An open-air market isn’t the first form of trade when you think of Russia, the country whose winter conquered Napoleon’s and Hitler’s armies, the land whose peasants used to sleep on top of the stove, and the birthplace of the radiator (although this is disputed). Nevertheless, the bazaar-style market (рынок, “rinok”) is an integral part of Russian commerce to this day, and a damn fine thing it is, too. Those rinok sellers are out there hawking pineapples even when it’s a cold and rainy; in other words, every day.
Granted, the fly maternity ward you’re bound to find on every uncovered pile of “salty cucumbers” (pickles) doesn’t exactly whet the appetite, the giant tubs of goat cheese make you wish you remembered more of your fourth-grade unit on pasteurization, and the pounds upon pounds of steaming raw flesh in the damp meat section are nearly enough to convert you to Hinduism.
But where else can you try everything before you buy, even as you haggle over the price with the ubiquitous Uzbek manning the stall? For that matter, where else can you find prices that are flexible enough to fluctuate wildly depending on the seller’s mood, the short lifespan of natural produce, or the foreign accent of the buyer?
Despite the pitfalls (I’ve spent a weekend hunched over the toilet after a poor choice of salty cucumber), the rinok makes me pine for those long-lost days when not every food product came in a shrink-wrapped, Styrofoam-plated, factory-tagged and plastic-bagged package. When you could taste a product and know you were only one or two steps removed from its producer.
Several of my American friends who just arrived here are losing weight even as they eat like horses (the Russian expression is actually “Eat (guzzle) like a pig,” whereas a boozer “Drinks like a horse”), and the only reason we can figure is the lack of processed food in the Russian home. And no one can begrudge the taste; after you become acclimated, you actually come to enjoy having your salad doused in 80-percent milk-fat sour cream that’s fresh from the countryside.
Now if only the granola bar would finally arrive in Russia …