Aldona Grupas. Tights for sale

Klaipeda

At the end of the 1980s, a business sprang up in Lithuania producing what became known as “consumer goods”. I decided to join the ranks of these new entrepreneurs, and became involved in a business that was becoming trendy: sewing women’s tights. I bought myself a sewing machine and put it in the kitchen. With my new workspace set up, I was ready to make my first million.

It turned out that someone I knew, a girl who worked at the local clinic called Bronya, was also making all sorts of beautiful creations on her own sewing machine. We became friends, and she taught me how to make tights from yarns of wool. After two or three lessons I began to sew these in-demand garments myself. I enjoyed thinking up different patterns and sewing them into the design. The end result was some beautiful white tights with lace patterns on the sides. But every woman in Klaipeda already had tights like this. Where could I find more legs to put my creations on?

My mother wrote to a friend of hers, Olya, who lived in Alma-Ata (present-day Almaty) in Kazakhstan. Letters travelled quickly in those days, and we soon received a reply from her, with an invitation for me to visit her. Olya told us that the only people selling tights in Alma-Ata were a couple of Latvian ladies in the bazaar. Here was my chance to start an international business! I bought 200 new pairs of tights from other seamstresses, then went straight to the Aeroflot office and bought a ticket to Alma-Ata, with a return flight two weeks later.

The day when I would become an international businesswoman arrived. It began with a journey from Klaipeda to Vilnius airport, then a flight from Vilnius to Alma-Ata, with four stops: in Moscow, Tula, and two other towns. I don’t remember which ones, but I do remember that it was February, and freezing cold. At the airport in Tula we had to step off the plane and into a waiting room. It was – 40℃ outside, and I was only wearing a thin jacket. I had never been so cold in my life!

 

Alma-Ata

At that time Almaty was still called Alma-Ata, and was still the capital of Kazakhstan. I arrived in the middle of the night, and there was no-one to meet me. A taxi took me to the address I would be staying at ‒ a communal building in a neighbourhood far from the centre of the town, with hostel beds. There were no street lights, and it was pitch black; I didn’t know which door to knock on. Thankfully the taxi driver helped me to find my entrance, using his cigarette lighter to guide us through the darkness. I knocked on a door and was let inside.

I had never met Olya before, but I recognised her from her photo. She was tall, very slim and blonde, with short hair and blue eyes. She realised who I was straight away, and apologised for not having come to the airport to meet me. For some reason she thought I wasn’t coming. I thought this was odd, because I had even sent her a telegram with my flight number and the time I would land. But never mind: the important thing was that I was here. A tiny apartment (two rooms and a kitchen with a heated stove) in a giant communal living space; I was thankful to have a corner of the spare room for myself.

Early in the morning Olya’s parents were already making a fuss turning on the stove, both to make breakfast, and so that their guest would be warm enough. They were a wonderful elderly couple: the father was a veteran of the Second World War, and the mother was a pensioner. Olya taught Russian language and literature at the Kazakh state university.

Olya’s mother made some traditional Kazakh dishes: manty, beshbarmak and sorpa. I especially liked the manty, which looked just like the vareniki I was used to, but tasted completely different. To make them they added pumpkin, onion, garlic and spices to lamb mince, and boiled them together in a special pan. Delish! And to think that at home in Lithuania I couldn’t stand the taste of lamb. Olya’s parents gave me tea with milk, wild apricot jam, and something similar to blini pancakes, called shelpeki. I thought pancakes were the same all over the world, but no ‒ Olya’s mother made these ones in a tall-rimmed, thick cooking pot called a kazan. I had never seen a pan like this before, and I still remember how those shelpeki tasted on those early February mornings in Alma-Ata.

I was also surprised by how people in Alma-Ata bought milk. To get your hands on just one litre you needed to get up at 5 in the morning and stand in a queue. Olya’s father explained that they bought powdered milk from a shop, mixed it with boiling water, and then added some natural milk to it. Were there no cows in Kazakhstan? I also tried the national drink, kumys (mare’s milk), but I didn’t like it ‒ it tasted sour, like milk that has gone off. I learned that Kazakhs even eat horses. This country never ceased to amaze me…

Olya introduced me to one of their neighbours, a young girl called Izat, who agreed to show me the town, and take me to the famous Green Bazaar.  

We went on a tram. Nearer to the centre there were tall apartment blocks, their facades decorated with concrete slabs of various colours. Apparently these were so that the sun wouldn’t shine into the rooms during the very hot summers. They also helped to keep the buildings intact during earthquakes. Goodness me, there were earthquakes here too?

