30 December 2011

For Sale

Most cities are defined by their offerings in two areas: dining and shopping. The word “MARKET” Sharpied onto a map posted up in our hostel brought us to this woman and about a dozen other sellers set up on a nearby bridge. The flea market is bigger on the weekends, we were told. But I didn’t mind it this way. Her items for sale included two fishing poles and a camouflage jacket. It was our first morning in Tbilisi and the rest of the city greeted us from over her shoulder.In Tbilisi, everything you can spare, you can try to sell. Empty storefronts, outdoor plumbing, a drive across town, used batteries, turns on a scale. A pack of cigarettes, sold one at a time can seem desperate or ingenious, depending on the vendor’s disposition. Handmade prayer candles are scooped up by the dozen. Shot glass measures of sunflower seeds could sit around all day. Outside the entrance to Tsminda Sameba Cathedral, one of the brightest stars in Tbilisi’s nightscape, was a shuttered restaurant. A faded mural covered the front and a sign pointed toward toilets out back - the only part of the business still up and running. We walked around, into a family’s backyard. A young boy set down his plastic tricycle and explained the process in high-pitched Georgian and grand hand gestures. After we left, the collection plate, which had been easy to miss, was dragged out to the front of the restaurant. That way, it’d be clearer to the next visitors in need.

Nearby, along the Left Bank, abandoned restaurants and bars lined both sides of the street. Again, there were murals that hinted at more festive times – or grander plans. Some were more gingerly gutted than others. For Sale signs hung from a few, translated into English. People exited from the apartments above.

Every now and then, someone stops short in front of you on a sidewalk. They turn toward a building, which you then realize has a window stuffed with pastries or candy or lottery tickets. Some such shops have a red (and orange and yellow and green) carpet of fruit leading up to the point of sale. Kiwis, pomegranates, persimmons, pears, apples and one of the tastiest bananas I’ve had in a while.

Underground walkways turn into makeshift marketplaces. Safe from the wind, with a constant flow of potential buyers. Here, old hardcover books flanked one entrance and a popcorn machine wafted salt air from the other. Between sat a few old women and stood a few younger ones, selling nuts, toys, socks, hats and cigarettes.

Aboveground, vaguely Medieval crafts and Soviet era memorabilia were displayed on the steps of a grand building. Artwork and books rounded out the inventory. A few feet away, a boy with nothing to sell but his cuteness, latched onto Merlin’s leg and begged until a trio of women talked/pulled him off. Later that evening, a similarly aged boy went from bar to bar selling fabric flowers.

The most successful entrepreneurs in Tbilisi have to be marshrutka drivers. Buy a van, define a route, display it on the window, fill up with paying customers. Rides are cheaper and routes are more far reaching than the official bus system. So, even though these minibuses have been banned from some of the main avenues, they still do quite well for themselves. (Unfortunately, they say that most "lines" are actually owned by Parliament members, whom the drivers pay for the right to work).

In the market district of Avlabari, there’s a fruit stand every few feet. This cheerful family-run stand set themselves apart with a little bit of Christmas decoration. Next door, containers of pickled vegetables were piled knee high. Not too far away, a shaded table sold cleaned and feathered, but otherwise still intact, chickens.

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