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OM Stories

Culture shock in Siberia

Culture shock in Siberia

The woman behind the deli counter stared blankly back at me. She didn’t move or gesture towards any of the food. She just stared.

Sobaka, pozhaluista. Sausage meat, please.” I repeated the phrase slowly in my best Russian accent.

This time, she giggled a little but still didn’t move or motion towards any of the cold meats sitting in front of her. 

It was only my fourth day in Novosibirsk and my first time in a shop on my own. My husband and I had arranged to meet up with the other new volunteers to OM Russia and some team members later. The plan was to eat together and that everyone would bring something for the meal.

I’d been given a simple task: get a roll of sausage meat that looked like salami or pepperoni. Apparently, this type of meat was really popular, and I was reassured that there would be plenty of types to choose from.

I was even given the proper Russian name on a piece of paper, but in all my rushing to get to our new friends’ house on time, I had left that precious note back in our flat.

“Could you maybe just point at something for me?” I said in English and used my hands to try and explain what I wanted.

I would have willingly taken any one of the many rolls of cold meat laid out in front of her.

“Sobaka?” I repeated.

No more giggles now. The lady kept staring at me seriously.

Just as I was ready to give up altogether the woman finally picked up a roll as I nodded my head vigorously. Success!

Well, sort of. The simple purchase had been one of the most embarrassing experiences I’d had in Russia so far. 

Relieved, I headed to the pay point, dying to get out of that shop. When I finally found what I hoped was enough money and looked up from my wallet to pay, I was surprised to see staring-giggling-deli-lady standing beside the cashier. She started to speak quickly to her colleague, and although I didn’t have a clue what her words meant, the way she pointed at me and laughed made me think she was retelling my deli counter horror experience.

The cashier burst into laughter. I turned a deeper shade of red and got out of there as fast as I could. 

Finally outside, I was shell-shocked by the ordeal. How could buying one item be such a momentous, difficult task? Why didn’t the woman smile like an Irish person would have and try harder to help me?

And what in the world was so funny that the whole shop had to hear about it? 

Later, I would find out that my first experience of culture shock was also my first big Russian language mistake. Instead of asking for Колбаса (Kolbasa), I asked for Собака (Sobaka).

That is….dog.

I’d asked staring-giggling-deli-lady to please give me dog. That would explain the giggling.


Ciara is an Irish girl currently serving God in the heart of Siberia with OM Russia. She moved there with her husband Kieran and son Elliott (now 3) in 2012. Since then, they’ve welcomed another son, Theo (1), and are expecting their third baby in September. Ciara works in Personnel, mostly concentrating on Team Life, welcoming newbies, and planning team events! A few of her favourite things are: Russia, getting to know new people, having pancakes for dinner and not taking herself too seriously.

Cultural or spiritual beauty - how do we define ourselves?

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