Before heading off for a day of work today, my roommate, Chris, and I ventured out into the frozen tundra in search souvenirs to lug home in our already ready-to-bust suitcases.  The day before, while driving to work, we saw a few folding tables piled with Russian wares set up on the side of an overpass.  It didn't seem too far away from our hotel, and the shopping was limited to maybe fifteen or less tables, so we figure we'll be able to shop for at least a little while in comfort before needing to warm up our appendages.

We really underestimated Jack Frost's evil sting...and the fact that an open overpass at a higher elevation is usually subject to bone-chilling winds.  We shuffle among the tables, shivering and asking (in gestures and very limited Russian) about the array of nesting dolls, hand-painted plates, and USSR Air Force pins.

Each of the vendors is dressed in multiple layers to combat the cold, and one shorter man sports black combat boots, a large fur hat with ear flaps and a knee-length puffy black jacket that makes him resemble the Michilen Man.  On his table I find a selection of lacquer boxes.  Russia is famous for these miniature masterpieces made from papier-mache.  Scenes of angels, dancers, swans and other animals in hand-painted detail cover the lids of the little boxes.     

 "Russian fairy tales," the Michilen Man says to me, as I hover over a box depicting a man dressed in long red robes riding in a sleigh alongside an angelic, young woman dressed in sparkling white.

"They're beautiful," I reply. 

"Yes, Russian fairy tales," he repeats pointing to different boxes.  "My English not so good," he says with a laugh.

It's better than my Russian, I think to myself.  "What kind of fairy tales are on the boxes?"

He shuffles around to the back side of the table, and reaches into a cardboard box.  "Russian fairy tales," he says once again as he produces a hard cover children's book suitably titled "Russian Fairy Tales."

He offers the book to me, and I flip through its pages, which not only have beautiful illustrations, but English translations!  On one page I find a drawing similar to the one on the lacquer box.  The story, entitled "Grandfather Frost," tells the tale of the Russian equivalent of Santa Claus.  Usually associated with the celebration of the new year, Grandfather Frost is almost always depicted alongside his granddaughter, Snegurochka.  Together they visit children each new year giving presents and asking to hear songs or poems.  

Without any bartering, the Michilin Man offers to sell the book to me for one US dollar.  I show my treasure to Chris, who immediately buys the rest of the Michilin Man's supply of books.  Very content with my purchase, I continue along the line of tables, while thinking of reading the fairy tales aloud to my mother's kindergarten class when I return home in a few weeks.  

While in Saint Petersburg I was inspired by a coworker who does a similar project, to have my mom's class track my journey as I tour across Asia and send them postcards from each city I visit.  I figure coming into the class and reading a Russian fairy tale would be a nice way to follow up after sending postcards from Saint Petersburg and Moscow.  Shavar, my coworker, had cleverly entitled his project "Shavar Afar" and in the next few days I would spend time coming up with my own travel handle, "Jet Lag Meg."

A few tables down from the book man, I find a collection of beautiful music boxes.  

"Hello."  I turn to see a a tall, Asian-looking man with a round, cheerful face ringed in fur.  "How are you today?"

"Cold," I reply a bit in awe of his wonderful English.

"This is nothing.  Wait till February, that's when it gets really cold.  Sometimes I can't even be out here for the whole day because of the wind."

"I've only been here about fifteen minutes, and I can't feel my toes.  I can't imagine staying out here all day long," I say.

 "Yes, sometimes I have to have a shot of vodka after work to warm me up," he says with a smile that would warm the heart of the coldest Moscow shopper.  

"One shot wouldn't do it for me," Chris says as she joins the conversation.  "I'd have to have two or three."

We all laugh creating a clouds of visible breath.  

"What's your name?" I ask.

"Ussein, and yours?" 

"I'm Megan and this is Christine.  Umm...what did you say your name was again?"

"In America everyone knows Saddam Hussein.  Well, my name is like Hussein but without the H," he explains.

We tell Ussein that we are from the United States, and are working for a few weeks in Russia.  He asks us if we voted for Barack Obama, a question I've become used to answering while abroad.  When I tell him I'm from Detroit, he wants to hear all about the automobile industry and we talk a little bit about the woes of GM and the economy in Michigan.  

Then he tells us he is originally from Kazakhstan and came to Moscow a few years ago to work.

"When I came here people see my darker skin and cut eyes and they are not as nice to me.  That’s called uhh…”

"Discrimination," I inject.  

"Yes, discrimination," he repeats.  "Is there discrimination where you come from?"

We explain that although there are some people who people who discriminate based on race, in most cases (especially concerning the new generation) these people are considered ignorant or sheltered.

After a while of chatting about the cultural differences between our countries, Ussein gets back to business.

"So you are shopping for souvenirs, yes?  One observation, when in you shop in Moscow, you must barter," he advises.  
"Oh yeah, we know all about that.  We've been in China for the past four months," I tell him.

Chris, who has always felt a little uncomfortable with the barter system, shrugs her shoulders and sighs.

"Alright, let's do this," She says pointing to a music box she's been eyeing.  

"Now it won't be as easy, now that I given my secret away," Ussein admits.  

Chris haggles with him for a while, but our frozen fingers and toes have the final say, and we end up walking back without any wares from Ussein's table.  But we promise that we'll return before we leave Moscow, dressed in twice as many layers, to give him another go.