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Destinations, Dreams and Dogs - International adventure with a fast-track family (& dogs) of Old World values, adopting the Russian-Italian-American good life on the go…!

Ismailovsky Market in Moscow

If I were a tourism minister orchestrating what might attract the largest numbers of visitors to an area, authentic cultural activities and shopping opportunties would be high on the list. In Moscow, one of the best examples of this is Ismailovsky Market.

Here, history, craftsmanship, and souvenirs galore mean that there’s something for everybody. Peter the Great was said to build his first boat model here. Today, you can glimpse historic-looking buildings, and wooden, market structures, all beckoning you to come and enjoy stall after stall of everything from icons, to matroshkas, linen tablecloths, fur hats, military memorabilia, stamps, lacquerware boxes, items crafted from birch bark. Need some handcarved Christmas decorations featuring traditional Russian figures? Need a Russian rubashka, or ethnic dress complete with kokoshnik? It’s all here at Ismailovsky.

Though far-flung and nowhere near the center of town, the market is easily reached by the Moscow metro. A round-trip ticket will probably run you just over a dollar (in rubles), and will take you maybe 20 minutes from downtown. That sure beats $60+ that a taxi might charge, along with the travel time at least tripling due to the ever-present Moscow traffic jams.

When leaving the Partizanskaya Metro station, turn left and walk toward the arched entryway reading, “Vernisage”, kitty-corner at about “10:00”. Along this path, you come to the everyday market featuring shirts, hats, cosmetics, wallets, underwear, along with household goods. Cross the next street and the souvenir market lies before you. Women in Russian dresses at the main gate will give you a ticket, priced at 10 rubles per person (about 30 cents today). It’s worth it even if you simply decide to snap photos. The market is open most every day, but the real selection is found on weekends. Just avoid the chained dancing bears, the overpriced shashlik on the grill, and any artificial amber–and you should be fine.

Some of the vendors paint their own nesting dolls, or sew their own colorful dresses for sale. Chat with them and you will receive a wealth of information. I was looking at lacquerware boxes the other day and learned quite a bit. Mind you, I’m no collector, my goal was to pick up a few gifts for the families that had hosted our boys in our absence.

The lady at the lacquerware stall gave me an entire mini-tutorial while simultaneously holding up fingers indicating prices to Japanese businessmen. She explained to me in Russian that there were four different schools of lacquerware.

“Not just Palekh, that is a common misperception,” she said, pointing out examples before us. You could see the distinct styles.

She showed me at the base of each lacquerware scene or portrait, there were three things listed in Russian, from left to right: 1) the school listed (not actually a school, but a type of style); 2) the scene name depicted; and 3) the painter. Novice that I am, I inquired about one flaw in a box as a streak cut across the shiny black surface.

“Nyet,” she corrected me, showing that it was actually imbedded mother of pearl, to enhance the box’s scene. Then she pulled out more works of art, delicately painted on huge egg-shaped shells, about the size of a mini-football. This lady loved her merchandise and enjoyed introducing others to what she knew so well. We bought several smaller pieces.

But not all vendors are so warm and user-friendly, particularly if you spy something on the non-tourist side of the market. Our eyes were drawn to track suits with the Imperial Russian double-headed eagle symbol across its back with the word “Russia”. Sold by Turkish touts, we felt like we were back in the Middle East with such high-pressure sales.

They started the price at 2,000 rubles, about $65, for one track suit. Considering that we had two boys back home to clothe, this was not going to work. With much haggling, the price went down to 1,800 rubles for two, about $30 each. Considering that they come from Turkey, ranking right up there with China, Egypt, and Myanmar as cheap manufacturing meccas, we were still not impressed. What did they take us to be, rich Americans?

In true, old-world market style, we walk away. They don’t chase us. Not a good sign. So we head off to the souvenir side of the market and forget about the Turkish touts until the end of the day. We have to walk through there anyway, to get back to the metro.

Petya and Pasha would love these track suits from the homeland. I consider them a super-souvenir, reminiscent of our visit, yet with everyday practicality since they play sports. Because I am the designated Russian speaker, this business venture falls on my shoulders. However, I don’t enjoy the back-and-forth banter, the bickering, the haggling, the royal waste of time that’s a well-beloved pasttime to these Middle Eastern merchants, all sons of Ali Baba.

“Ask the price first,” reminds Benedetto.

“What marketplace vendor in the world will tell you the price first? They want to know what color you like, how much you want to spend, how big is your son?”  I wave him off.

Sure enough, with the slightest level of interest on our part, in one minute’s time, there are men our son’s size trying on the jackets for us, modeling them, holding up cigarette lighters to the fabric to prove that they’re impervious to cigarette burns as though that were a selling point in pre-teen wear. We now had before us several jackets in the wrong sizes, wrong colors, and high prices. They press us to learn how much we’d pay for their Ankaran articles that we didn’t want in the first place. Now I wondered where our first vendors were.

So we walk away.

Hot on our tail, the Turkish touts run beside us like sheepdogs guiding us to another stall, down the way, half the size, but with the items we want. Here the vendor could lower his price without nearby shopkeepers being privy to how low he would go. Ali Baba whips out his calculator, punching in a number. He holds it out to me, showing the number 800.

“Vosyem dyesyat rublay?” I confirm.

“Da.”

“Horoshoh.”  You’ve got yourself a deal, buster. It came to about $27 each.

We get red, Petya’s favorite, in XL, and bright blue, perfect match for Pasha’s eye color, in L. Only by Turkish standards are my 12.5 year old boys at the top range of the men’s clothing charts. The pants are way too long, but I can hem them, I say. The guy slips the suits into plastic shopping bags. I watch him to ensure that there’s no presto-chango sleight of hand.

Time to pay and Benedetto pulls out 1,600 rubles. Suddenly, the fellow wants 100 more.

“I need 100 more,” he starts.

“Stoh? A hundred? For what?” my eyes narrow. “It was 800 and 800.”

“Now it’s 850 and 850. For chai.”

“Chai?” I say disdainfully.

“Tell him,” he motions to my husband, either unwilling to finalize the deal with a woman, or thinking my husband will be some naive newbie who falls for anything. Wrong on both counts. “Tell him,” he insists.

“Tell him what?”

“That I need 100 rubles for chai.” He is absolutely serious. Two can play this game.

“Benedetto, he needs 100 rubles for chai,” I repeat deadpan.

“Get outta here!” Benedetto shouts at the little guy.

I put the two bagged track suits on the ground, and out we walk, cash still in hand.

“Okay, okay,” he chases us, relenting, leading us to recover the track suits, while he has to buy his own chai. Not to mention cookies.

I think back to the very first time I was in the market. It was a snowy and cold day in December. We thought we would eventually be bringing home Russian twin baby boys. As fate would have it, an ancient babushka attached herself to me, holding up handknit angora baby booties.

“They’re beautiful,” I murmured. One pair was larger, one pair was smaller, not really anything I could use. But who knew about the future?

Her gaze met mine. She was working, not begging. A couple of dollars a pair might make a world of difference to this mobile merchant who furtively fished the corners of the market in an effort to find the odd buyer.

Apparently I was it. I pressed the rubles into her hand. We still have the baby booties somewhere, probably in the Great Closet of All Unnecessary Purchases. But their warmth remains close to my heart from a very special time and a very special place.

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