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Pole to Pole

Day 28: Leningrad

Michael Palin - Pole to PoleLater in the afternoon, a visit to two contrasting food sources. One is the private market, to which people can bring their home-grown produce to sell. It looks much like any big covered market, though the standard of hygiene is low, especially on the butchery counters where stallholders are constantly swatting flies away from pigs' heads. But there is an air of bustle and good humour - one man is a brilliant mimic of bird noises, and whenever Fraser raises his microphone to do a wild track of market atmosphere, the place is suddenly full of exotic birdsong. According to Irena, our interpreter, the average Russian would not be able to afford to shop here. Even her parents, who are quite well off, could only come maybe two or three times a month, for a treat. A bag of seven pears costs me fifteen roubles. The average wage in Leningrad is seventy roubles a week.

The alternative, the State food shop, is across the road. It is clean, well lit, hygienic and almost entirely devoid of food. Assistants in starched white hats and overalls stand behind large mounds of margarine and unsold tins of pilchards. With desperate irony it's called Gastronomia. I try to buy a bottle of genuine Russian vodka here. The bottles look unusual and I check I'm asking for the right thing. Yes, it is vodka, but there is such a shortage of glass in the Soviet Union that they're having to put vodka in bottles that once contained children's orange juice. As it turns out, I can't buy vodka anyway, as it's all strictly rationed and I don't have coupons. I ask for wine instead but there is no wine on the shelves as Gorbachev's anti-drinking reforms have resulted in enormous cuts in production. Apparently sixty per cent of the Georgian wine crop was deliberately destroyed.
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  • Series: Pole to Pole
  • Day: 28
  • Country/sea: USSR
  • Place: Leningrad
  • Book page no: 63

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