Shawarma Karma: Misguided Magnanimity in Moscow

By Francis Farrell

How should one feel when they get mistaken for the poor, the homeless, or the begging? What does it say about us and our society when this occurs? I sure as hell haven’t figured out the answer, but a recent couple of incidents in Moscow, exactly one week apart, where the universe seemed to align and yin met yang (or should I say, sour cream met pelmeni), made me begin to really contemplate the issue.

One sleepy September afternoon, I was heading briskly to an Armenian restaurant in a nondescript area of deepest darkest Moscow. On either side of the street were those typical, bleak Soviet apartment blocks that immediately come to mind when you imagine a Russian city’s suburbs. Taking a shortcut through a yard behind such a block, I saw what can only described as a babushka (grandmother) shuffling towards me, her small eyes staring directly at me from her scrunched-up face, and holding in her hand a small yellow plastic bowl out in front of her. Processing the image that lay before me, I immediately thought this was my time to do good – pensioners in this part of the world are not having the easiest time at present, their Soviet-era pension rarely stretching beyond the bare necessities. I took out my wallet, fumbling around for some spare change. Her gaze did not leave me. As I approached, my rubles held firmly in my hand, I began to greet her with a smile – only to look inside the bowl and see nothing but dog food. I had mistaken a woman dutifully feeding her hound for a destitute pensioner. Embarrassed out of my mind, I do the only thing that made any sense at the time: I ran out of there as fast as my little legs could take me.

Exactly one week later, I was returning to my dorm when that familiar feeling hit me: my body needs шаурма (Russian-style kebab). I picked up an attractive little wrap from my local Uzbek, but since I’d rather not take it inside my building, I wandered around the outside of the building while I devoured it, aimlessly coming to a stop next to some large garbage containers as I was lost in my thoughts and my шаурма-induced bliss. Suddenly, yet another babushka shuffled over to me, and this time offered me a 100-ruble note, saying “Young man, please get something nice for yourself to eat!”. Gobsmacked, I struggled to find the words to explain in Russian that I had plenty of money for food, and that I was an exchange student. That I was eating a messy-looking item out of a plastic bag while standing next to a dumpster was pure coincidence. Now, it was her turn to be extremely embarrassed, but instead of taking flight like a startled emu as I had done, she engaged me in conversation and told me to make sure that I stay in Moscow, which has the friendliest inhabitants in the world (she later expressed gratitude that I wasn’t one of these “ungrateful, angry, dark-skinned people”, but that is another story entirely).

What should I think of all this? Being halfway to an ‘expert’ on Russian politics, culture, and language doesn’t save you from a social faux pas. Nor does it prevent you from being mistaken for an urchin rather than an Australian exchange student from one of the most prestigious universities in the Netherlands. To be perfectly honest, I haven’t yet come up with a deep revelation about the human condition that goes further than “there’s more to someone than meets the eye”. However, it did bring to light the complete loss of human dignity while poor or begging. While for me, these two incidents were nothing more than embarrassing, the people who have to lower themselves to that point on a daily basis just to have enough to eat, can surely not come out of experience with their self-worth fully intact. In any case, these episodes have reminded me to look before I act, and that babushkas will always make sure you have enough food – whether you’re a hound or a hungry student.

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