Saturday, May 19, 2007

Laiki, the street market in Greece

The “Laiki” (“popular market”) is a large Greek street market. When the traditional weekly village market came to town it became a street market. Today no village, town or city in Greece is without its street market, held at least once a week. In the larger towns the market is set up in a different neighbourhood every day, to cater to the inhabitants without them having to travel far.
Market traders include both middlemen who sell products bought from farmers, and the farmers themselves, who sell their goods direct to increase their profits.
Behind the pretty picture of rows of stalls with goods neatly set out lie many hours of effort, starting long before the first customers reach the market. Traders and farmers set out in the early hours of the morning in order to reach the market area before sunrise and find a good spot for their stalls. They also need time to set out their wares in an attractive way.
The municipal cleaners have the hard task of cleaning up after the last customers have left and the stalls have been removed.

Every street market in Greece is a feast for the senses:
1. Sight. Your gaze will wander from stall to stall, enjoying the rainbow of colours from fresh fruit and veg to multicoloured cloth and carpets.
2. Hearing. Deep, melodious voices with village or Gypsy accents, joking and teasing, are raised in a huge hubbub as traders cry their wares and proclaim their final offers.
3. Taste. You can try before you buy. The traders themselves encourage you to try their fruit, to prove it’s the best in the market.
4. Smell. The mouth-watering smell of souvlakia grilling in the catering vans mingles with the fake Yves Saint Laurent and Dolce & Gabanna perfumes.
5. Touch. Your hands will stroke soft textiles, embroidered tablecloths and runners of the kind you’ll see in every Greek house decorating the kitchen table, the television, the DVD and even the washing machine.

Street market quality
Food. Many Greeks prefer to buy their fruit and vegetables from the street market because there’s more choice than at a neighbourhood grocer’s or a supermarket, and the goods are usually fresher and cheaper. Of course there’s no actual rule; sometimes the opposite may be true. But there’s certainly greater variety and lots of people enjoy a bit of bargaining, as they feel they’ve gained a few euros from the weekly shop.
If you’re not sure of the flavour of the fruit you want to buy, ask the trader for a bit to try if he hasn’t already suggested it himself. He’ll gladly offer you a tangerine or a slice of melon or watermelon, in an attempt to prove his fruit is better than that of the stall next door, even if it’s run by his best friend or a relative. At that moment both are traders and the sale is all.
Herbs. In the street market you’ll find the famous Cretan dittany, chamomile, spearmint, sage, oregano and every other kind of herb packaged in clear plastic bags. Usually the sellers have gathered the herbs in the mountains and packaged them themselves. They can tell you how to use each one. Be aware, however, that some herbs such as dittany are cultivated, so what you’re getting isn’t the wild mountain type that’s very hard to gather.
Clothing. The street market is also full of clothes for sale. Theseare usually cheap and cheerful tracksuits, tops and pyjamas, and more rarely suits and better-quality dresses. They’re cheaper than in the shops shoes in laiki greek street marketbecause the traders don’t have high rents and staff costs to cover. So you can find great clothes in the market if you’re prepared to fight your way to the stalls and sort through the assortment on offer along with everyone else.
Remember that if you want to try something on, you can usually ask the trader to let you use the van parked behind the stall.
Shoes. You can also find shoes and slippers here, often identical to those sold in the shops. Look carefully and if you can’t find your size now, better luck next time.
Textiles and embroidery. If you find the perfect curtain material, be careful. In some cases unscrupulous traders have been known to use their own shorter wooden tape measures, stealing a few inches in order to pocket a few extra euros. The solution is simple: bring your own tape measure and insist on measuring the cloth yourself.
As for embroidered goods, today China makes whatever the market demands, so why not Greek-style traditional embroidered tablecloths? Of course one shouldn’t generalise, and I wouldn’t want to wrong any honest tradesmen who may truly have bought them from village gypsies selling carpets in laiki street market in greecewomen wanting to supplement their family income with their needlework. Just be wary about anything that looks like the bargain of the century.
Perfumes. Don’t get too excited at the Christian Dior, Armani or Dolce Vita labels. They’re just cheap fakes which you can buy as a present for your wonderful girlfriend, whom you missed so much on your dull and boring holiday in the sun.
Carpets. Many people are dubious about the quality of the carpets sold in the street market. It’s hard to be definite on the subject. The truth is that they generally look just like the ones in the shops, at a temptingly cheaper price which can be driven even lower by a bit of hard bargaining.
Pedlars. In a street market, outside a supermarket or even in the town centre, you may be approached by a street pedlar who sidles up to offer you watches, leather goods, video cameras or other expensive items at rock-bottom prices. It’s usually a real steal, so be very careful if you don’t want to regret it later.