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Shopping with Russkies


If you have come to this page looking for rub-on letters, the website you want is:

I pride myself on being able to find just about anything, and find it at a good price. So it seemed appropriate that I should take the visiting Russians shopping. Coming from a land of no choices, these deprived visitors have spent years fantasizing about exactly what they would buy once they got to America.

First, there was Valentin. He wanted a denim skirt for his wife. I thought this slightly unusual, because I associate jeans skirts with teen-agers. But my husband said he'd like me to wear a mini-jeans skirt, too. (He's had this fantasy for more than 20 years, and I have the fantasy that he will wear a dashiki.)

My husband and I took Valentin to a conservative department store where we found a rack of denim skirts distinguished only by their gathered waists. They were on sale for $10.

"We have skirts like that in our country," Valentin said. "I want something different for my wife."

Next we took him to a jeans specialty shop. We showed him skirts with ruffles skirts with big zippers, skirts in a patchwork design.

"Too different!" he said. "I want something different from what we can get in Moscow, but not too different."

His fantasy skirt had to go below the knees but not be too long. It could have no ruffles or gathers. Neither could it be too wide or too narrow at the bottom. It could not have patchwork or big zippers or leather pieces. It should be stone-washed and light blue, but not too light.

We went to every jeans store and department store in three malls. Stores referred us to other stores. Other stores referred us to other malls. Finally, one bright saleswoman called her compatriot at a branch in another city, who had just what we were looking for. And, yes she would hold it, but the store closed in less than an hour. When we finally got there, the skirt was just what Valentin had described, but it cost $40. The skirts he had rejected had mostly been in the $20 range. In the Soviet Union, Valentin said, clothes are cheap.

It was Sunday. Yalentin had to leave the next day. The mall was closing. We had spent all day chasing down his skirt. But I would not have to face his wife if he came home without it, so I waited patiently.

Finally, Valentin said, "It is for my wife. Price is no object."

Then there was Valentina. Her English was minimal. She wanted white leather men's sneakers, size 10-1/2 EE, for her son. We took her to a discount shoe shop where we found a pair of name-brand well-made shoes meeting her description. They were $28. I explained that that was a good price. She replied, "I will not pay over $25." I took her to a mall where several major shoe outlets were having sales.

I found a pair of white leather men's 10-1/2 EE sneakers (not as nice as the first pair) for $17. "I will not pay over $15," Valentina said. She seemed surprised that the sales clerk was not authorized to bargain with her.

Finally, she decided to buy her son a pair of jeans and a matching jeans jacket. She was horrified by the fashion of preshredded jeans and looked disbelievingly at the price tags, which were double those on new-looking garments. But in the fifth store we tried, she found the jeans she was looking for. Like Valentin's wife's skirt, they had to be stone-washed and just the right shade of blue. The store was out of jackets in her son's size and her favorite color.

This time I was wise to the ways of jeans stores and asked the sales clerk to call other branches. Sure enough, one of the other malls, across the bay, had his size and color and agreed to hold it. Valentina did not believe this was possible. She didn't believe it until the next day, when the sales clerk at the other mall held up the jacket in question. It cost $45. This time, I had brought along a better speaker of Russian than myself—a real Russian, Sasha, who was spending the year in America. He helped convince Valentina that the jacket was reasonably priced.

Sasha's wife, Toma, came to visit. She wanted jeans jackets for herself and daughter that would be warm enough for Siberia. My husband and I took them to the discount mecca in Orlando, where we found a jeans jacket to beat all jeans jackets. It was well made, thickly lined and had a furry collar. And it was marked down from $120 to $20 because of a blue stain on the collar. Sasha decided that the stain made the jacket unacceptable.

Toma found a jeans jacket in her daughter's size for $15. Sasha said it was a boy's style, and he reminded us that in the Soviet Union, clothes are cheap. He let Toma buy their daughter a pair of white leather sneakers for $25.

After his wife returned to Siberia, Sasha wanted to buy a computer, the fastest, highest-powered computer that the Commerce Department would let him export, for the lowest possible price. He

wanted the keyboard to have English and Cyrillic letters.

The Commerce Department okayed a computer with a 286 chip, up to 16 MHz, with up to 4 megabytes of memory, and 120 megabytes of storage. Sasha couldn't afford it all, but he came close. The keyboard still presented a problem. I showed Sasha how I had put rub-on letters for the Dvorak keyboard on the fronts of my computer, and he asked whether I could find Cyrillic rub-one. The rub-one I used happened to be green. The second art supply store I called had Cyrillic rub-one in a choice of six type styles. I drove Sasha to the store. He was torn between Helvetica and Microgramma, when suddenly he asked "Do they come in colors?" He wanted green like the letters I had used, not black, which was the only thing available. I had just about concluded that there was no such thing as a reasonable Soviet shopper.

T hen, Sasha asked me to take him to buy blank videocassettes. The first brand he came to was GE, and he inquired about its quality. I told him: "Yes it is a good brand, but I'm boycotting that company because they make bombs."

Sasha quickly chose another brand. If he can understand my reason not to buy a perfectly good product, maybe I can learn to understand his. There is hope for peace in the world yet.