When we arrived at the Green Bazaar, aromas from the east were drifting through it. The main scent was the smell of apples. We had a lot of apples in Lithuania too, but I had never tried the kind that was found in Alma-Ata: a sort called the Aport. Alma-Ata means “father of apples” in Kazakh. My head was spinning from the mountains of spices, herbs, apricots and raisins! It was the first time I had ever seen carrots prepared Korean-style: rubbed with oil and herbs, then sliced into little strips. I thought they had been brought from Korea; Izat laughed at this, but she didn’t tell me why they are called ‘Korean’…

The spices and vegetables were all sold in the covered pavilion in the centre of the bazaar ‒ but to sell our tights we had to stand outside in the freezing cold. I had imagined lines of women queuing up to buy them, and selling all 200 pairs in a flash. It didn’t quite happen like that: by lunchtime we had sold all of four pairs. What could I do? A woman seller standing next to us said that I should try to sell my tights to a department store instead.

Almaty’s central department store was a huge place. I wandered through it, taking a look at everything, until I found the right department. Everyone spoke in Russian, and everything was written in Russian too. Didn’t Kazakhs have their own language?

The manager of the store was a Russian woman, getting on in years, with   a stack of chestnut hair on top of her head. I told her my business proposal, showed her the tights, and she very kindly agreed to buy them for her department. She called another manager, Zamira, into her office, introduced us, and told her to take my tights.

I went back to Izat at the bazaar and gave her my news. She was still freezing outside, but was in a good mood: she had sold 10 more pairs.

I told her how surprised I was that all Kazakhs spoke Russian. She explained to me that Kazakhstan began to be “russified” when the country’s Kazakh population shrank in the 1930s. Many people were deported to Kazakhstan by Stalin, and almost all of them spoke Russian. These new arrivals worked on the land; this is how the Russian language arrived in Kazakhstan.

The next day I brought another 50 pairs of tights to the department store, to see if I could sell them as well. With our sales going well, Izat and I could afford a little free time, and we decided to see some more of Alma-Ata. As we walked around, the town surprised me again: all the fountains were working. Their water was still flowing, even as the mountains that surround Alma-Ata were covered in ice. In Lithuania they would turn the fountains off in the winter. Had Alma-Ata never had a frozen winter before, and this was the first time it had ever been this cold?

Before leaving Lithuania I had dreamed about drinking real eastern coffee in a real eastern country. But I was mistaken ‒ everywhere I went people were drinking tea. On my third day I was missing coffee so much that the minute I spotted a cafeteria, I dashed inside. Behind the bar stood a tall, handsome, fair-haired young man, who looked like he was pouring coffee into a glass. Goodness me, coffee in a glass? Was this a Kazakh tradition? When I got to the front of the queue I asked for a glass of coffee. But the young man acted as if he hadn’t heard me, and he kept ignoring me even when I repeated myself. I got angry, and asked him impatiently:

  • Why aren’t you serving me? Do I look that bad?

He smiled and replied:

  • Miss, you look wonderful. But I’m not going to give you any coffee…

My jaw must have hit the floor.

  • Why not?
  • Because this drink is made from chicory.

I never did drink coffee in Alma-Ata…

The next morning it was back to work at the bazaar. We stood in the cold, sold some of our tights, then went for a delicious lunch. Olya’s mother had instructed us not to be late home, and to save some room for dinner, but I couldn’t walk past all these eastern treats, which were prepared on the street in front of my eyes.

We worked at the market for another four days. On the last day an Uzbek man approached me (I had already learned to tell Uzbeks from Kazakhs) and asked to buy 10 pairs of tights. Yes! But I didn’t have that many left. He got angry, and muttered something; all I could make out was that he had seven daughters.

A week had passed, and all my tights were gone. I had earned a little from my sales at the bazaar, and would receive my money from the department store when they had sold all the pairs that they had taken from me.

I didn’t need to go back to the Green Bazaar. I could walk some more around the town, go up to the Medeo ice rink, take a look inside the Indian shop, and have a meal in a restaurant. Fabulous!

Izat bought us tickets to the theatre that evening, and in the morning took me to the Indian shop. I was having withdrawal symptoms without coffee, but even in ‘Ganga’ (Ganges) there was no coffee. I bought myself a few trinkets, and some presents for my friends: bracelets, bead necklaces, rings and earrings.

In the evening we went to the theatre. There was a giant chandelier hanging in the middle of the hall, and a large, beautiful staircase leading to the balcony, where we had seats in the first row. The play was harrowing: a tragedy about the Stalinist era, in which the KGB arrested a scientist, and tortured him into confessing to a crime he didn’t commit. I finally managed to hear the Kazakh language spoken, and there was a synchronised translation into Russian through headphones. I was surprised again at how liberal the Kazakhs were; at this time it would have been impossible to put on a play like this in Lithuania.

I eventually got my hands on a long-awaited cup of coffee, at the Medeo ice rink. It was a cold but sunny day. An old minibus (we didn’t have ones like this in Lithuania any more) was spluttering so much that I thought we would have to get out and push it up the hill. But to my surprise it made it, to this famous high-altitude complex, a factory for skating records. In the distance were snow-capped mountains; the bright sun was high in the sky, and next to us was a mountain named Mokhnatka, its mighty pine trees standing to attention, like dark green soldiers defending their territory. It was all indescribably beautiful.

