Shopping during wartime

Shopping during wartime

Air raid sirens are a daily occurence, but are largely ignored by the citizens of the city. Although I have no doubt it was different in the early days of the war, nowadays people just tend to go about their business. I assume this is for a couple of reasons. Firstly, a siren does not mean a raid is definitely imminent. Thankfully, the vast majority of alerts are not accompanied by rockets, missiles, drones or shells. When the Boy, no matter how well-intentioned, has Cried Wolf enough times, you can understand the locals’ nonchalent reaction to the warnings. Secondly, many war-weary yet defiant Ukrainians have decided it is impractical to seek shelter whenever the siren sounds, and have chosen not to spend frequent periods of their day in the basement.

A few days before Christmas, I went to one of the city’s big shopping centres. The largest store inside the complex was a huge affair, selling both general goods and also food. It was busy with jostling Christmas customers pushing around trolley-loads of goodies. I waded through the other shoppers and headed for the toy department. I was looking for some little things to hand out to the kids in the villages during our aid deliveries. After messaging some mates of mine, who are parents, for advice, I decided on a few items and then headed for the toy cars.

When I was a kid, I loved toy cars. I built up quite a collection, and wherever I went, I had a Matchbox Car (it was pre-‘Hot Wheels’ days, so all the cars were ‘Matchbox’ brand) in my pocket. Whenever entertainment was required, a toy car instantly transformed you into a racing driver, highway speedster or super hero. Simple days.

One Christmas, or maybe it was a birthday, Dad gave me a set of tracks for my cars. They were flexible plastic with a lip running along either edge. Using nifty joiners, you could link lengths of the track together. With the supplied red plastic G-clamp, you could attach the track to a table, run it steeply downwards, into a loop, then across the floor. Or any other track configuration your little mind could imagine. Placing a car on the top of the track and giving it a little nudge was the gateway to high-octane thrills and spills.

Geez I’m getting a bit misty-eyed now.

To be honest, I’m still rather fond of toy cars. Consequently, it was a pleasure to sift through the available models on sale in the store. It would take most people a few seconds to grab the required number and go, but I spent ages carefully selecting the hottest, fastest and flashest cars. My dawdling over the cars was to cost me significantly longer than just the pleasant minutes spent working through the stock.

I was just making my way contentedly to the checkout with my basket of cars and other goodies when an announcement came over the PA system. The message, alternating between Ukrainian and English, repeated: ‘Air raid alert. Air raid alert…’ We were told to leave our baskets and trolleys and exit the store.

Without panic or undue haste, all the shoppers left their goods and started filing through the checkouts. I was reluctant to leave my basket. I had, after all, the store’s best cars in my stash. All of a sudden, the place had a distinctly Marie Celeste feel about it. I walked past the abandoned trolleys and service counters towards the checkouts, hoping the staff would let me buy my stuff on the way out. There was no-one at the tills, just security officers making sure people didn’t take the opportunity to pinch anything. I hid my basket away high up on top of a shelf, hoping it wouldn’t be noticed, and followed along out of the store.

I headed for the nearest door, and ended up leaving via one of the staff exits. Standing outside the back of the complex, I wondered what the logic was in evacuating everyone during an air raid. Outside is where, after all, the things sent to kill you are landing. Even if the shopping centre was the intended target, and therefore by being inside you could cop a direct hit, standing outside next to the building would presumably not be much safer. If management expected everyone to leave the area at the same time, there would be gridlock in the car park and people crammed at the adjacent bus stop. Perhaps it was all about liability. Who knows?

The staff from all the different stores inside the shopping centre stood around, chatting and smoking in the chilly afternoon gloom. After a while a lady asked me something that I didn’t understand, but soon figured out that she was telling me to go out to the car park with all the other shoppers as this was the staff area. I did so, joining what was probably several hundred people milling outside the shop as the air raid sirens wailed.

Thankfully there was no incoming ordinance, and after a while the sirens stopped. As we stood out in the cold waiting to get back in, I wondered how often this scenario played out each day. After about 45 minutes, the doors opened again and in we all went, pouring back into the store to find our trolleys and baskets. Thankfully mine was still where I had left it, and I wasted no time in grabbing it and going straight for the checkouts.

I was back at the same shopping centre a week or so later. After giving out some of my toys, I wanted to replace them before we headed back out into the villages. Wary that a siren may sound at any time, I hurried to collect what I needed. After grabbing some of the toys, I was just moving towards the toy cars section when the PA started up. This time there was no English translation, but it was pretty obvious what was going on as once again trolleys were left were they stood and people headed for the exit.

It constantly amazes me how calm Ukrainians remain under such circumstances. I don’t mean calm as in not panicked, but rather calm as in not angry. If an air raid siren sounded in a packed store in Australia, and the chance of a Russian attack required the evacuation of the place, the shoppers would greet the alarm with angry shouts and the choicest of swear words directed at the enemy. However the Ukrainians just walk out without even shrugging their shoulders. I’m sure I was the only shopper who said ‘Oh for fuck’s sake!’, or the equivalent phrase in Ukrainian, out loud. After hiding my basket I followed the masses, and headed outside for another 45 minute wait. This time I sat in the car.

When the all-clear was given I retrieved my basket from inside the store, but I still had those cars to get before my shopping was complete. The voice of reason inside my head told me to ‘just grab the first couple of cars you see and get out’. But like a moth to a light bulb, I was soon transfixed by the display: there was new stock. Time stood still as I carefully weighed up whether I should get the Camaro, the Mustang and the Lamborghini, or perhaps one of the very cool hotrods also on offer. After finally making my decision, I placed the cars carefully in my basket, the action of which seemed to jolt me to action. I raced to checkout, made my purchases, and scarpered for the door.

Apart from the terrible destruction and loss of life, Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has had a serious impact on both business owners and consumers. Since the war began, many businesses have been forced to close, leaving owners and employees without an income. In addition to the air raid warnings, during daily power blackouts some stores close, others run generators to keep the lights and till on, and some vendors trade by torchlight.

However this nation has had a tough history, and it has bred a stoic resilience and resourcefulness into the people. It’s one of the reasons why Russia’s criminal targetting of civilians will never bring Ukraine to its knees.

I have intentionally excluded the names of locations, towns and people in my posts about Ukraine, and not included any photographs. Although this may seem excessively cautious, this is an appropriate time for excessive caution.

If you liked this post, you may also enjoy EvacuationCounting the Cost

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