spoken by quite a few young people today. Sounds like you may be moving again?
Sometimes I do a bit of translating while on trips abroad. I’ve told people about an Ikea bed (it looked like one, even if the bed was a 19th century children’s bed in a 17th century mansion) in Ireland, I’ve impersonated sheep and cattle in Italy and I’ve lost the plot completely on more than one occasion!
Dignity is a disposable commodity when eggs are on the line! They should just be glad you didn’t mime the laying of said eggs 🙂
Hehe, fun story, as always. Thank you for sharing it!
Great story! This is a real gem, “It has skipped away, hiding somewhere in my memory refusing to come out like a naughty child behind a sofa.”
Oh, I’ve looked like a fool so many times in so many places… It’s like playing charades all by yourself – with no one guessing to help you out so you can stop flapping your arms like a chicken…
I’ve once tried to get 3 tomatoes from a vendor in Istanbul and even though they were right in front of me, I never managed. No amount of body language was enough to convey my message.
Glad to hear you got your eggs though! 🙂
Another great story. I love your stories!
Yes, I have made a fool of myself, many times over. When I lived in Holland, I struggled with Dutch vowels. One day, I went to the market and asked for a number of onions. I came home with that many eggs. I didn’t have the courage to tell the lady that I really wanted onions.
I’m pretty good at drawing, but that just takes all the fun away. I’ve gotten used to flapping my arms, mooing, and describing an artichoke with my hands.
(I loved that naughty child behind the sofa line too!)
@ Shimp, dignity does get in the way, so better have a sense of humor!
@ Nicolien, of course making a fool of yourself isn’t so bad if the ones on the other side at least GET you!
@ Mary Witzl, yes, uien and eieren, tricky vowels! 😉 About the child hiding behind the sofa, I did that once as a child, and it was great fun because my aunt and my mother were sitting on the sofa, talking, not knowing we (my cousin and I) were hiding right behind them. that’s probably where that image came from…
I have a story similar to that one. Once I was trying to buy this sushi like Korean dish but I forgot the word for Tuna, so to demonstrate, I made a fish face. The korean lady laughed at me, and so did my friend who was with me. “Don’t you think it would have been simpler just to make a gesture with your hand?” But hey, I got the tuna!
That was fantastic. I think that many of us expats can relate to this story. Once we get tired of eating only foods we can see, we start figuring ways to get other foods.
I have an egg story, but its not family friendly. . . (eggs in Latin America are often used to describe male anatomy)
Wow! You are so much braver than I. I’m not sure I could live in a country that is SO different from my homeland. NZ is hard enough and they speak English!
Oh how much I enjoyed this story and the previous comments! Yes yes yes I have made a fool of myself many times. The most depressing/frustrating of those times are when I’m speaking French and the Moroccan I’m speaking to tells me, “Speak French.” ARGH!
And I want to hear Brenda’s story! 😉
@ Brenda, don’t know about those naughty egg stories, but can imagine!
@ Bettyl, you know, the thing is, I was always dying to see the world, even as a child, and this is what I got! My life in the expat lane 😉
@ Vanessa, whatever it takes! We learn to be creative! I recently read an article about a research study that was done about expat life. They found that expats are on average much more creative than home-bound people. Really now — they had to spend money on a research study for that? We could’ve told them!
Charades are such an essential part of an expat experience, eh? You did a great job getting those eggs! Thanks for sharing a great story!