One of my favorite things to do when I visit a new place is to go shopping. The variety of local products, types of stores, and the manner of retail employees can tell you a lot about culture.
When I first moved to Belarus, I noticed several things: Belarusian cities have a lot of pharmacies, there are often branches of the same grocery store very close to each other (sometimes even on the same street!), and lingerie stores abound.
French? Italian? No, Belarusian
Due to the rather cold and often damp nature of Belarusian winters, I would often walk around shopping malls and stores during my free time. This allowed me to escape my apartment for a while as well as look for gifts for family and friends at home.
Before coming to Belarus, I had been told to look for Belarusian linen and cranberry candies covered in crunchy sugar. Besides those two things, I really had no idea what the shopping scene in Belarus would be like.
I quickly discovered stores like Mark Formelle, Serge, Conte, and MilaVista but assumed that they were French and Italian brands based on their names. Later, I discovered that this was not at all the case.
Out of those four stores, Mark Formelle has become my favorite because of their comfy pajamas and fun t-shirts. I have purchased several t-shirts over the past weeks to take with me back to America as souvenirs and memories of my time in Belarus.
One shirt is part of a line of clothing that celebrates the diversity and uniqueness of Belarusian nature. Another shirt has the Belarusian letter ў on it. These shirts are not only comfy but great conversation starters for when I return to America and want to talk about Belarus!
Linen and cosmetics
Because I spend most of my time living and working in Vitebsk, my favorite places to shop are definitely the Vitebsk linen stores (Витебский Лен) that use linen from the linen mill in Orsha.
The quality of linen there is very high and the price is rather affordable when compared to the price of linen in the USA. Many of the gifts I have bought for family and friends at home have been purchased at these stores.
The pretty hand towels and blankets are perfect gifts because almost everyone uses towels and blankets. For myself, I have also purchased several white linen shirts that I absolutely love.
Besides clothing and shoes, I and my American friends living in Belarus have fallen in love with Belarusian cosmetics. In particular, we love the moisturizers, facial cleansers, and body washes made with sea-buckthorn berries.
Sea-buckthorn berries grow very rarely in the USA and skin-care products made with them are quite expensive and very difficult to find.
The temptation of red boots
A very close second favorite to the linen stores is Belwest. I have always enjoyed shopping for shoes and in particular, boots.
I brought a pair of boots with me to Belarus, but they were already several years old and had survived a very tough winter in Yaroslavl, Russia as well as several wet winters in Providence, Rhode Island.
They kept my feet quite warm but were not waterproof enough for the deep puddles on Vitebsk’s streets and did not have enough traction for the slick sidewalks I walked on every day.
Every day as I walked to the university where I work, I would see a Belwest store. The shoes looked nice and stylish, and one day I went in to look. I left that day with two boots in hand.
One pair were sturdy black ankle boots with thick, warm lining. The other pair was an impulse buy. They were beautiful dark red tall leather boots.
I told myself repeatedly that I definitely did not need a pair of red boots, but every time I walked past them I could not stop myself from looking at them.
Explore the topic:
I bought them and they became my favorite pair of boots. I wore them almost every day and do not regret buying them at all. Several weeks later, my brother visited from America and he also bought a pair of leather shoes.
This happened again when my American friend came to visit and wanted to buy a new pair of boots. While she was looking, a pair of dark blue clogs caught my eye.
They were on sale and fit me perfectly. I could not say no. And this is why I now need to mail a box of boots home to America because they will not fit in my suitcase!
In addition to all of the great products one can buy in Belarus, there is also the experience of shopping in Belarus. I can only speak from my own perspective of living in the USA northeast, but shopping in Belarus has brought me several surprises.
Usually, whenever I walk into a store at home the people working there greet me with a cheerful hello and offer to help. Whenever I say that I am just browsing, they leave me to myself.
This occasionally happens in Belarus, but more often than not I get a rather formal hello without a smile and am then left to my wanderings.
Americans smile A LOT and I do not expect others to do the same, but I am still surprised at first when people greet me with a very serious expression!
Several times, employees have tried to help me a little more than I wanted by giving me suggestions, asking my size, or repeatedly asking me if I need help.
It was a bit strange for me at first, but I think that they were just trying to help me because I am a foreigner and have an accent when I speak Russian.
One thing that I found most interesting upon arriving in Belarus was the lockers that many stores have at the entrance. I cannot think of any stores in the USA that I have gone to that ask you or give you the option to store your belongings in a locker while you shop.
Sometimes, it is rather convenient to have those lockers so I do not have to drag all of my heavy bags with me. Other times, I would rather keep my backpack with me while I do my shopping.
It initially really surprised me when I was asked to please put my bags in a locker. It is quite rare for this to happen, but I suppose that it is done to prevent shoplifting.
Overall, shopping in Belarus is much like shopping at home. You find something you like and buy it. However, there are small, amusing differences in the experience of shopping that make me stop and think.
Text and photos by Alana Felton