When Bananas Grew In the Sky
Getting stuck in a usual traffic jam, bored and tired, I dive deeper into the comfortable seat of the brand new BMW, looking at the fancy cars that are jamming the way along with us. How many of them are there…countless. You may think that it is an absurd idea – trying to count fancy (read: foreign cars) in Moscow. But for me it is not an idea, it is a memory.
By Natasha Shuvalova
I grew up in the Moscow region, and like other kids from little regional towns we would have organized cultural trips to the capital – Moscow.
It takes a bit more than an hour to get from my native town to Moscow, so we tried to invent different games to occupy ourselves. The game that became popular in the late 80’s was counting foreign cars along the way. I remember that winners most often had 7-9 cars! Ponder that – 9 cars during one hour drive!
They say time flies, but during the last few years, time seems to have participated in a race with a spaceship traveling at the speed of light.
Those who were visiting Moscow at the beginning of the 90’s, always remember that there was nothing; no lights, no food – except potatoes and cabbage.
Not exactly true – we had food, but one had to know the way to get it. That means one needed to have had good liaisons with shop-assistants. Because the moment the food arrived, the news spread so fast that food would end up on someone’s balcony, or in a fridge or closet, before even getting out on the shelves in the shop. Once I remember the doorbell rang, my mom’s friend whispered something into her attentive ear, and then she instantly grabbed a wheeled bag and off we went to the shop to grab a whole box of canned apple puree. The box was kept on the balcony. And it made the days brighter – as we had something nice to wait for.
Yes, pureed apples were delicious!
But nothing could ever be compared to bananas. They were sold only in Moscow groceries and only on rare occasions. Besides, they cost twice as much as meat (that’s the favorite comparison that every adult used around me). At lucky times they were my reward for the tiresome trip to Moscow to get… sausages.
My family would go to Moscow at least once a month and they would take me with them. I guess I was around 4 years old when I went on my first trip. But I had a chance to see Red Square for the first time only when I was eleven. Before that we made only grocery-shop city tours. I hated those shops – with nothing to see – just meat, meat and meat, and a long, long queue or two; queues with no beginning or end, at least not to be seen by a kid of 4. For 2 hours I could only stand and dream that maybe the next shop will have chewing gum or bananas!
To find them was not enough. It would take time to talk my mom into buying some. The green bananas were cheaper; therefore most often they were the choice. It would take us an hour of patience, standing in line to get the green fruit from Africa. And then it would take another week of patience to wait for them to become ripe! Guess where – in the dark wardrobe or in the oven!
Obviously, I failed my patience test most of the time. I still wonder how I could find green bananas tasty! I guess that proves that the mind is wonderful tool – we can make ourselves believe whatever we want. I remember a young relative pointing his little 5 year old finger, at the crescent moon in the starry sky, saying: “Mummy – banana!”.
The shortage of things such as foreign chocolate, washing powder, soap, etc, made them so popular that we never needed, or had any advertising. The first commercials that appeared were taken as solemn and wise advice. Old ladies would go to the shop and get the products recommended on the TV and then complain to the neighbor that their favorite celebrity is a liar because the washing powder did not erase the stains on her husband's shirt!
Commercials gave us kids an opportunity to feel so special; going out and saying to friends, “I just had a chocolate that was shown on TV!” First, it would give you a 100% chance to hear “WOW” in response. If the phrase was followed by a bubble of gum from the mouth – then you were the king of the day!
Bubble gum – that was another thing that haunted post-Soviet little minds. Parents were very much against spending money on bubble gum. But we were creative.
The bubble gum could be chewed for two days straight. That was not a limit, but then there were some conditions to follow. First of all it should be kept in the fridge at night. On the third day, one could add some jam to make it at least taste like something. The fifth day would be the most tragic, because that is when one had to let it go.
As for blowing bubbles, the skill was very much detested by parents and very honored by children and teenagers. Sometimes one had to arrange a trade to make someone teach you the tricky movement of your tongue and lips to make that bubble.
Soviet times are obviously famous for its queues, but maybe not everyone knows that some queues could last for weeks, months or years…and the queues were outside the shop even in the night…with the shop closed. I’m afraid your mind would brake if I asked you to try and guess what those queues were after and how they worked. So I’ll tell you another story.
When, at the age of eight, I was taller than the old fridge in my apartment, my family decided to get a new one. There were no fridges in the shop. They would arrive in some quantities and were assigned to people long before the fridges got to the store. To hold that assignment, one had to appear at that shop everyday to prove desire and a certain determination to get one, and to put a signature on a purchase. If you missed even one day’s appearance at the shop, one could be easily bumped from the list. But that was not it! For some unknown reason, my grandmother would go and stand in that queue in the night! Why? The answer was as simple as would have never entered my mind – not to let an “illegal” queue appear in the morning if the awaited fridges arrived. There was a bit of fridge lottery, too. It was absolutely unpredictable what kind of fridge one would get – big, small, a new or old brand. My grandma was lucky as her turn coincided with the new and big refrigerator delivery!
The most curious thing is that reviewing all of it, I do not have any feeling of deprivation or dissatisfaction. On the contrary, I feel happy about witnessing the changes that happened so incredibly fast. Moreover, witnessing the abundance of goods in the shops that now bless us with their long awaited comforts, has somehow taken away the precious feeling of enthusiasm and the ability to appreciate the lively tiny joys of this life, as too soon we learn to take everything for granted…
Getting stuck in a traffic jam, let’s try to see part of the evening sky and say “hi” to the rising celestial banana.