A wise man (aka President Franklin D. Roosevelt) once said, “The only thing we have to fear is fear itself ,” but I beg to differ. In fact, while living in Ukraine, I’ve learned that I have many things to fear, namely, ill-fitting pants and a mangled new hairstyle. (Both of those examples will be described in further detail in another post)
Recently, I eclipsed my 6th month in Ukraine and my third month at my new site, and although my language skills are on par with a 3 year old on my good days, the one aspect of communication I’ve mastered is “How much does that cost?” In fact, I can ask this question in both Ukrainian (the language I spent three months learning) AND Russian (the language that is favored in my town, but again, that’s for another post)
The outdoor bazaar is the most popular place to buy clothes and pretty much anything else you could ever need. In my town, I’m fortunate to have three sizable bazaars and two smaller ones.
The best way to understand a Ukrainian bazaar is for you to imagine a cross between your semi-annual neighborhood garage sale (to understand size and variety) and the vendors that like to set up on street corners in America to sell “Prada” purses (to understand the way things are sold). The result is an awesome and at times, thrilling array of goods. These products can come from almost any country such as China, Germany, Russia and others.
In Kremenchuk, the main bazaar is where I buy fresh meat and visit my newly befriended babushkas (this translates to grandmother, but really just means old Ukrainian women) for delicious fruits, vegetables and homemade jams. The second large bazaar is located on the banks of the Dniper River and is THE place to buy clothes, shoes and home furnishings. The third is near my apartment and could be thought of as the lovechild of the first two bazaars because it is smaller and has a little bit of everything.
There are a few rules for bazaar shopping that I’ve learned, although apparently the learning curve is steep for me because I routinely break these unwritten bazaar-shopping laws.
- Don’t touch things unless there is a 75 percent chance that you will purchase the item. My very American tendency to absentmindedly touch clothes as I’m looking at them has forced me to run away from insistent saleswomen who keep telling me that the shirt is very beautiful and modern and perfect for me.
- Don’t ask to look at something if there is not a 95 percent chance that you will buy it. I was looking to buy a pitcher and asked, “May I look at this one?” The saleswoman interpreted that as, “I want to buy this” and demanded my money. Fortunately, I did want to buy that pitcher, but I’m not sure how I would have wriggled out of that one if I hadn’t.
- You can haggle prices, and in fact, they expect you to do this on some larger-ticket items. I accidentally negotiated the price for a pair of work pants. It happened because I hesitated after the saleswoman told me the price. Now, I only paused because numbers continue to be one of my biggest language problems, but the saleswoman assumed I was pausing because I was unhappy with the price. So about 5 minutes later, I had hesitated enough times that she had knocked 10 percent off the original price. A point for the foreigner, please.
- Make friends with the babas (the shortened version of babushka). I can’t imagine my Saturday morning bazaar trips without my friend, Valya. I always stop at her stall to buy tasty homemade jam and ikra (a delightful Ukrainian tomato-based sauce I use to sauté vegetables). We’ll chat about the weather and how we are feeling. She does her best to remember to speak Ukrainian to me, and I do my best just to speak. This is one of those instances when my big Midwestern smile gets a workout. Ukrainians often tell me to buy things only from people that I know and trust. I’ve long since stopped trying to explain that if I followed that rule, I would starve because I don’t actually know anyone here. But now that I’ve made some babushka friends, I start to understand their warning. When Valya is not at the bazaar and I’m forced to buy from another person, I just don’t feel the same level of comfort as I do when I buy from the people (correction – person) I know.