EuroFilipino Journal Jan-March 2007
Russian Market
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by Gene Alcantara

When I tell Polish friends and colleagues that I go regularly to Warsaw’s Russian market, many of them react with horror. They might look at me with incredulity, perhaps to see if I was joking or whether I had simply gone bananas. Their response would inevitably be, "Oh, it’s a very dangerous place." "It’s all fake, you know." "It’s run by the Mafia." Or some other equally unfavourable phrases. Even some of my British and Irish friends react negatively to the idea of going to the market. But have they actually been there? Many reply, "Never!"

I am afraid that they are all missing something. The Russian market, whatever its reputation, is something that needs to be experienced by every visitor to the Polish capital. It is part of the landscape, the tapestry that makes Warsaw one of the liveliest capitals in Central and East Europe. I cannot speak for the Poles who obviously decide what they want to see of the reality of their own city, but for fellow Brits especially I don’t think one can say he or she has lived in Warsaw without seeing its most famous market.

There one can find colour, stumble upon drama, catch a whiff of poetry, and obviously grab a good bargain. CDs abound, very good copies of the latest releases which I understand get shipped over from farther east, and are sold for just 10 zloties (that is about GBP 1.50 – try comparing that with prices in Virgin or HMV music stores in the UK!). Sure, you might want simply to look but, just in case, there are swords, medals, gloves, busts of Lenin or Stalin, fox stoles, matrioshka dolls, lacquer boxes, pistols, knives, fur coats, cheap socks, shoes, shirts, clothes, pots and pans, tea urns, coffee grinders, books, African carvings, vegetables, fruits, drivers license, M&S plastic bags, mobile phone cases, CD-Roms, software programmes, games, puppies, shower heads, whisky bottles and more besides. True, there are lots of fakes—one can get his and hers colour-changing Calvin Klein watches for 25 zloties (GBP4) each.

Actually the place is not even called Russian Market by the Poles. Its full name is Stadion Dziecieciolecia, since it is an old football stadium. The market sits atop the circumference of the disused stadium, with different sections scattered around the ever-widening base of the circular pyramid. The top is the best bit to head for, with its magnificent view of the Warsaw skyline, as well as the tragic view of the stadium’s decaying bleachers. One particular spot to the right presents an excellent photo shoot, with the Palace of Culture in the background.

The market is located on the left hand side just past the Poniatowskiego Most (bridge) which spans the Wisla River. It is walking distance from Centrum, the centre of town, and therefore very accessible; otherwise it is the first tram stop after the river. It is open very early, some old timers claim from 6 am, and then closes around 1-2pm when business dwindles to nothing. There might be Russian traders there but the sellers of CDs sound very Polish. There are black Africans, lots of Orientals (mostly Vietnamese, I believe), and a handful of Asians from the sub-continent.

I think the stadium rynek in Warsaw is quite unique. There is not a similar market elsewhere in Poland or indeed in Europe in terms of size and setting. I was for example in the black market in Riga’s Russian district in Latvia recently, and I was very disappointed by it. I wanted to see colour, bustle, and lots of merchandise to choose from. What I saw was gray and rusty brown, a boring rectangle of low small huts arranged in rows with little corridors, but only selling all sorts of metal, electrical, and machinery parts although I did see a child’s bike. Yes, there was a book stall and pirated CDs, porno and computer games, touted by black leather-jacketed young Russians, but somehow it did not have the same pulse, and the odours were overpowering..

Going to the Russian market requires some planning, of course. You don’t just go there on a whim. You must not dress to kill and you do not go there bedecked with jewelry, or with piles of cash in your pocket. Just bring enough for the odd bargain—if you need more cash then there are bankomats around the corner on Francuszka. One must consciously avoid bringing expensive cameras. You do not want any come on from potential muggers. And of course you cannot bring young children with you, for the Russian market is very crowded indeed on a Sunday morning. How crowded, you ask? Imagine the rush-hour in the Warsaw metro at 8 am during school term.

There is an art to going to the Russian market too, or should I say an art to getting a good bargain. A visit to the market is never complete until you emerge with something you successfully haggled over. Basically one does not jump at the first cheap-sounding offer for a chunk of amber with fauna trapped inside for eternity, or for the most dramatic, original looking silver-surrounded ikon you have cast your eyes on. Remember that the stall-holders are experts at spotting dupes, and I understand that there will always be a higher starting price when it’s a foreigner asking. Try bargaining first by cutting the price to half then work your way up slowly—if it is really expensive, you won’t get any more than 10% reduction. But it is worth a try. A few pretend about-turns might just net you a few satisfying extra zloties in savings.

Punters can watch operators transform their questionable wares into respectable lines say in handbags or shirts at the flick of a hand. Somehow if a police inspector arrives, everybody knows it and one moment a stall is full of pirated CDs, the next moment it only sells bags or branded t-shirts. My friend Javed Iqbal from Pakistan was equally fascinated by this ‘magic’ trick as well as by my linguistic skill at bargaining in my passable Russian-Polish with a Lithuanian amber-seller who it turned out knew English after all. If you get thirsty watching all this palaver, there are trolleys selling hot drinks, but it is best to avoid the wasp-surrounded mounds of bread.

I have heard of people getting really good buys, with one or two gems of a find. One claims to have purchased an antique Russian watch for a song which turned out to be genuine and belonged to some aristocrat before the Russian revolution. When the Inocians (Junix, Annie and Ynaqui) came to visit with my family (Carmila and Melissa) in the summer they bought lots of lacquer boxes. I myself am very proud of a raw amber chunk I bought for 70 zloties (about GBP10) which has a pre-historic mosquito and another tiny insect in it. And sshh.. don’t tell anybody but I have also purchased one or two religious artefacts which appear to have survived the cultural conflagration of 1917 Russia, although my teacher friends at the British Council have always insisted they are of very recent vintage.

One can get attached to this Polish manifestation of the free market economy. I have experienced it now in all weathers to savour its various hues and sounds and flavours. I have sloshed there in the snow, got wet in the rain, sweated under the sun, and once almost got blown off the top by howling winds. Whatever the weather, the market remains true to its attraction as a seething cauldron of bargain-hunting humanity, young and old, rivalling the magnificent covered souks of say Bahrain, Istanbul or Rabat, except that nobody wore exotic costumes.

Having gotten used to the magnificent setting of the Warsaw market atop the pyramid of the stadium, I know I will never be satisfied by other markets in the same way again. It’s not quite Portobello, I know, but the area is not Notting Hill either. I always show Warsaw’s historical Old Town Square first to visiting relatives and friends, followed by an hour or two in the Russian market and they are always staggered by the experience. I know that it could equally dumbfound my local friends if they would only venture forth. And just wait till I tell them about the Kolo antiques market…

[This essay was written by the author during his assignment to Warsaw, Poland 1999-2002]