Eastern European Food - Still Behind the Curtain

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Eastern European shops welcome the Irish, yet only a few dare to venture them. And when they do, quite often they face staff who struggle with English.

It is a drizzly Friday afternoon and Polonia, a shop around the corner from my house, is empty. Inside it is a bit gloomy and quite cold. I pass the shelves with dozens of jars of "Żurek" and approach the girl standing behind the counter. I introduce myself and ask her if she could answer a few questions. The girl looks at me with an apologetic smile and says: "Speak little English". I ask her if there is anybody who does. She says "My boss", but apparently he is not in. As I leave the shop I look at the sign above the entrance. "Welcome. The best food from Eastern Europe." It could be. It's a shame there isn't anybody who could show you around.

Next stop is Rathmines. Two women working in Polonez, located on a busy junction, just across the road from Dunnes Stores and Tesco, are preparing for another busy weekend. 27-year-old Aleksandra Voronko arrived to Dublin last autumn and this is the first job she got. Recently the Lithuanian woman told the manager she would be leaving in two weeks. She would like a better paid job and doesn't want to work evenings anymore, since she hopes to enrol to an English course soon. Although Aleksandra spend nearly half a year in Ireland, her English didn't improve much, since majority of the customers are from Eastern Europe. She speaks Lithuanian, Russian and she managed to learn a little bit of Polish, while some Romanian customers insist on her speaking Romanian - Aleksandra has darker skin than many blue eyed Lithuanian women and some customers accuse her of pretending to be Lithuanian. On the other hand, her exotic looks won her some admirers. A customer gave her 15 red roses on March 8 - the International Women's Day. I ask where was he from. Like majority of the customers, he wasn't Irish - he was Moldavian.

There are no Irish goods in Polonez, which is part of a chain of six shops, yet although all products have descriptions in English, oftentimes Irish customers poke at them asking "what is this". Majority of the Irish who shop here have Eastern European partners, I am told. Sweets, chocolate and biscuits are most popular among them, while smoked mackerel and birch sap still have to find their way to Irish tables. When I ask if more Irish could be drawn to the shop, a woman who works with Aleksandra and prefers to remain anonymous, points at the sign on the window "Eastern European Food". She maintains that Irish will stick to their food.

Things look a bit different across the river. When I first came to Dublin eight years ago, there was only one shop selling Eastern European food. It was Slavyanskaya Lavka (Slavic Counter) on Moore Street. I stroll through Talbot Street which over the past couple of years transformed itself into an Eastern European quarter. I count three Polish shops, a few Polish barbers, a Lithuanian food shop, a Georgian restaurant, a Lithuanian hairdresser, a Russian DVD rental, a Ukrainian real estate agency and it is possible I have missed a few more businesses in the kaleidoscope of tacky signs. There are almost as many Polish rushing past me on this busy street as there Irish and I ask Katarzyna Wolf, a Polish girl who has been working in Polski Sklep for half a year, if any of them pop into her shop. She briefly replies "yes", but when I start a conversation, she asks to wait for her friend, because her English is not sufficient to answer my questions.

When Marta Wypych - a bubbly Polish girl arrives, it appears that she works in Polski Sklep as well. Marta started working here a year ago and she says she stays only for the customers. "I know their stories. Some Polish people buy bread, stay in the shop and talk for 40 minutes," observes Marta. According to her, up to a quarter of the customers are Irish and they mainly buy Polish bread, because "Irish bread is like chewing gum". The bread is baked in a Polish bakery in Dublin. "They love Polish bread, you should try it," Marta tries to twists my arm and I'm almost tempted to see if Polish bread is as good as Lithuanian.

Despite the fact that there are dozens of Eastern European shops in Ireland, last October Marta Fekulova decided that the market had a niche for another nationality and opened a Slovak food shop on North Circular Road. According to census figures, Marta is one of 8 thousand Slovaks living in Ireland. A dwarfish share, compared with the Poles, yet the empty shelves prove the owner of the shop might be quite right. Martha was begging not to photograph the shop, since she was waiting for the delivery on the day I was talking to her and didn't want others to think that the shop was not busy. When asked if Irish were buying anything, she said they liked the salads, yet there was only one or two of them.