After admiring the view our next stop was the Medeo restaurant. And finally some coffee ‒ a cup of Indian instant. I thought it was a bit weak, so I asked for my second cup to be a little stronger. And after this second cup, of course I couldn’t deny myself a third. The caffeine hit felt like heaven!

After Medeo we went back to the town, and Izat took me to a traditional Kazakh restaurant. The place reminded me of a train carriage: on the right-hand side were high windows, and on the left, just like in the second-class ‘kupe’ carriages, were cabins with a low table and cushions to sit on, sewed with beautiful multicoloured patterns. We went to an empty cabin, took off our boots and fur coats, and sat down on the cushions. We were brought some bowls of beshbarmak… but there was no cutlery on the table.

  • How can we eat it without a knife and fork? – I asked.

Smiling, Izat explained:

  • The word beshbarmak means “five fingers”. You eat it with your hands!

But I wasn’t used to eating like this, so I asked the waiter to bring me some cutlery. Meanwhile, Izat told me how Kazakhs make authentic beshbarmak. I was enjoying my meal until I heard the words ‘sheep’s head’, ‘horse meat’, and even ‘camel meat’…

  • I am not going to eat anything’s head! – I said, indignantly.

– Don’t worry, restaurants don’t make beshbarmak with animals’ heads.

But I had already lost my appetite.

The next day I went back to the department store, and was overjoyed when they told me that all my tights had been sold. We decided to celebrate the end of my business trip, and reserved a table at a restaurant.

The restaurant was full. In the middle of the dining hall was a table adorned with fruits and sweets. Fruits in February!

Our waiter, a young Kazakh, asked:

  • Where are you from?
  • I’m from Lithuania.
  • Ah, I know Riga: I served in the army there.
  • No, no, Riga is Latvia! I’m from Lithuania: Vilnius…

We laughed, and I ordered some sparkling wine and a fancy-sounding platter. The waiter brought my sparkling wine with a little plate of some sliced meats.

– And where is the platter? – I exclaimed.

– Right there! – the waiter replied, pointing at the little plate.

Oh goodness! A platter in Kazakhstan wasn’t quite so grand as it is elsewhere. It taught me a lesson: when you choose a dish, read the menu carefully to see what it is made of.

But it didn’t matter! We drank sparkling wine, ate our little selection of meats, I was invited to dance, and I was happy at how everything had turned out. As Shakespeare wrote in Hamlet: “There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in your philosophy.”

The next day I collected my money from the accounts office at the department store. There was a little less than I expected, but I took it as their commission for making my life so much easier. Everything has to be paid for. I said goodbye to my new friends, Izat took me to the airport, and I flew back home.

 

What happens now?

At home again in Lithuania after my trip to Alma-Ata, all the discussions in our republic were about independence. All across the Soviet Union factories were beginning to shut down; there was a shortage of wool to make tights with. In fact, there was a shortage of everything. My new business ceased to be, before I had a chance to make my million.

And so we began to fight for our independence from the Soviet empire, which by now was in complete disarray. In Lithuania a civic movement called Sąjūdis was born, which lobbied for the country to regain its independence. All Lithuanians read the Sąjūdis newspaper; we couldn’t stop asking each other: “What happens now?”

 In January 1990 the Soviet army was sent into Lithuania. On 12 January Sąjūdis called the nation to a mass protest in Vilnius. Crowds of people gathered outside important buildings: the Seimas (parliament), the radio tower, the television centre. There was another protest in Klaipeda. Soviet tanks burst into the city’s main square, and the streets were filled with armed soldiers. Walking past them was unpleasant, not to mention frightening. Citizens of Klaipeda began to gather in the evenings by the city’s Communist Party headquarters. They stayed even when it got dark, and set up a television screen to watch what was happening in Vilnius. And goodness, what was happening in Vilnius! People began to fight with the army, but at about 11 o’clock one night the soldiers took control of the television stations and cut off all the broadcasts. After that we had no way of getting news from the capital. Would there really be a war for independence? In Klaipeda the tanks and soldiers didn’t move from the square. Of course I was one of those standing outside the Comunist Party building, and was waiting for any kind of news that would calm my nerves. I lived nearby, so I would boil water at home and bring tea for everyone. At about 1 or 2 in the morning someone from the Seimas came onto the radio and announced that the soldiers hadn’t taken over the parliament; instead, negotiations were being held with the Communist leaders. On the morning of 13 January the television showed the harrowing events of the previous night; we learned that some people had even lost their lives. On 8 February Lithuania refused to recognise the Soviet constitution any more, and the decision of the Seimas from 1940 to become part of the Soviet Union. 

In the spring of 1990 no-one understood what was happening. Businesses started to close, including the mud baths where I worked as a massage therapist. I had to make ends meet somehow, and this is where my experience of selling tights saved me. My friend Bronya suggested making some money selling flowers, before Women’s Day on 8 March. Her idea was to travel to Murmansk with some tulips. Of course I said yes!

 

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