You Should Live Here: The Rynok

My sister Joeli and I went on a photographing adventure to capture some quintessential and fun Kiev stuff before she left, and I meant to have this post up a long time ago, but it didn't happen. You'd think I was lazy and/or had four kids or something. I'm going to make good, though, starting soon.

But first, speaking of Joeli, she went on some small expeditions with a young friend of ours from church named Annie and was better at posting, and it's really fun to check out her perceptions (hers are a little less filtered than mine) - and pictures! - of fish, family celebrations, life as we know it, and some beautiful spring sites. So clickety-click away for other American in Ukraine stuff.

And now, I want to tell you about a place that makes me inexplicably happy every time I go. Even the times when I wrestle through it with two toddlers in a stroller, I come out in love, with a giddy little spring in my step. To me, this place is a whole mixture of sentimental value, cultural immersion, appreciation for the work of people who bring fruit out of the earth, and a sense of accomplishment every time I do it. It is a tactile and visual representation of real life in Ukraine. Who would have thought shopping for vegetables could do that?

There are lots of expats who hate the place and who avoid it like the plague, but I L-O-V-E the the рынок (pronounced "reenuk," transliterated "rynok"), a marketplace of fresh produce, other foods, and household goods. There are also several specialty rynoks in town - the book rynok, the pet rynok (I HAVE to go there before we leave, just for fun...), the car rynok, a couple of children's rynoks (baby clothes and gear galore).

There are several general rynoks in Kiev, each region has one, usually near a metro stop. The most famous is Bessarabsky rynok. Ours is at Lyukanivsky, and I just learned that it is the least expensive one in the city. I love it.

I am not unaware that I'm completely romantic about the place, and my husband assures me that there is a dark mafia underbelly to it, but I prefer just to see the wonder and interest of it all. However, even I have to laugh at the sign over this little stall: (молоко - milk, and мед - honey) We're not quite there yet, but the rynok does rank pretty highly in my book...

I'm not even kidding, while I try to gather my thoughts and write a few words about it, I'm getting all choked up. Shoot. Anyway...

We took these pictures just before Easter, when the rynok was coming alive again after a long, dark winter. It doesn't close during the cold months, but all winter long, much of the produce is covered with grey-colored blankets and tarps or kept in boxes. This winter there were some wooden crates turned on their sides with glass panes wedged on the front like a sort of display window, and candles inside to produce some warmth for the sad peppers and tomatoes people were trying to sell. I wish I would have taken pictures then because it was eery and a little sad, really. Mostly there were only potatoes and onions, and the whole rynok looked as grey as the weather.

But when spring comes, the beautiful geometric displays come again, color bursts onto the scene, people start talking and laughing more as you browse, and it starts looking like a cornucopia spilled onto every table. First it begins with citrus, available in the late winter, early spring...

There are almost always apples (they have so many varieties!). About now, there are strawberries and other berries - I remember June from my mission very vividly because women would sell little newsprint cones full of fresh raspberries. Everything is in season - I like to watch the colors of what's on sell change throughout the summer and fall.

I like the people who work in the rynok. Most of them are much more friendly than your average vendor in Kiev. I have fun talking with them and I like to listen to their Ukrainian banter with each other as I pass by. I like looking at their faces and their hands. Joeli once said that if someone had hands like that in America and was touching food, it would be a problem, but here, to me, it adds something to the value and appreciation for the produce I'm buying and eating. It makes it more personal somehow.

I also like during the cold months, the vendors wear their heavy coats but always an apron over them...

This is probably my favorite rynok picture ever: the orange lady on her phone. Don't you love her hat and her face? That is the Ukraine that I treasure. I also like the cut oranges - every vendor will let you taste what they are selling. They have sharp knives that they will cut a little sliver of apple or orange or cucumber that you just pull off the blade and taste. If it's something juicy, they will also provide a little tear of their grey toilet paper (think of newsprint about the consistency of party streamers) to wipe your fingers, too.

In a different section of the rynok, apart from the fresh vegetables and fruits, is the area where canned and pickled things are sold. Here you can get fresh shredded cabbage and carrots as well as soured cabbage, carrots po-koreisky (a shredded, garlicky salad - one of our faves!), beets, and a whole smorgasbord of eggplant, mushrooms, peppers, pickles, and onions in various salads and appetizer-like displays. They offer taste-tests here, too - with little metal tongs just larger than tweezers, they pinch up some shredded cabbage that you take off with your fingers and pop in your mouth.

