Some people *ahem* have been saying it’s been a while since I wrote a “fun” one for this site. Ahem. This is for you.
I’m down to only three visits a week these days, but there was a time not too long ago when I was going to the piata in Chisinau five times a week, sometimes even more. I’ve long been a connoisseur of piete since my earliest days in Romania, and I have to confess that I have been remiss in not extolling the virtues of Chisinau’s most excellent piata in the volume and quality of the praise it most definitely deserves.
The central market of Chisinau, the scruffy little capital of the Republic of Moldova, is truly the greatest attraction in the city. What starts out as a handful of street vendors suddenly becomes an enormous labyrinth of twisting passageways, every spare centimeter completely crammed full of things for sale.
Most Moldovans who live here have completely the wrong impression about the big central market. To them, it’s a crowded, chaotic place that is full of poor people. But to me, I see it as a very interesting counterpoint to the “central market” of my American youth, otherwise known as Wal-Mart.
To people in Europe, Wal-Mart is a “hypermarket”. For the duration of this article, let’s consider a Wal-Mart store that is equal in footage (m2) to the central market of Chisinau. The market here is largely unroofed, a major architectural difference, but there are a lot of strange similarities.
Let the games begin!
We’ll assume that our hypothetical Wal-Mart has a full grocery component to it. How does the food stack up to what’s in the Chisinau Piata?
Wal-Mart = Way more cuts of beef. About 5 billion more frozen things. Lots of big-sized bags of snacks. Far more pre-made and ready-mix food items.
Chisinau Piata = It’s true the beef is far scarcer, but Moldovans love dead animals. My friends, you can buy an unrefrigerated pig head here in Moldova. As for the rest, about 20% of the imported stuff is from hot countries (oranges, bananas, etc) or frozen fish so that’s a “tie” with Wal-Mart. But the 80% fresh food in Moldova is miles ahead of anything in Wal-Mart.
When it comes to things like seeds, grains, garden vegetables, tree fruits (apples, peaches, et al), grapes, and lettuce, Moldova is ahead by a mile over Wal-Mart. More like 10 miles. Add in the insane variety of grains, legumes, pulses, cereals, and potatoes. Even the processed products are better. There are easily 75 different kinds of cookies on sale in the piata.
Oh, and god help me, I’ll never forget the fish. One thing that’ll never happen in Wal-Mart is for you to point at a giant living fish bigger than the family dog and then watch as they stab it right on the spot and wrap it up for you.
Result: Blowout win for Piata!
One of the Piata’s weaknesses is that there is a lot of repetition to it, a lot of vendors selling stuff obviously purchased from the same distributor. To the Piata’s defense, randomness plus Moldova’s native +3 chaos bonus on all rolls does somewhat alleviate the ubiquity of non-food goods. That being said, holy shit the Piata is pretty far behind.
It’s been a while since I stepped foot in a Wal-Mart but it’s pretty clear most of what’s on sale there in the clothing department is both better made (especially in terms of durability) and with more variety in sizes and styles. The Piata isn’t a graveyard for fashion, but you’ve got to be a real pro to look stylish if you do most of your clothes shopping there.
Result: Clear win for Wal-Mart.
There is never anywhere to park in or near or even reasonably close to the Piata.
Result: Blowout win for Wal-Mart.
Speed in Shopping
Once you know how to “surf” the Piata, shopping is way faster than in a Wal-Mart. Like an order of magnitude faster. That’s not because of any capitalist wizardry going on by savvy Piata vendors. It’s because the design of the Piata is far better for consumers.
Part of Wal-Mart’s mission is to kind of gently trap you in the store. Yes, you came into Wal-Mart with a fixed idea of an item or two that you wanted to buy. Wal-Mart’s job is to entice you to stay until you keep buying more. And more.
In the Piata, every two steps there’s another “cashier”, otherwise known as the person selling you the grapes, apples, carrots, etcetera. If you want to buy something, you barely lift a finger, state the desired quantity, and you get “rung up” by the “cashier” immediately.
Plus, the Piata doesn’t take bank or credit cards of any kind. No typing in codes, no swiping, no signing, no waiting. Hand the seller a stack of colored paper (cash money) and they hand some other colored paper back to you.
Result: Piata by a country mile.
Number of Workers
Ah, this is where it gets interesting. The Piata doesn’t really have employees. There are just a tiny handful of people who do the paperwork for the sellers and perform some occasional “controls” on the food and stuff being sold. Meanwhile, the same sized hypothetical Wal-Mart has far more employees.
In the Piata, the sellers are effectively free agents whereas Wal-Mart employees “selling” the merchandise in the store report to a boss. The sellers work the hours that they want to work and can charge the prices that they want to charge. Per square meter, the Piata definitely has more “workers” than Wal-Mart but the workers in the Piata are far freer.
For instance, a seller in the Piata can decide, at 2:13 PM, for his own personal reasons, and without telling anyone, that he wants to go home, and then not suffer any punishment, approbation, or censure whatsoever for those actions on the following day.
Even more interesting, a seller in the Piata who does well, who excels, who stands out in some (good) kind of way, can literally profit in the form of more money in their pocket. If you’re a good Wal-Mart employee, all you get is a pat on the back.
