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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…!

My Kids’ Capers in Open-Air Markets

It all started when our first son, Petya, came home at 7-1/2 years old. The shoes we had carried to Russia for him did not fit. At all. Leetle mahleenkee tooflee.

Our coordinator gave us directions to a children’s shoe store, whose clerks were only too happy to help us. We didn’t know at the time that the shoes would cost the equivalent of one month’s worth of average Russian wages….

Not that I was making a Russian wage. Not that I was paying what they paid for a Russian adoption (zero).

I explained to the saleslady our quest for boys’ black shoes. She showed me their selection as my calculator-mind tried to rapidly convert the ruble price. I nearly fainted and instead, stayed stupefied in expression, which is not that hard when you’ve just taken custody of a new child.

“And what size is he?”  she asked.

I looked at him and I looked at her, overtaxed mind filled with far too many numbers to take any stab at something so pedestrian as my new son’s shoe size.

“We’ll measure him,” she concluded.

“Horoshoh,” I acquiesced.

And thus Petya became the proud possessor of overpriced, slightly high-heeled boys’ dress shoes that seemed more suited to a pre-pubescent Michael Jackson, or a height-challenged, older Hispanic male. It was later that day that we discovered the rinok (ree’nok, open-air market) behind our hotel. Shoes for a fraction of the price because they were not warehoused in a shop with four walls.

We scooped up comfy tennis shoes and Russian-style tah’patchkee (backless slippers, these with tiny little mushrooms embroidered on top). I rounded out the experience with a pair of navy track pants for his long flight home. (Naturally, most of the clothes I had brought for him, having meticulously measured on trip one, were somehow not the correct size. He spent the first day doing the Russian rapper thing, pants crotch hanging low, and compensatory safety pins sproinging open again and again to stab him in the waist.) By making our way into the market, we saved practically the same amount as what we had spent in the other shop.

Thus began our long mother-son career of visiting international, open-air markets, such as the time I needed to take him on a business trip and his suitcase never arrived. Better his, than mine, was all I could think-!

That first night, the two of us traversed ancient and chilly back lanes, shopping for underwear in a land where bikinis were boss.

“Nyet, Mama!” he protested.

“Look,” I reasoned, “it’s either that, or nothing.”

For days, he pranced around our hotel room with his bottom emblazoned with “Brazil” or “Italia”, for some reason being very popular in the Middle East, while we bought him fake Crocs from bedouin, their camels parked nearby. He was not suffering tremendously.

Our second son, Pasha, came home in August. Again, shoes were the greatest problem, since clothes you can generally hem or take in here or there. We strolled the rinok, canvassing the environs until we could get a clear direction on prices. Every vendor was sure that we needed white shirts and black pants for our boys, since all Russian kids wore this outfit on September 1st, the first day of the school year.  Trying to avoid these vendors, lo and behold, we found the greatest, sleek and streamlined black leather tennis shoes which could easily double as dress shoes. I felt that fact justified the price, even out in the marketplace which was now trying to compete with the swank boutiques. I started to feel my heart race as I choked, pulling the rubles from my purse.

The Russian emergency medical personnel were getting to know me, each time I experienced sticker shock….

“That blond lady who takes away our best and brightest children?”

“Dah, she is back in market, buying kids’ shoes again. Clear!”

Although I have never believed in innate gender roles, there was a certain attraction that our girls had to shopping that could not be denied. Mashenka and Sashenka believed that they needed absolutely everything for sale anywhere in Russia. Never mind that they had a suitcase bulging with new items. Mama had money-!!! They needed to spend it.

“Nee troh’gai,” (Don’t touch) became my mantra directed at each girl as her hand reached out to yet another item they did not need.

We had walked about a mile to the open-air market for one reason alone: Sashenka needed–you guessed it–shoes! Despite my tracing of their feet a few months before, the couple pair that I bought for her were several sizes too big, while Mashenka’s fit perfectly. Go figure.

It was late June, hotter than hot, and we needed tennis shoes, sandals, and dress shoes. Venturing into the rinok, I warned the girls over and over to stick with me. I slung my purse cross-wise, keeping it in front of me so as not to chance any pickpockets, while firmly grasping both girls’ hands. But in the crowds, it was difficult to walk three abreast, and hence, my concern about becoming separated.

First, we stopped for a duffel bag. I had bought our boys some big stuffed animals at the supermarket–huge dogs that were perched around the perimeter of the gastronom. I was going to try to squish them into our suitcases when I discovered that they talked!

“Chitiree nagee, chitiree nagee…” one started to sing.

“Yest na’svetee sabaka,” the other one began.

I hoped to avoid any airport security personnel tearing apart my suitcase, and hence, thought of a duffel. My requirements were simple: big, black, and a strong zipper. Instead, they showed me brown plaid, plastic, and junky… with a gold-plated price tag.

I was exhausted before our “real” shopping even began.

The sandals were no problem–pink straps here and there, sturdy soles, cute, multi-colored flowers spanning across the toes. The tennis shoes became more problematic when Sashenka decided to take charge herself.

“Mama, may I try on these?” she asked the clerk.

“Mama-?!” the clerk looked puzzled.

“Oh, sorry,” Sashenka said. She was used to calling all of her caregivers “Mama”.

The lady looked for the shoe’s mate inside her tented area, bringing one out at last, which Sashenka declared to be perfectly fine in every way. I tried to feel for her toes, asking if she had space to wiggle them and she affirmed that there was plenty of room. I paid and the lady handed the pair over to me in a plastic bag.

“Spasibah, Mama,” she said to the vendor.

“Mama-?!” the clerk exclaimed quizzically, as the girl darted to another stall in the market.

“I’m sorry,” I told the vendor, who then looked at me as though a lightbulb had just gone off.

“Pohn’yalah,” (I understand) she nodded, “spasibah vam!” She patted me on the arm, thanking me, understanding fully that these were new daughters on their way to a new home. “Thank you for what you are doing.”

By now, Mashenka and Sashenka were oohing and aahing over every piece of junk in the market. The younger had her eye on the most awful, gaudy and glittery shoes that anyone could ever imagine.

At this point, the girl knew her own shoe size, and had the vendor running to get her a pair in her size. I had just come on the scene and was none too amused. I allowed her to try them on, shuddering over such shoes, when she instructed the lady that we would take them-!

“Nyet, nyet, spasibah,” I rounded up the girls. Dress shoes could wait until we were at home, where outlet shopping and discount prices reigned supreme. In the heat of summer, sandals and sneakers would do just fine for now.

We returned, making the mile-long hike uphill to our hotel. The rinok once again had been full of adventure and surprises such as later learning that the pink tennis shoes were two completely different sizes, actually several different sizes apart, having received the stamp of approval by a young girl overstimulated by the excitement of the bold and brash bazaar.

She had her mismatched shoes, and I had my dysmorphic duffel, perfect for oversized dogs who sang in Russian. As normal as could be expected for a day at the Russian rinok.

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