Rinok. Just saying the word brings a sense of calm to my disjointed Russian life in Moscow. All at once, the sprawl of doorways open as if they are choreographed. I pass stalls where ducks and coffee and wild honey are being sold. You can get your keys copied, or a box of chocolates, maybe a fuzzy pair of house slippers. When they are in season, truckloads of watermelons are sold by the hour.
And here, the great round structure. Inside, a loose order has been playing out for decades. Overlapping regions of glorious vegetables and fruits, then fish, the pungent, salty pickle displays, meat carcasses hanging and cut to order, eggs, milk, cheese, fresh bread being pulled from a clay oven. I enter with a sense of urgency. Rinok is not a place to dawdle. Yes, you can taste all you like and buy nothing. But you do buy—fresh spinach all year long, exotic spices poured into little plastic bags, bought for a handful of pennies. 100 grams of salted capers, a few sticks of chorizo from the new Spanish counter. There is a soda fountain where you can buy a plastic cup of jade-green Tarkhun, a tarragon soda that is most definitely an ancient relative of Coca-Cola.
The floor is old. There may be a few birds fluttering around the ceiling. Security guards are everywhere, but I have never seen an argument or even a heated discussion here. This is an oasis, a center of peace in a city all too often at war with itself.
I buy bread every time I am here from the little pekarnia. My daughter likes the sausages wrapped in dough, then baked golden brown. Sometimes she eats two, one in each fist. The bread is chewy, round and flat—an Uzbek loaf as I understand. They also make triangle-shaped meat pies called samsa, filled with onions and lamb or chicken. Crisp, moist from the fat inside, my fingers glisten as I eat them, making my way through the place.
My favorite cheese lady has six goats, and sells out early. Half of her teeth are made of gold. She knows how good her cheese is, generously slicing off bits for me, sliding them onto bits of paper for me to savor. One is saltier, the next perfumed and sweet—I imagine the goats eat nothing but wildflowers and clover.
Sides of beef, lamb and pork dangle from great hooks. I barter for lamb shanks, or pork shoulder. In maroon coats, their hands are huge, thick fingers, coarse knuckles. A cleaver is the only tool used here, crunching through bone and sinew, thumping into tree stumps that have worn down into perfect hollows after years of use.
The fish stare at me, clear-eyed. My nameless fishmongers wear white and blue striped shirts and greet me with a practiced English “hello.” They know I am here for a kilo of tiger shrimp, kept cold in bags in the back for local chefs.
I buy purple basil, some plump tomatoes with that magnificent smell of the vine that holds them together in a tight bunch. Pomegranates, some walnuts, a half-kilo of baby potatoes. If I start to feel sick, this is where I go to buy a fresh chicken, young garlic and baby turnips for soup.
Bags thumping against my sides, I wander once more through the space, smelling pickled apples, then sweet red caviar, all at once the fragrance of fresh tarragon. The floor is slick with dirt again, and old women in smocks are wiping the tiles.
I’ll come back tomorrow.