“Ochen modna,” the woman says to me. “Eta vash razmyer.”
Albeit fashionable in the way in which a guy like me, a staunch vintage and second-hand clothing buyer from Portland, would see this old German war jacket as hip and vintage, the one I’m trying on is not my size. In fact, it’s about two sizes too large, or about the size I wore in high school, when oversized clothes were in style (They totally were, right?). Still, I consider purchasing it, checking the shoulder space and sleeve lengths in the mirror. Why? I don’t know exactly. Maybe it’s because I feel a bit out of sorts wearing my $450 The North Face down jacket around my small Ukrainian town, standing out like a giant Icebreaker Blue sore thumb. To me, also, it feels like I’m walking around in a sleeping bag. Another reason, and this one absolutely certain, my giant marshmallow of a coat isn’t waterproof, despite its outrageously high price, something I found out after being caught in a downpour on my walk back from an English club one day.
But I decide against making the purchase. “Ya podumayu,” I say. I’ll think about it. Still, she continues to insist it’s the jacket for me. She points to the German flag patch on the arms, the waist belt, the belted sleeve ends, as if these are real selling points. She tells me she’ll set it aside for me, because she knows I’ll return for it. I thank her and wander deeper into the second-hand clothing section of the bazaar.
Tucked behind the produce and new clothing area, even past the repair and used automotive parts section, and then around the corner from where you can purchase live chickens to take home and butcher on your own or have butchered on the spot (See “What the cluck?” July 14, 2010), sit rows of old tin sheds, their paint peeling back, walls leaning slightly to one side, their female proprietors standing in the doorway, donning the kind of aprons you might see a parking lot attendant at a parade wear. When you enter through the metal gate, you can’t help but feel their eyes bearing down on you. These women can smell an American a kilometer away. They’re hungry for a big sale, and you’re it.
Or, rather, I’m it. They see me and imagine $$$$. So many Ukrainians associate Americans with money. Lots of money. A question I’m asked often is how much money did I make in America? Those times in which I’ve answered, I see eyes widen. I then explain the relativity of the situation, that that amount of money here would be great, but back in the red, white and blue I was still pinching pennies (After all, I was a journalist, remember?).
Still, despite the bombardment of questions and the serious creep factor that comes with shopping for clothes in an area resembling post-disaster Chernobyl, I enjoy bantering and bargaining with the women of second-hand land. They tell me stories about what Artemovsk was like when Ukraine was still the USSR. We discuss cultural differences and what life is like for an American in Ukraine. Also, there’s excitement in not knowing what sort of treasures you might find. One time I came across a pair of legit Diesel jeans, and would you believe it, they were just my size. I talked the shed proprietor down from uah 55 to uah 12.50, or about $1.50. This has been my greatest second-hand bargaining accomplishment. Another time I traded an old gentleman’s cap I was wearing for an old leather book satchel. Definitely a good deal. But those deals don’t happen every day. More often than not I leave empty-handed.
Back at the shop with the German jackets today, the same woman informs me that my jacket is still there. Politely I tell her, though fashionable, I think it’s just too large. “No ladno,” she says. “Mozhet byt ty hochesh eta sveter?” Holding a tan wool sweater by the arms, she presses is against my chest, sizing it up. We’re now back to where we began.