While much of the West celebrates Christmas in an orgy of shopping for presents that climaxes after a single dinner, Georgians commemorate the season with a 30-day binge of feasts that pretty much begins on December 17, Saint Barbara’s Day (Barbaroba), and peters out by January 19, the Orthodox Epiphany (Natlisgeba). Unlike Americans, Georgians don’t consume stuff for the holidays – they annihilate food. The best, if not most chaotic, place to stock up on victuals is the Dezertirebi Bazroba (“Deserter’s Bazaar”). Located near Tbilisi’s central train station, this raw, disorganized, 2,000-square-meter warren of unprocessed agrarian pabulum is the city’s largest open-air market.
Open year-round, Dezertirebi is not for the fainthearted, particularly as New Year’s Eve, the climax of the season, draws near. The ever-anarchic Tbilisi traffic becomes 5 square kilometers of packed, honking lunacy. People shuffle elbow-to-elbow through entanglements of tables stacked with dead piglets, florescent mandarin oranges, lime-green veggies, bloody fish and freshly plucked village chickens and turkeys, which will be smothered in satsivi, a delectable walnut-based sauce served especially during the holiday season. Sparkly holiday tinsel flaps in the breeze next to hog heads dangling off hooks, while shouts of “khachapuri, shoti, cigaretti” and prices per kilo fill the air along with the biting sting of melting plastic and rubbish from the little fires hucksters build for warmth.
The bazaar is called “dezertirebi” because in the 1920s army deserters sold their weapons here. In 2007, the city demolished the old Soviet-era main building, sending many traders deeper into the crannies of surrounding structures. When the new building went up in 2012, few traders returned. However, the earthiness of that open market – where impossible mountains of locally milled flour stood next to teetering stacks of stinky cheese wheels across the aisle from herbs and spice vendors – can be found in an adjacent brick building called the “Central Bazaar.”
This year, we made it to the bazaar just before the New Year’s crunch. Police had blocked much of the traffic coming into the bazaar and the stress level was low, moods were light and the weather was a sunny, pleasant 9 degrees C (49 degrees F). Between a butcher with a makeshift market in the back of his van and a cabbage salesman with a van full of heads stood a strong, clear-eyed man with his wine in 5-liter plastic bottles on a table. He was from Sighnaghi, the heart of Georgia’s wine region, and he held a bottle up to the sun to show off the wine’s clear, amber color. For 15 lari a bottle (roughly $6), it was a deal hard to pass up. And his method of persuasion was indomitable: “Take my number. Call me. Come, you will be my guest. We will drink my wine and I will make mtsvadi,” he said.