An Irishwoman's Diary
On arrival in Moscow the senses are assailed by many strange and wonderful sights: the beauty of St Basil's Cathedral, the immensity of the Kremlin, the chaos of the traffic.
For the Irish visitor, however, perhaps the most striking and unexpected phenomenon is the ubiquity of Dunnes Stores bags.
They are everywhere - not the plastic bags that have become a rarity at home since the arrival of the tax on them but the heavy-duty, €1.50 shopping bag that has replaced them.
I assumed, as one might, that there must be a Dunnes Stores somewhere in Moscow - indeed that there must be several - and that they must be as popular as they are in Ireland. In a weak moment of homesickness (and, admittedly, in a search for Cadbury's chocolate) I decided to seek out one of them.
My (by this stage) well-worn guidebook helpfully mentioned a place called Irish Arbat House, surely as good a place as any to start a search for a Dunnes. The address listed, 13 Arbat Ulitsa (Russian for street) turned out to be part of a long stretch of strip mall in the attractive style of 1960s Soviet architecture. There was a Russian department store reminiscent of the old Switzers, numerous DVD/CD kiosks and what looked like an Irish pub. But no Dunnes.
In halting Russian, I asked a security guard where Dunnes Stores was. Asking the question was the easy part, given the then state of my Russian; understanding the answer was another matter. Eventually, it became clear from his confused and mildly contemptuous stare and the vigorous shaking of his head that he didn't know what I was talking about.
The plastic bags (and the craving for Cadbury's) continued to mock me openly on the streets so I went to the one place travellers and foreigners go when utterly lost abroad and in desperate need of information - Google. A search for "Dunnes Stores Moscow" led to a site for Irish emigrants throughout the world and an article posing the same questions that had plagued me for two weeks: where do the Dunnes Stores bags come from and why are they everywhere in Moscow? The answer is that they do not come from Dunnes Stores at all, at least not directly. They are sold by old women on the side of the road as general baggage - not just Dunnes bags but a whole range of top designer bags such as Prada, Gucci and Vuiton. It is a phenomenon of Moscow life to which I had been blind.
The bag business is big in Moscow - not the leather/fashion handbag variety, but the general need-to-carry-extra-stuff-that-won't-fit-in-handbag variety of bag in everything from paper to heavy plastic. Dunnes bags are right up there with Dior.
There is no Dunnes Store in Moscow but at least I have since discovered a Russian chocolate that is a passable imitation of Cadbury's.
I have to admit, however, that in several months living in Moscow I have yet to come across one of these bag sellers on the street. It may be because I spend so much time underground on the metro, the quickest and cheapest way to get around this sprawling city.
Metro stations are cultural experiences in themselves, with elaborate mosaics or frescos depicting the splendour of Soviet times and Lenin in numerous postures. You learn quickly how to play the metro game living in Moscow, and it is just that - a game.
The first rule of engagement is simple: do not tangle with old women on the Moscow metro. These babushkas (literally grandmothers) are a dominant group in Russian life, followed closely by their next in line, middle-aged women.
Middle-aged women are the easy winners in the metro game. They use a formidable combination of pure, raw aggression, elbows, shoulders and bust to bludgeon their way through the throng to gain a seat. They are of the I've-been-doing-this-for-20-years-and-I'm-sick-of-it school, which translates
roughly into I-don't-know-
you-are-but-I've-earned-this-bloody-seat. And, indeed, who am I to argue?
But the babushkas are the true veterans in this game. They don't possess the same formidable force as the middle-aged women, but even if you get a seat you will have to give it to them if they get on the same train. It's an unwritten rule in Russia and is strictly enforced in Moscow. Should a babushka be left standing on the metro, it is her God-given right loudly to berate whomever she thinks should have been the one to give up their seat. This is usually a young man. Not only does the babushka shout and grumble in a schoolmistressy manner, but other babushkas or middle-aged women join in.
The right to berate idle young men is an extension of the general right of babushkas to give their opinion on anyone and anything. Any time, any place. Hugely entertaining - as long as you're not the unfortunate target.