Sometimes, when I’m walking down the street with my headphones in, not paying much attention to the Cyrillic signs all around me, Moscow can feel a lot like New York or any other big metropolis. But today, surrounded by furry hats, matreshkas, and Soviet military artifacts, there was no doubt that I was very much in Russia.
My Sunday started out with brunch at my favorite bakery cafe in Moscow, with amazing breakfast sandwiches and pastries to die for, and giant loaves of fresh-baked bread for 30 roubles–a.k.a. one American dollar. From there, Sarah and Liam and I took a loooong metro ride to the flea market. In the station, they asked me where I had put the paper with the directions. I knew exactly where I had put it: in the pocket of the coat I had decided not to wear. I assured them, with a little more confidence than I actually felt, that I totally remembered the names of the transfer station and our final stop. Thank God, I actually did remember–I was much less afraid of getting lost than I was afraid of the two of them killing me for leaving the directions. When we came out onto the street, we saw a building up ahead of us that looked like something out of Disney’s “It’s a Small World” ride. It wasn’t one of the onion-domed cathedrals that I’ve gotten pretty used to, but it was definitely, distinctly Russian, and it was painted in colors that rarely exist on buildings outside of cartoons and Disney World. Sarah looked around and asked, “Are we still in Moscow?” I knew that we were, but I could understand why she was asking. This didn’t look like most of the Moscow I’d seen so far. It was definitely older, for starters, and the whole vibe was less modern metropolis and more old world marketplace.
We passed by a few vendors stationed outside of the official flea market, which was enclosed in a sort of gated compound. We paid the ten ruble entrance fee and went through the gate. Inside were rows and rows of stalls selling everything from DVDs (mostly American movies) to matreshkas (a.k.a nesting dolls) to gas masks (relics of World War II). There was also a complete overabundance of furry Russian hats in a variety of colors and styles the likes of which I did not know existed. I decided the best plan of attack was to take a lap through the whole thing, then come back and start buying stuff. But the more we walked, the more market there seemed to be, and every time I felt sure we had to be reaching the end, it just kept going. We even discovered a second level which contained some sort of scaled-down model of a pirate ship along with a bunch of antique stalls and an art market.
During this adventure, I learned several things. First, I learned that even if you know how to ask how much something costs in Russian (Skolka stoit?), it’s probably still better to ask in English, because when you ask in Russian, you get an answer in Russian, and Russian numbers are one of the most complicated things I have ever encountered. Mind you, I’m not so good with numbers in any language, including my own, so adding translation to the mix is almost guaranteed to be disaster. I also learned that I am absolutely terrible at haggling. I have no concept of what is actually a fair price for anything, and I usually just end up feeling guilty. Add to this my inability to convert rubles to dollars in my head, and we’ve got another potential disaster on our hands. The third thing I learned was that elderly Russian women are much stronger than they appear. When Sarah and I finally picked one of the six thousand matreshka stalls, we attempted to make a bargain with the older lady minding the stall. In a mix of Russian, English, and sign language, she informed us that she was not the actual owner of this stall and therefore could not bargain prices with us. However, the man who did own the stall was just over that way. So she grabbed each of us by the elbow and took off. Thankfully, I was perfectly willing to go along with her, because even if I had not been, I don’t think I would have had a choice. Despite her age and considerably shorter legs, she was moving a whole lot faster than I was, and she had no concern for the clumps of people I was bumping into as I was towed behind her. After the man in question agreed to our price, we were dragged back to the stand to pay, after which the woman, who would best be described as jolly, took each of our hands, told us goodbye, and wished us good health.
After we had made our shopping rounds, we stopped by a food stall for some good, old-fashioned meat on a stick. I tend to love any and all food that is served to me by a person in a stand on the street, and this was no exception. In fact, it went straight to the top of my “good street food” list. After eating, we got ready to leave, at which point we noticed that the temperature had dropped dramatically since we had arrived, and we were, in fact, freezing our butts off. (Russia is the only place I have ever been that gets colder in the afternoon.) Among other body parts, my hands were ice cold, and I remembered my gloves sitting in the drawer in my dorm with the mysterious hole in one thumb. So, I made one final stop on the way out to purchase some new ones. I found a beautiful pair of light gray leather gloves, and I let Liam, who is as good at haggling as I am awful at it, talk the price down from 700 to 550 rubles. When they had settled on the price, the vendor grabbed my hand, looked at it for about three and a half seconds, and proceeded to select the perfect size for me–a talent that I, for one, found incredibly impressive.
On the metro on the way home, Sarah and I decided to give Liam a crash course in Russian folk dance, since he’d missed a day of class. And for some reason, a moving metro seemed like a reasonable place to for a dance lesson. As I was demonstrating one of the steps–very badly, I’m sure–I happened to catch the eye of a Russian guy sitting at the end of the car. He was clearly amused but, in true Russian fashion, was trying very hard not to laugh out loud. I felt so absurd that I had no choice but to smile at the guy, which he took as permission to go ahead and laugh at me. I laughed, too, and we shared a pretty long laugh at my expense until I finally got embarrassed and pretended to have something very interesting to look at elsewhere.
The moral of this story is that there is no moral to this story. But I guess the summary of the story might be that today was a day full of small victories–conquering the Metro sans directions, haggling prices and probably still overpaying, and making a Russian not only crack a smile but actually LAUGH in public. And that, my friends, is more than enough to count today a success.