Odessa market

I think that you can tell a lot about a society by going to its market.  Whenevver I visit a country it is something I like to do; I go and watch what the people are buying, what they are eating, how the food is prepared, processed and stored and I like to look at the people themselves.  How a hotel clerk or a taxi cab driver is dressed won’t tell you about a society, but going to its market: you see first hand how the people “are” in their natural and uninhibited nature.

Located behind and around the train station, Odessa has  a large and thriving market that has everything from fresh produce to fish and fowl and other items like knives, TV sets and stereos and clothing.  On a Saturday (above), the market is in full swing and vendors have set up their wares with customers shopping and haggling.  If you are a backpacker traveler, this place is a “must” for stocking up on travel items like bread, fruit, water and cheese.  Everything is fresh and the prices are downright affordable.  I was able to purchase a dozen eggs for 8 grievna (about a dollar).  The markets had a large floral area that was doing brisk business.  It seems that the men buy a lot of flowers for the ladies and it is customary, even on a first date, to bring flowers.  I saw a lot of women carrying flowers and it seemed that they are a regular gift in Ukraine.

It is in places where you see the older people, the Babushkas (grandmas), that you begin to notice the disparity in wealth between the young and the old and in the cultural rift between the generations.  In the photo below, you can see a middle-aged woman and a grandma and walking in the background (partially obscured) is a younger woman, dressed in a skirt and talking on a cellular phone.  As I watch the Babushkas selling nuts and fruits for pennies, I wonder how is it that this younger generation can afford so much talk time at .10 cents a minute.  I mean really, everywhere you go, the young are always on the phone chatting away as though they had a million dollars in the bank.  The economy of the E-block has long been a mystery to me.  Most people who live on a $150 a month salary seem to spend that much in a weekend.

So, if we look at this photo, we see the younger woman in a very liberal style of dress, the middle-aged woman dressed conservatively and the Babushka is wearing a proper Orthodox head scarf.  It’s almost like looking at a time machine.  In my first visit to the E-block in 2002, I noticed many similarities between the Russian Orthodox Church and Islam.  The women all cover their heads, everyone kneels during prayer and the ritual of the ceremonies was much more ritualized as you would find in a Muslim service.  One must wonder how the two  religions, in close proximity, have influenced each other for the past thousand years.

In many places in Eastern Europe I see women wearing headscarves and I think of how France and some other countries scream foul when a Muslim woman wears a head scarf.  I wonder if Orthodox Christian or Jewish women were wearing them would it be such a problem?

Looking down one of the main market streets we can see the vendors and a typical Ukrainian couple; he is wearing his trademark European black socks, has a short Russian/Ukrainian haircut and his girlfriend is dressed in a sexy little sundress with tall heeled shoes.

You know when you’re approaching the fish area in the market by the smell.  Odessa has quite a wide variety of fish but I usually get mine at a restaurant.  Should you ever come to Odessa, I highly recommend the salmon: it is relatively inexpensive (by western standards), is usually quite fresh and the style of cooking makes it absolutely tasty.  The entire time I was in Odessa all I ate for lunch or dinner was salmon and I probably lost an inch off the waist LOL.

In this photo, a pair of Babushkas are selling some freshly killed and plucked fowl.  Ukraine is a relatively poor country and most people shop at these open markets where the prices are much more affordable than at chain grocery stores.  While in those stores, I did see brisk business but for large staple purchases, there is no beating the value of the open market.

Nuts, specifically walnuts, seem to be a staple industry in this part of Ukraine.  I saw dozens and dozens of women who were selling walnuts (in the shell) and those that had been separated.  While waiting for customers, these women smash the walnuts with small metal hammers, separate the nut from the shell and then bag them for resale.  If you are taking a follow-on train or bus to another city, I recommend a few bags as they make a great (and nutritious) snack.  I couldn’t believe how cheap the nuts sold for and wondered how these women paid their bills for pennies a bag.

I ended up buying some nuts from this woman.  It seemed that the prices were the same from vendor to vendor but, the look on her face, it made me want to give her my business.  I asked if I could take her photo – and as I was a paying customer – she reluctantly agreed.  Everywhere I’ve been on this trip, and anywhere in the old E-block, anyone over the age of 40 years seems deathly afraid to have their photo taken.  I am sure that this fear of photos goes back to the repressive years of the Stalin regime.

Despite the tough economy in Ukraine, business drives on.  As I looked and observed, I could see signs of the “underground” economy, a lot of cash moving around, but still a lack of overall movement of wealth.  This is quite obvious at the bank advertisements that show deposits paying from 12%-30% interest.  The Ukrainian government has been criticized for its corruption and recently quarantined any capital withdrawals from the country (hence the heft returns on bank deposits); anyone who had $ deposited in a Ukrainian bank was not free to take it out of the country.

It was not until later, while looking at my photos, that I realized I had taken a photo of the same nut stand.  The photos were taken about a year apart and when I looked at them separately, I noticed that one of the vendors was still wearing the same shirt.  I wonder how many shirts he owns?  And then I’ll see a group of 5 or 6 young people at a bar dropping $80 or $100 dollars on cocktails and I scratch my head and wonder just “how does this economy work?”


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