Meant as a message about the importance of learning how to read, this children’s story has been on my mind a lot lately: The Little Old Man Who Could Not Read, by Irma Simonton Black, is about, well, a little old man who could not read. While he toils all day in his toy-making shop, his loving wife takes care of the household chores, namely grocery shopping. But when she goes away for the weekend, our dear little old man is left to fend for himself.
The adult mind may find it hard to believe that a talented toy-maker could be quite as befuddled as he is by a trip to the grocery store. But as a five-year-old, this story is riotous. Not only because it seems improbable that an adult wouldn’t know how to read, but because the visualizations are so compelling—the shape of a spaghetti box does look an awful lot like a wax paper box! In the end, our protagonist gets so hungry that he is left with no choice:
“First the old man learned to read the word spaghetti.
Next he learned to read the word milk.
Then he learned to read the words for everything in the big store.
And then he learned to read the words for everything in the world.”
Three weeks in Russian-speaking Almaty has me feeling exactly like our little old man. I stand in the aisles blinking, bewildered by the Cyrillic characters. As a result, I have begun to describe my days here as “one-, two-, or three-grocery-store days” depending on the number of supermarket stops I’ve made. (I don’t think I’ve ever been to four grocery stores in one day, but I don’t doubt a “four-grocery-store day” is in my future.) I am guilty of purchasing three separate items, each with a picture of a chicken, in the hopes that one of them would be chicken bouillon. (One was!)
I need to learn how to read. Russian.
Adding to this complication is the fact that grocery stores in Kazakhstan are arranged as follows: baby stuff, baked items & chocolates, soap (all kinds), juices & beer, canned foods, grain products, dairy, and meat. Sometimes there are fresh fruits and vegetables. More often, there are diapers in the same isle as the cheese, or remote-controlled cars next to the bread. And every animal comes canned—except tuna.
I could go on about the lack of logical organization. I could bemoan the time wasted making laps around the store. Instead, I am attempting to see each day as an opportunity for tiny successes. TINY. Like correctly pronouncing the name of the street where the grocery store is located. Slightly bigger? Working up the nerve to ask—in Russian—the man at the meat counter for a half-kilo of ground beef. Even bigger? When the man at the meat counter understands me, and hands me that half-kilo of ground beef.
And what does one do with ground beef in Kazakhstan? Make tacos, of course—with a little help from Old El Paso taco packets, and some fellow expats who had a boatload of the stuff shipped from the states. Talk about success! These tacos (pictured below) are the crowning achievement of my culinary adventures in Kazakhstan so far. It is important to note that Sam has always been the cook in our family, but I’ve graciously accepted cooking as one of my new housewifely duties. For me, yes, tacos are absolutely an achievement. Partially because I never would have thought that tacos in Kazakhstan were possible—but mostly because they tasted like home.