“Big Stink in a Little Crepe Shop” * Memoir Excerpt * Elizabeth Sammons

The same way we say “Ah, Shucks!” Russians mutter “Da, Blin!” (Literally, “Yes, crepe.”) I gained insight into this phrase on a mild April evening, when I also discovered how our US cultural expectations sometimes rendered ordinary tasks like ordering dinner somewhat less than forthright. This excerpt comes from “American on Display,” the journal I kept on my first   trip to the USSR in 1990 as a bilingual guide on Design USA, a cultural exchange  exhibit of American life to the Soviet public.

 

Big Stink in a Little Crepe Shop

Chisinau, Moldova, April 13, 1990

Several of my American colleagues and I felt like eating at a restaurant aptly called (Russian Tea and crepes. That’s exactly what they offered, no more, no less.

As we stood in a group conspicuous for our brightly-colored T-shirts, stonewashed jeans, and American sneakers, , the twenty- minute line passed quickly. Only eight tables edged the two longest walls of the room. From the further end smiled a huge, brightly-painted Russian nesting doll painted on the plaster, contrasting with the rest of the colorless decor.

A silver, tired-looking samovar rested on each table, covered with a fine blanket of grease. Modern samovars are merely glorified hot water heaters with faucets.  But they’re quite practical. They usually have a small pot on top containing earthy-smelling black tea. You just pour this concentrate to taste, then add hot water, using thin glasses like American fruit juice tumblers.

All of us suffered watering mouths as we decided what to get. Crepes posted on the hand-written sign ranged from sweet ones with gooseberry, red current,  green walnut jam, or honey, to savory rounds spirting with sour cream and woodland mushrooms in sauce, creamy beef gravy or even caviar.

As we neared the front of the line, an old woman in a red head scarf and bright garments approached the couple behind us. The kindest way to say this is, she smelled like a walking outhouse. “Give me a little room, would you? I have five grandchildren coming, and their father was wounded in combat.”

When the man mumbled something, she walked away, trying her luck with others. “I told that hag I’m a wounded vet, too,” he laughed.

“Who’s the oldest?” the cashier demanded once we reached the front of the line.

We looked at one another, inquiring our respective ages. The older woman appeared disgusted when our senior member replied, “It’s me; I’m 30.” Only later did we learn that this Russian term refers to something beyond age. In Soviet restaurants, a group was commonly expected to designate an “elder” spokesperson to order for everybody.

The cashier clicked her wooden abacus with the brisk snap of business, scrawling prices on a roll of paper. Everything was almost pathetically cheap. After paying for the stuffed crepes, we received the order tickets, sat down,  wondering just how long it would be before we could show our receipts as proof of purchase.

But the fun had only begun. Our odoriferous elderly woman , who had by then somehow gotten to the head of the line, insisted on sitting at an occupied table. ”

“But you can’t,” explained the waitress.

“And why can’t I?” Her shrill voice rose to fill the room. “They say I stink? Well, so what, even if I do! I want a seat, and a seat with other people!” Isn’t this the God-fearing land of Russia? I’ve led an honest life, and now you treat me like this?”

The entire restaurant feigned conversation. “The longer this goes on, the longer we’re going to have to wait for our food,” grumbled one of my colleagues.

At last the wafting woman waddled to sit with a group whose olfactory conscience obliged them to leave within five minutes. At a table in front of us appeared another woman shrouded in opaque black clothing, along with dense perfume. While the warring whiffs made my seat less than a pleasant place, I had to laugh inwardly.

Soon our young waitress approached. The restaurant had run out of mushroom fillings, she explained, sounding alarmed.

“OK. We’ll take them with honey instead,” said our “elder.”

“But you can’t,” answered the girl.

“You’re out of that, too?”

“No, we’ve got plenty of honey. But there’s a price difference, and you already paid.”

“It’s OK. We can pay more,” our designated senior colleague replied.

The waitress raised her voice like a little soldier. “No, you don’t understand. It costs less, not more.”

To make a long story short, we agreed on getting additional honeyed crepes to compensate for the price difference.

More indeed! Between the 6 of us, we attempted to clean up 19 plates, each bearing 2 fat crepes. Two untouched plates remained on the table when we left. I sighed in relief when our waitress didn’t chase us down and make us finish them. If she had, I would have just bellowed “Da, Blin!” on my way out the door.

 —About the Author—

Doctors told Elizabeth Sammons’ parents to institutionalize her at birth; she was blind. Instead, they raised her with faith, a sense of self-respect and wonder, and a vast array of books. After graduating with a master’s degree in journalism from the Ohio State University, she worked with nonprofit and teaching in Russia and Central Europe, including Peace Corps. Returning to the USA in 2000, Elizabeth pursued a federal and state government career until 2018, when she gave in to living life as a writing artist and an international/disability advocate.

Sammons’ writings and research have been featured in “Ethics in Journalism,” “Plough Quarterly,” “The Columbus Dispatch,” “Geohistory,” and “Vision Aware,” among others. Her first novel, The Lyra and the Cross was published in 2018.