We drove to the Road Museum, not so much to visit the museum but to see an outdoor theatre performance of Mowgli next to the museum.

Just as we arrived, the skies opened and a torrent of rain poured down. It was raining so hard that I could barely see the road and we crawled the last few hundred metres at below 30 km/hour. It sounded like hail when it hit the car. Then we sat there for some twenty minutes and waited for the rainstorm to pass. Had we stepped out of the car into the rain, we would have been wading through gushing rivers of water deeper than our feet.

Anyway, the rain passed and we got out. By this time it was too late and still too wet for the outdoor museum. We only visited a tiny part of it: a vintage “shop in a bus”. These mobile grocery shops – sometimes in buses, sometimes in the back of trucks – drive around in rural Estonia. I believe they are less common these days. They are definitely more modern these days.

This bus was part shop, part museum. It sold modern snacks and ice cream, but part of it was furnished like a Soviet Estonian grocery shop, complete with wooden bread shelves and an “OUT OF BREAD” sign. Just the way it used to be.

Somewhere someone had also gotten hold of some original vintage food packaging, so in the snacks section there were boxes of bread sticks, looking and feeling just like they did in the 1980s. These were not modern cartons with a vintage print but true original cartons, made of rough beige cardboard where you can see the individual fibers, with a coarse surface and no coating, and of such lousy quality that it starts falling apart as soon as you handle it. This truly brought back memories.

Seeing this “out of bread” sign reminded me of a question that I replied to in some online group, about what Soviet grocery stores were like. This is what I wrote:

Tl;dr: narrow choice, chronic shortages, dull and drab.

Narrow choice: Many foods that I now take for granted just were not available at all, especially food that would have needed to be imported, or processed food. I had never tasted bananas, oranges, yoghurt, pizza, potato chips, breakfast cereal, etc etc.

The food that was available was generally all the same. There was no real competition. There was one brand of flour. Or more like no brand, it was just “flour”. Maybe three or four kinds of cheese. One national maker of candy /sweets in all of Estonia.

The largest grocery store in Tallinn, the capital, was smaller than an average local supermarket is today. There was no need for anything larger because they wouldn’t have anything to put on their shelves.

Chronic shortages: Some goods were not produced in sufficient amounts, so they were not available. For example small “hot dog” sausages, mandarins, and peanuts. You could get them if you knew the right people (grocery store staff) or sometimes if you got really lucky.

Even food that generally was available could run out, including totally normal everyday things. It was perfectly normal to go out to buy, say, bread, butter and sour cream, and only come home with two of the three items because the shop had run out of e.g. butter.

Dull and drab: All packaging was super basic and dull. Flour was sold in brown paper bags with a blue stamp saying “Flour 1st class 1 kg” and that was about it.

So: imagine a small, drab store with sparsely stocked shelves, a meter of brown bags of flour (all identical) and another meter filled with two kinds of pasta. Nothing looks fresh or colourful or appealing in any way.

Any modern supermarket in Western Europe today looks like a fairy tale in comparison. The first time I saw a Western supermarket, I was paralysed. I could not understand how anyone could possibly choose between twenty kinds of cheese. Or how it could be possible to buy apples in the middle of winter.