Thursday, February 9, 2012

Fleur Flaneur's Quest: Grocery Shopping in Tbilisi

Life in Abanotubani has several interesting quirks. If my hot water goes out, I can head across the street to any one of a number of bathhouses and book a private room and/or massage for an hour for a tenner or so. I have made the acquaintance of the adorably googly-eyed "Brothel Cat," so named for the rather insalubrious building where he usually resides (when he's not roaming the streets). I frequently have to take a circuitous room home when Misha goes to drink at the trendy L'Accent Francaise wine bar and all of Abanos St. is closed off by secret agents. I get my wallet stolen by the group of gypsies who, since the renovation of Median Square, have relocated from the no-longer-trendy end of Rustaveli Avenue.

And, despite having five grocery stores on my street, I cannot find fresh fruits or vegetables in any one of them.

Grocery shopping in Tbilisi is something of an art form. Each of the five barely-lit front rooms on my street contains a different set of supplies - I can find eggs in one but cheese in the other, bread in one but milk in the other, potatoes in one and sausages in the other. But I can never - ever - find fresh fruits or vegetables. Thus, the quest for Healthy Eating is an arduous one (unless I give up and decide to snack on spinach and eggplant or Georgian salad at local cheap-eatery Machakhela). Over the past eighteen months in Abanotubani, I have discovered a wide variety of options:
Zabar's, it ain't.

The Bazroba - Teeming, seething, and creeping with all manner of life, the Official Bazaar across the river is probably the cheapest place to purchase produce. Haggling is taken as a given; spinach is sold by the kilo. Many Tbilisebi seem to swear by the place. It's certainly the "go-to" locale for dried spices and exciting cakes. However, it's bloody far by public transportation, 5 lari by taxi, and is somewhat depressing overall: think "muddy piles and steaming offal" rather than "shiny trinkets and carpets". In practice, therefore, it's not really an acceptable alternative to just grabbing salad at Machakhela.
Verdict: Two out of five severed cow's heads

Populi: The closest thing Georgia has to a chain grocery store (except for the vastly overpriced diplomat-baiting Goodwill in Vake). The produce is always good if rarely great, but their "takeout counters" are a thing of true beauty. Carrot salad, badrijiani, and roast chicken all in earth-destroying plastic containers. However, I unfortunately live at a Populi Nexus - exactly fifteen minutes from three different Populi in three different directions - if I want to over-pay to support chain businesses, they'd better be for convenience's sake, damn it.
Verdict: Three out of five severed cow's heads.
World's saddest bazaar.

The Chicken Place: At the bottom of my street, an otherwise unremarkable grocery store sells deliciously greasy, spiced rotisserie chickens for 8 lari (3 pounds) apiece. While rotisserie chicken in no way resembles a vegetable, it nevertheless is worth mentioning.
Verdict: Four out of five severed cow's heads.

The "Patriarchal Monks' Shop": Yes, you read that correctly. There's a monk-staffed grocery shop right next to Sioni Cathedral, only about five minutes' walk from my house. It sells somewhat depressive vegetables (often of the root/scrub-worthy) variety, obscure medicines, and - most excitingly - monastery-made honeys, cheeses, and other preserves. It's the closest produce-seller in the area, although ultimately more of a "let's go see the monks!" adventure than a daily grocery endeavor.
Verdict: Four out of five severed cow's heads.

After shopping, you can eat khachapuri
in a streetcar cafe.
The Orbeliani Park Market: And here, my friends, is where we hit the jackpot. Somewhat closer (a bit under 15 minutes) to my house than Populi, the underground market coming out of the Baratashvili Street underpass manages to combine the freshness and quality of the "bazroba" with convenience and - dare I say it? - charm. Spices, herbs, fruits, and vegetables are all mildy more expensive than across the river, but sackfuls of figs are still in the 1-2 quid range. Empty-coke-bottle ajika. In the summers - following my one horrid (but minor) experience with sexual assault in the streets (a man grabbed me and forced a kiss onto my bared shoulder, but luckily knew enough English to respond to "FUCK OFF", albeit with a smug and shit-eating grin) - I've taken to carrying around a bag of just-over-ripe figs with which to beat any potential "suitors" over the head should they attempt to grab me again.
Verdict: Five out of five severed cow's heads

The Random Grocery Store Near Populi: Head to the Orbeliani St "big populi." Stand in front of its doors, then turn 180 degrees. On the far left corner of the square stands an unassuming building - a large, unlit front room behind an art nouveau facade. In that room, I have discovered, is a kind of collective "mini-market" - six "bazroba"-type sellers (fresh produce, minimal English) specializing in different products (cheese, spices, herbs, vegetables, fruits, and meats), selling their products separately but sharing the space: all the charm and chaos of a bazaar with the convenience of a single room.
Verdict: Five out of five severed cows' heads.

While the quest to find produce within a half-mile of my house is still ongoing - Orbeliani St is a good twelve minutes' walk away - at least I now know what to do when would-be rapists assault me in the middle of the street.

Hit them with rotten figs.

1 comment:

Benjamin Glass said...
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