A Buyer’s Market: Haggling in Ukraine
by Paul Miazga
The open-air markets in Ukraine, their impending doom on the horizon with the arrival of big, western-style supermarkets, continue to give me endless pleasure. The sight of all that quality produce, homegrown or otherwise, and the people hawking these wares make me feel like I’m taking part in something happier, friendlier and more sustainable than monoculture farming and big-box retailers squeezing out the little guys. Think of farmer’s markets in North America or the Burroughs Market (and others like it) in London. They teem with as much humanity as they do fruits and vegetables!
Almost every weekend I head down to the Volodymyrsky Market near Palats Ukraina metro station and shop around for all the fruits, vegetables, spices and even meats that more and more Ukrainians now purchase from name-brand grocery stores. I go to a few select vendors, chosen after many weeks and months for being personable and exuding salesmanship, and after buying a few things I haggle with them on price, just to get them to come down a few hryvnias. I don’t save much – in most cases it saves me less than a dollar – but it’s the principle and the human interaction that counts. There’s no such interaction at a supermarket when I watch the cashier scan a bar code in front of the laser.
To me haggling boils down to a sense of honesty and trust I feel I have with the vendors I regularly visit. For instance Yegora, an Uzbek girl in her late teens who runs a family stall at the market, sells me nuts, chick peas, black beans, dried fruit and other specialty items (including but not limited to anchovies and coconut cream) and I go to her and only to her. I’ve gotten to know her over the past year and so when I see her she’s all smiles, asking about my girlfriend and how work was this past week – not like some drone-like cashier at the supermarket. She always gives me some wiggle room on price because she knows I’m not just some cheap foreign stiff.
Haggling is a part of life for many people in Ukraine and the former Soviet Union, like Yegora, as it is in many parts of the world. On a recent holiday to Egypt, where everything tends to be negotiable, I was surprised to learn that many Russian and Ukrainian tourists don’t bother to haggle with the vendors there; they just accept the price they’re given or walk out of the store if they don’t like it. I got a great deal on a carpet from a guy who simply asked me, “Do you really want to discuss the price or do you just want to hear my best price first?” Of course I wanted to discuss the price! I wanted to enjoy spending money and time in his shop! I walked out of the shop having paid the same price for a carpet of almost the exact same size and style as one I bought five years ago. I felt even more prepared to shop in
What’s nice to know about shopping in Kyiv’s open-air markets (such as Bessarabska, the Zhiyniy Market in Podil, the Lukyanivsky Market and others) is that the growing affluence of the country has encouraged vendors at these markets to carry an ever-greater assortment of goods – fish (check out the fresh fish section at Bessarabska), fresh herbs, specialty greens for salads and the like, out-of-season fruits and vegetables and more. The Volodymyrsky Market now has not one, but two stalls with vendors selling imported Asian goods – everything from pickled ginger and wasabi to all kinds of sauces, noodles, dried mushrooms (including shiitakes and wood mushrooms) and even rice cookers and wok sets.
Admittedly, I can’t get everything I need or want at the market. Western-quality meats, cheeses and deli items are among the items that I simply have to have, and no market in town I’ve ever seen carries them. But that’s a small drawback. Summer is approaching and shopping in the open air for fresh produce is about as close as I can get to picking the stuff from the ground, which is something that I rather miss.
“Kyiv’s Bessarabian Market isn’t truly an open-air market, but it is a great place to haggle for all kinds of fresh fruits, vegetables, herbs, meats and seafood.” (www.pbase.com)