Almost every vendor in the non-fresh section sells her own version of pickles. That is what I taste the most when I go...some are more sweet than dilly, some are extra garlicky, most are really yummy. You buy them by the kilo (or portion thereof), they weigh them for you and put them in a plastic bag to carry home. David loves them so much that he looked up online how to make one's own pickles and keeps threatening to get the container and start making pickles on the side. I think that would be fun.

There is also a section of the rynok that has dried mushrooms and other fruit, herbs, spices, and nuts. I haven't gotten very proficient at shopping these because the Russian is not always very specific. (If it's green, it's called "Green" - it could be cilantro, parsley or basil, although they are getting better and there are actually words for all the herbs and spices, of course. But I'm never quite sure if I'm buying the right thing. It's still pretty cool, though.)

On the other side of the food rynok, there are aisles of stalls with clothing and household goods. My personal favorite is the hardware "store:"

There are beginning to be mega building stores in Kiev, but I get a kick out of this 6x6 rynok version of Lowe's.

Just outside the official rynok, along the sidestreets and sidewalks leading into it, is what I refer to as the street rynok. These are usually smaller farmers and individual vendors. I'm never certain where they get the goods they are selling, because it varies so widely, sometimes even from day to day. Today this lady might be selling cigarettes and long underwear, tomorrow she might have bras in all shapes and sizes laid out on an overturned box or hanging from her arms.

There are also the meat sellers. This lady is selling a Ukrainian delicacy: salo, the white layer of fat part along the back of a pig. Here, people salt it and season it, sometimes whip it up so it's creamy. It's actually not too bad - my boys really enjoyed some at a restaurant once, spread on bread like butter. But it is a little shocking to see it sold like this. She was offering small tastes, sliced off with that knife, if you wanted. (I also like that this lady was also selling pickles from a bucket, as well as whole walnuts and beans.)

The other fun thing we saw the day we were taking pictures on the street were whole rabbits for sale: skinned and gutted, except for the fur left on one foot so that you know it's a rabbit you're getting. Lots of people sell chickens and ducks, too. Sometimes I get a little sad, because of the sense I get that it might be their last chicken and it was what they had to come to town to sell.

From a practical standpoint, fruits and vegetables at the rynok are less expensive and always fresher than at the stores here. (A favorite tactic of the supermarkets is to package produce on styrofoam trays to look all fresh and great and when you get home, you see that the whole back side is rotten. Yeah. Nice.) Prices are clearly labeled on everything so you never have to barter or worry that they gave you the "American" price. Once you go a couple of times, other than the stop at the rynok, it doesn't take much longer than shopping the produce section at the store (especially since at the stored here you much get your produce weighed and marked in the produce area - usually a queue that everyone cuts into - before you go to the front checkout stands).

I think one of the things I really love about the rynok is the element of surprise - things are sold in unexpected combinations (years ago, you could always count on bananas and frozen chicken feet being at the same stall, every time - I never understood why, but there they were), things come into season between your visits and change the whole display landscape of the place, and you never know the conversations you will overhear (I love it when people tell the vendors that their apples aren't pretty enough to buy). Also, there's not just one type of person who shops at the rynok - it's not upper class or lower class, it's everybody's market. So you see everyone from the toothless weather-worn grandpa in his plaid cap, to the fur and bling-bedecked "new Ukrainian" in patent leather stilettos.

Mostly, it is a hugely atmospheric shopping experience that I can't describe adequately. It is entirely different from the yuppy-ish organic farmer's market movement in the U.S., because it is not about "returning" to fresh produce or taking people back to their agricultural roots. It is not a dressed up artisan approach to apples for sale - it is the original, straightforward, we-grow-food-because-people-need-to-eat kind of market. I like the feeling that the people there - buyers and sellers - are real, and that the rynok is integral to their lives. You can read hundreds of stories looking in their faces, at their clothes, smiling at their smiles, and admiring the neat pyramids of eggs or potatoes or pears that they measure up or carry home every day.

I think I will miss the rynok more than just about anything else when we move away from here.

For something truly beautifully written, the way I wish I could say it, inspired by a rynok in Kiev, check out this essay by an exceptional young woman I met earlier this year.


Donna said...

I used the love the vegetable rynok in Moscow. I still miss the pickles... and the pickled garlic... and, and, and now I'm hungry!

TulipGirl said...

Totally missing Kyiv, looking at your pics. . .

Linda Stahr said...

well now. this is perfectly describing my absolute thing about Ukraine. And the thing I miss the most. I love the rynok. thanks for the photos. and the memories. and all that jazz.

Gypsy Girl said...

Oh, I miss the rynok. We sure got some great pictures, didn't we?
Did you take Volodymyr his picture, btw? :)

Gypsy Girl said...
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