Although Polish consist the largest ethnic group in Ireland, with official census figures showing that there are 63 thousand of them, Lithuanian grocery shops started to spring up earlier, with "Lituanica" opening on Amiens Street seven years ago. The shop is still there - looking greener than the fields Emerald Island and with the business soaring higher than the aircraft after which the shop was named. In 1933 "Lituanica", piloted by two Lithuanians, crossed the Atlantic ocean after taking off from New York. While the the aircraft crashed, Dublin's "Lituanica" is successfully moving on. Over a period of 7 years it evolved into a chain of retail stores, and today the company has become a wholesale supplier of Eastern European food to over 500 shops in Ireland and the UK. The success is obviously driven by the massive influx of Eastern European immigrants to Ireland.

Laima Adomaitiene has been working in "Lituanica" for a year and a half. The shop is popular among Polish, Latvians, Romanians and sometimes they even get Spanish or German customers. Laima observes that Poles tend to buy Polish food, while Lithuanians prefer Lithuanian specialities. "Even if it is the same chicken drumstick, people prefer when it comes from the same country as they do," says Laima and mentions the fact that when she arrived to Ireland, her diet included a lot of Irish food and she put on some weight. Yet after returning to Lithuanian products, she forgot weight problems.

Laima admits that the shop is not very popular with the Irish: "They are patriotic. They are loyal to Irish food," observes she. Even though "Lituanica" sells eggs and milk, they are not Irish.

Yet her colleague Almina Binkauskiene offers a possible solution: "Lithuanians must interact with the Irish more and introduce them to Lithuanian food. We must integrate more."

Integration springs to my mind when I enter "Perestroika" - a Moldavian food shop on North Circular Road, named after Mikhail Gorbachev's attempted economic and social reforms in the Soviet Union. The shop has an excellent selection of Lithuanian smoked meats, Polish cakes and Moldavian wines - the nostalgic mostly sweet tipple of Iron Curtain times.

After struggling to start a conversation with the woman behind the counter in English, I employ the bits of Russian I learned while watching Soviet TV in my childhood and the curtain of misunderstanding between us splits. Moldavian Otilia Vizdoaga explains that "Perestroika" is one of four Moldavian shops in Ireland and she says it is mostly popular with Romanians, Moldavians, Polish and Lithuanians. There are no Irish in "Perestroika" as I speak with Otilia and I doubt there will be many at any time soon.

I look at the brightly lit fridges, which offer a zillion times better range than my local Spar, and quietly thank God for Soviet TV.

photos©Lina Zigelyte
Written for "Metro Eireann"

This Post has 11 Comments Add your own!
Anonymous - April 21, 2008 at 1:13 PM

What is Lithuanian food and what is best about it? All these great new shops in Dublin and I don't know what to buy! Will you blog about it for the education of the Irish? :)

Lina - April 26, 2008 at 3:13 AM

I will! :) Pictures promised as well

Barb.Rolek - May 12, 2008 at 2:21 AM

I love this site! It reminds me of my own -- http://easteuropeanfood.about.com. I'd love it if you'd link to me. Do I have your permission to link to you?

Kosice Slovak Shop U Rasta - October 20, 2008 at 3:07 AM

There is now a Slovak thnic shop in Athlone, on Pearse Street, on the Roscommon side, beside the Garda Station, just after the new Left Bank shopping cnetre.

A limited number of Irish products is also carried, and will be expanded.

The website for the shop is now live, and carries prices for some of the products carried, and is being expanded as we speak. Paypal features may be integrated when delivery issues are sorted.

irina - February 7, 2009 at 4:09 PM

Hello Otilia !!!
Salut prietenuta mea :)
Am deschis la bum sait asta si dau de shop-perestroika :)
astept ceva raspuns pe giocela@yahoo.com

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