My city has many markets, hiding between Soviet buildings and busy streets that sometimes feel like highways. Most have been spared from the hipster sprawl. They don’t have smokehouses operated by bearded, inked, and burly men. There are no stalls selling hot sauces. Nothing you can bastardize with the word artisanal.
The only hipsters here are wide-eyed interlopers that come for the experience and ambiance of the place as much as for the produce. Some probably spend a good half-hour doing rounds without ever buying anything. They compare prices, trying to find a pattern or logic (there is none). Or maybe they look for a vendor that would have everything they need (there is none).
I am one of those interlopers. I come once a month at best. And the main reason I’m not a regular is convenience or lack thereof. Having sheepishly adopted cashless culture, my money neither jiggles nor folds. It’s all sitting on a card, and you can’t really swipe or tap a card at a carrot stand. The predictable nature of supermarkets and the anonymity of the self-checkout register is addictive.
But when I do get around the hurdle and leave supermarket dons weeping for my euros, I scratch an itch I often forget I have. I quickly pass the clothes sellers but the sight of tin kiosks selling jeans and T-shirts is enough to evoke memories. Me standing on a piece of cardboard beside a Zhiguli car in a different market and trying on a pair of sweatpants. At this point, it’s probably a collective memory ingrained in the subconscious of my generation. I don’t remember the exact moment, but I am sure it was there.
The food stalls never disappoint. Bundles of radish and parsley, beetroot leaves and green onion. Heirloom tomatoes and patty pan squash, tar-colored forest honey, and false morels – a type of fungi that is technically toxic. Maybe it's because of natural light, but the produce (including poisonous mushrooms) laid out on those wooden stalls just looks better. Smells better too.
Prices are written in large numbers on thick pieces of paper. I don't haggle. There's some joy in haggling for a set of little tea cups in an eastern bazaar. You're still getting screwed though. Here, there's no pride in shaving 20 cents off a head of lettuce.
Besides, if you're nice to the aunties and uncles there, you'll get a discount anyway. Circling the vegetable stalls are tiny stores selling all sorts of fish (half of whose names sound Greek to me), sour cream and yogurt, cured meats, and free-range eggs. The sellers are always up for a chat, always happy to share the correct way of preparing one dish or the other:
"Just stick the smelt in a bag with some flour and give it a nice shake".
"Dried tomatoes will make this Georgian cheese shine".
"Come on, try this plum, it's exceptionally sweet".
The place is drowning in talk. And maybe because of that people coming here seem happier than those I see at the supermarket. Maybe it all comes down to the possibility of exchanging words and not just money. People chat, gossip, and complain.
You don’t really get that kind of community spirit elsewhere in my neighborhood – a “sleeping district” of 1970s-era houses, populated by retirees and young families that have little in common. So maybe it’s not the smell of fresh strawberries that brings us all together but a yearning for some sort of a locale where we can just be.