Result: Piata has more “working folk” per square centimeter than Wal-Mart.
Cheap Chinese Radios
Obviously, the Piata wins this one. Americans “stream” so-called radio or else use Grandma’s ancient “beat box” covered in paint and drywall dust and the outer door of the cassette deck missing. But when you need a bright shiny plastic interface with a genuine telescoping antenna to manually dial in your favorite tunes, the Piata’s got you covered. Got 20 different styles at least!
Result: Sorry, Wal-Mart!
I’m not talking about animals being sold for food, I’m talking about cats and dogs and such.
If Wal-Mart had so much as a single kitten inside the store, and it wasn’t being sold for profit, it’d be gone in two seconds flat. In the Piata, there is at least one cat semi-permanently living in the fish area and a second one who arrives every morning exactly when the pet food seller is opening her shop. There’s also a few dogs who roam through there.
Wal-Mart also has no birds (unless they are being sold) while the Piata has several different types. Pigeons are living a pretty sweet life on the outer ring of the Piata but smaller, sparrow-like birds are abundant in the high rooves over two different sections. One of those sections is directly overhead bird food heaven: enormous piles of ground wheat, seeds, nuts, maize, oats, barley, sorghum, and rye.
Results: The Piata is a lively place!
Ah, now we’re coming into interesting territory indeed. I am probably the world’s worst judge of the qualities of fast food, but I do know that a lot of people are big fans.
I’ll allow that our Wal-Mart has a full complement of both fast food and deli options. The Piata is already on its back foot as there are effectively no deli-type stalls. But the Piata does have quite a few fast food items, so let’s stick strictly to that.
Speed of service is roughly equal, mostly because a Wal-Mart fast food experience includes more complex ordering. At the Piata, there’s a short list of 5-10 items and that’s what you got.
Hamburger involves beef, so Wal-Mart’s an easy win again in the beef category. But the Piata has far more pork-based sausage options by at least a 10-fold margin. The Piata does also sell “hot meat” sandwiches, so we’ll call it a draw in this sub-category.
The Piata has a singular obsession with placinte, usually erroneously referred to as “pies”. No. These are pan-fried (or occasionally baked) slabs of wheat flour that have a thin potato, cabbage, cheese, OR (occasionally) meat filling. Those flavors are NEVER combined, ever. Placinte in the Piata are usually of the lowest quality possible, occasionally served in hygienic conditions of extreme dubiousness.
About the only bright spot for the Piata in this category is that the prices are incredibly affordable, even for Moldovans.
Result: Wal-Mart’s fast food customers eat like kings.
Wal-Mart is roofed in and the interior atmosphere is tightly controlled using complex machines and the consumption of a lot of fossil fuels. The Piata in Chisinau is 90% outdoors.
At first glance, navigating through and shopping in the Piata can present somewhat of a challenge. The weather is the weather, after all, and around here that means a lot of cold, some snow, a healthy dose of rain, and a true abundance of raw, gray days. But it’s the paradox of having to deal with the weather that it makes you truly appreciate the fact that you’re outdoors. On a fundamental level, you truly feel that having apples in your cheeks is healthy. Occasionally squinting through the sun is healthy too.
For the sellers, however, it’s a true challenge. Fewer individuals whom you will ever meet in your life personify the definition of the word doughty as to the heavily swaddled female vegetable sellers in the Piata in the winter.
Result: Piata is great to visit, but a tough place to work.
All Wal-Mart employees are dressed like anonymous drones. Lower level drones are draped in a shapeless blue smock. Upper-level drones dress in painfully inoffensive corporate wear.
In the Piata, this is the rule for workers: wear whatever makes you comfortable. If it’s hot and you feel like wearing flip-flops, go right ahead. Bandanna around your head feel good? Rock it, sister. Aprons are quite popular, especially in red, blue and burgundy. If it’s cold or rainy, rubber boots are a popular option. Woolen coats on a chilly day add a really authentic country bumpkin look. Driver’s caps are obligatory for men over 50.
Public Address System
It’s been too long for me to remember what the PA system in a Wal-Mart is actually like as I’ve been inundated with too much “clean-up on aisle six” TV to be able to say anything about Wal-Mart accurately. I do know that overhead announcements are generally kept to a minimum, though.
Catch the Piata on a good day and it’s like a scene out of Red Dawn at the Soviet re-education camp. The actual words coming out of the speakers are inoffensive blather for the sellers about where they can get their inspections performed but the heavy echoing and non-stop droning voice tone make it sound like a movie image of a Soviet re-education camp.
On other days, you can sometimes catch a voice loop of a pitch for some electronics kiosk where they can change the language on your electronic device. Or advice about how tuberculosis can affect anybody, so be sure to get yourself checked out if you suspect you have it.
Okay, come to think of it, maybe the Piata is a little TOO close to a re-education camp!
In Wal-Mart, it’s strictly forbidden to film anything inside the store, even though, of course, some people do it. In the Piata, you are warmly welcome to film as much as you like. Judging by the number of videos I’ve seen online that were posted by foreign visitors to the Piata, I stand by my conviction that the Piata is Chisinau’s secret number one tourist attraction.
In fact, here’s a video for you to enjoy right now!
AND NOW YOU KNOW!