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Finding Nino

woman standing behind bins of spices
Nino at her spice stand

There are plenty of places in Tbilisi to buy spices, but none compare with a small stand in the corner of a concrete room, dimly lit by a green cast from a bank of florescent lights.

It’s in this corner, you’ll meet a woman named Nino. She doesn’t carry the extensive selection of spices that one will come across in larger stores, but she does have all the basics needed to make an aromatic Georgian dish, including Svaneti salt, an addictive blend of wild caraway seed, marigold, red pepper, garlic, blue fenugreek, coriander, and salt.

I first met Nino about nine months ago while I was exploring Tbilisi’s Dezerter Bazaar, a chaotic and cacophonic market in the center of the city. The bazaar caters mostly to locals, and it’s not uncommon to hear “touristi” muttered derisively from the sellers, especially if you have a camera in hand.

Nino had heard me mention to another vendor that I’m from the States. She waved me to her stand exclaiming, “America! Come here!” with a grandmotherly enthusiasm and warmth that was difficult to ignore.  I ended up that day buying a bag of Svaneti salt and a small plastic bottle of what tasted like sweet homemade wine that packed a mellowing mid-afternoon punch.

So when Ann, a friend who has been visiting during the holidays with Corie’s mother, said she wanted to buy some spices to take home with her, I knew exactly where to go.

We took a crowded twenty-minute subway from out apartment to the Station Square metro stop, a place I had written about in a previous newsletter. Ann is a skilled painter, so I knew the journey through the Station Square area to Dezerter Bazaar would be a visual feast that any artist would find exciting, a backdrop of people hawking stacks of produce, bread, fish, poultry, and everything else that would eventually end up on a table.  

two women, bundled in sweaters and scarves, selling produce from a wood stall
Produce Sellers, Dezerter Bazaar, Tbilisi, Georgia

We navigated through the mazes of produce stands to an unassuming red brick building on a street where cars and buses navigate around streams of people avoiding the narrow and unmaintained sidewalk. We went up a dimly lit stairwell that, in its earlier days, must have been quite charming with its bas relief on the landing underneath a stained-glass window dulled by a steady diet of smoke and grime.

As we reached the top of the stairs, I told Ann that I hoped Nino and her spice stand was still there. It had been several months since I was first there, and change seems to be a consistent fact of life in Tbilisi.

Fortunately, Nino was exactly where I remembered. I greeted her with a sincere “gamarjoba,” and Nino did a remarkable job acting like she remembered me, greeting me as if I were a long-lost friend. 

Many people who have spent thousands of dollars on an MBA program in marketing or sales have nothing on Nino. She greeted us with her broken-English proclamation that she has “Georgian spices. The best,” before she insisted we smell every spice in her inventory.

She took a break from her sales pitch to ask, in Georgian, if Ann was my mother. In my limited ability with the language, I replied, with hand gestures to visually show each link in the acquaintance chain, “Wife, mother, friend. From America.” Fortunately, Nino understood what I meant, and I avoided the potentially embarrassing possibility of having her believe that Ann was my wife and my mother and my friend.

Nino quickly reverted back to her sales pitch, giving us samples of her freshly squeezed pomegranate juice, homemade pomegranate syrup and her special-recipe Georgian plum sauce, noting each was “healthy, very healthy.”

Our five-lari spend quickly escalated to forty lari. As I noted earlier, an MBA marketing graduate could learn a lot from her.

When she was convinced we had everything in the large plastic bag that we wanted, she ended the sale with a warmhearted hug, something that never happens in a larger spice store.

Two men sitting at their produce stand as people walk by
Dezerter Bazaar, Tbilisi, Georgia


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