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City Beat October 2, 2003
Walk On The Shy Side
By John Dolan Browse author Email

Moscow is always giving you a quick glimpse of things you'll never understand. Take the men fishing in the Moskva right in the middle of town. Are they undercover cops or are they really trying to catch fish in that broad sewer? And if they did catch something, would they actually eat it?

Thinking about the delights of seeing things you can't understand, I decided to perform a little experiment in cultural opacity at my local Metro station, Kitai-Gorod. The crowds in the perekhod around the station entrance are always changing, but I'd never figured out the pattern of these changes. So, the plan was that on a Friday evening I'd walk slowly through the perekhod at one-hour intervals from 7:00 pm to midnight, taking notes each time and seeing if the patterns made sense.

Off to the Fair


Last week CityBeat went to two very different fairs (yarmarkii): the Honey Fair at Kolomonskaya and a much more modest Byelorussian Trade Fair near Proletarskaya Station.

Byelorossiya always seems like the saddest of all Slavic states, no mean fate. No country was as thoroughly savaged in WW II, and Byelorossiya's reward for all that suffering was to be reabsorbed by Stalin's USSR, then sulk out the end of what was for it a horrendous century as a "dead-ender" Soviet pocket.

But their little fair was insistently cheerful, a circle of sheds and stands on a small square next to the Metro station, with a stage at one end on which a small man was lip-synching Russian or Byelorussian pop. Badly.

There was a good crowd, with long lines outside some of the stalls. As far as I could see, the produce of Byelorossiya on display fell into a few simple categories: clothing, baked goods, sausages, leather handbags and sacks of big, dark potatoes. The potatoes were selling fast, with people buying two or three huge sacks and stacking them on those little hand trolleys which make getting on Metro escalators such an adventure.

The longest lines were outside a clothing stand selling coats. They didn't seem like anything special but people were lined up halfway across the square to get a shot at them. It only occurred to me later that price might be the point. Even the poorest expat -- by which I mean me -- has so much more money than really poor people in Moscow that you forget how serious it is for pensioners and working poor to buy a new coat. In fact I seem to remember some dead guy wrote a story about that.

It was a sunny, windy day, and people seemed kind of happy. There were sheaves of actual wheat tied at the corners of the stands. I'd never seen actual wheat before, except in square-mile blocks while trying to get through Nebraska on the Interstate. Up close, wheat is very woody looking.

I approached the cheesy stage where the little lip-syncher was synching away in the wind. I watched a woman holding her toddler on her hip as she danced him around and around in front of the stage; and the sentimentality that comes from wandering around in other people's lives briefly came over me. She was tall and beautiful -- you always hear Byelorussian women are beautiful -- and strong; the kid was big but she carried him easily on a hip and a hand. "Hitler was an idiot," I thought bitterly. That moron, he ruined it all, killed everything interesting in the Northern Hemisphere, so there'd be nothing left but the Anglos' dull common sense.

But these grand sympathies are brief, and about a centimeter deep, lasting as long as it takes to get near people again. On the Metro home, rocking back and forth against hot, squat bodies, I just wanted to get in my apartment and lock them all outside.

The Honey Fair in Kolomenskoe was a much bigger deal. Being a Californian I just naturally assumed the whole "honey" angle was a calculated retail strategy to draw crowds. Imagine my surprise on finding a huge field crammed with stand after stand, selling nothing but honey. Spinoffs were minimal.

Each stand offered samples of their honeys, and after a few tastings I could see there really is a range of taste and texture in the stuff. It ranged from sandstone beige to molasses black, with textures from wet sand to motor oil. And the aftertastes were downright weird. A lot of them were dung-based, but not unpleasantly so. Others were synthetic, cologne-like, or close to menthol. I could see being a honey critic more easily than a wine critic. I wouldn't feel as fake. More range.

The stalls were grouped by region. Altai honey was drawing big crowds, as was Kislovodsk and other Caucasian towns. There was also "mountain honey," "forest honey," and, for the fence-sitters, "mountain forest honey." I ended up buying a kilo of Tambov buckwheat honey, which was four times as much as I meant to buy, but I figured it was my mumbling or improperly-declined numbers that caused the mixup.

The auguries all validated this purchase. First a very old, frail woman saw my purchase and asked me how much my kilo of honey had cost, and when I told her, she nodded and said in careful English, "Thank you very much." And later that night there was a tv show on Tambov, whose city emblem turns out to be three bees above a hive. If I know my auguries, which I don't, I'm sure that all this adds up to one conclusion: everything will be fine.

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