Navigating The Grocery Store When You Don’t Speak The Language
Have you ever traveled to a country where you don’t speak the language? What about a country where the alphabet was different AND you don’t speak the language? On a recent trip to Uzbekistan for about six weeks, I bumped up against this pretty hard!
Uzbek’s speak Uzbek and Russian – Uzbek is Turkic, so the Latin alphabet is in place – however, being a post Soviet country, the lingua franka is Russian. Not that the Turkic letter style was going to help me when I didn’t speak Uzbek, but the transition from both language and alphabet was a little bit of a roadblock for me when grocery shopping.
Thankfully, Google Translate helped a LOT – as did taking Russian lessons via Duolingo (a free app you can download on your phone or tablet and practice wherever you are). You would be surprised how much of a language you pick up when you are totally immersed and no one speaks your language as a crutch.
When shopping for groceries, I could get by with some assistance. It felt like it took me forever since I had to translate many of the labels to make sure I was getting what I thought I was getting. You want to be careful, the dietary preferences and types of meat that are popular there may not be what you are used to in many western countries – Google it before you eat or buy it if you are not an adventurous eater.
The shops are relatively small. Many are little neighborhood bodegas with a few options (we’re talking maybe 3 or 4) for each item you may want. You are not going to find massive grocery stores conveniently located all throughout the metro area in Tashkent. You mainly do your shopping at these little corner stores, or travel to Samarkand Darvosa (a major mall in the center of the city) that has a large grocery store (complete with DIET Coke!!!!!) with more selection, a deli, a bakery, and some other options that you may not find at the corner stores. Again, Google translate is your friend – you can easily navigate with charades and google translate if you have to, but learning a few words (like numbers, colors, and types or meat or vegies) before you go will make your life a LOT easier.
There are a handful of larger grocery stores in various points across the city, but I generally just used my corner store for most things, and the larger grocery store for weekend runs when I had a little more time at my disposal. The stores are clean, brightly lit, and very similar to what western grocery store experiences are – with the exception of the smaller selection.
Take advantage of the fresh vegetables when they are in season – they are grown organically in country! The Fall brought some really amazing melons and vegetables to the markets and stores while the end of the harvest season was playing out. The food was fresh and flavorful with very little evidence of any types of chemical modifiers or growing methods – it was quite nice to not wonder what was in my food that I didn’t expect. I still followed the “boil it, peel it, cook it, or forget it” rule when eating vegies and fruits that I wasn’t familiar with, but had no trouble at all while in country.
Unlike in the grocery stores, going to the market alone can be a tremendously daunting experience. Grocery stores have clearly marked prices on their items, orderly isles, and no bargaining room. The markets (bazars) are completely unlike this! You can negotiate and bargain till your heart’s delight – of course you either have to speak the language or know someone who does to make this work in your favor. The Chorsu Market is located near the bustling heart of the city and is brimming with smells, sounds, and sites of a typical Central Asian market. Stacks of eggs and rows of nuts, beans, and vegetables are all beautifully arranged and lined up. There are also fresh salads (I loved the carrot based one as well as the noodle based ones), chickens, meat counters, spices, and even some gift items geared for tourists. There are so many people and the environment is so rapidly moving that the whole experience can be an overload for the senses. If you are lucky enough to have someone to navigate the markets with you like I was, the order in the chaos makes a lot more sense. If not, I wish you well!
If you are going to be in the country for less than two weeks, take the opportunity to eat out and experience the leisurely, friendly service that is part of the culture. Don’t expect them to check on your table constantly like American servers do, be prepared to politely hail them when needed. If you are going to be in country for more than a couple of weeks, you will want to familiarize yourself with the grocery stores and stock up on staples like bottled water and snacks for your hotel or flat – good coffee can be hard to find – the granules for instant are popular, but it can be had if you are willing to search for it. There are a ton of tea options that are also nice if you are a tea drinker like the majority of this country.
The bottom line is this – go in armed with knowledge and do the best you can. Most people are perfectly willing to help you if you need help, and the advent of Google translate’s mobile app is a game changer when you are traveling abroad. I found people to be very willing to teach me words and pronunciations, especially if I attempted them in one of the local languages first. If I was willing to try, make the mistake, and be willing to laugh at myself, people were very happy to help me learn. Like with most situations in life, a good attitude goes a long way!
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