Surrounding the Acropolis are several pedestrianised streets thick with little shops selling every conceivable trinket, jewellery, tee-shirts, mass-produced pottery, fake artefacts copied from museums – all with some supposed Greek theme made saleable by splashing an identifying name or image on it. These narrow streets, even off-season, are crowded with tourists eager to acquire something – anything – that would prove they were there or that, years later, could re-connect them to this place – Greece - the cradle of something or other, civilisation they think, but, anyway, where they had once gone shopping. I found it difficult at first – even horrifying in a way – until I started thinking of these crowded streets more like an Arab souk than an American shopping mall. The difference is the sheer number of small shops squeezed together in a mind-numbing continuity of tchachka after tchachka, lit up in an array of multicoloured storefront displays each one offering entry into a world of ersatz myths. I tried imagining the industry necessary to provide all this crap for foot-weary tourists. A million small artisans with paint bushes and moulds; vast factories spewing out vases and cups, key chains and pendants each with the single word ‘Athens’ along with a picture of Athena or some other image of a pretend god or goddess or helmeted warrior clutching a spear. The souvenir industry is a marvel to behold. Tens of thousands of people must be involved in this strange enterprise providing shoddy relics and cheap keepsakes that end up in dusty attics or heaps of junk piled in closets. And then there’s the bargaining game. They can’t just buy this nonsense, they also feel the need to bid for it. But tourists from Western Europe and the US find it difficult getting to grips with the notion of haggling as they are so used to fixed price sales. To see something priced at one euro and to try and bargain down seems seriously absurd. Gauging the worth of something that is worthless needs a perverse imagination. Yet there’s the notion that those who pay the asking price in an Oriental bazaar are simply mugs. And being a mug is considered worse than a dope for buying the lousy stuff in the first place. But in the East, haggling is just a way of life. It’s a natural process of establishing worth rather than determining power relationships.
What fascinated me even more than the buyers were the sellers – the people on the other side of the counter or behind the till who service this insane industry. They seemed, by and large, to be fairly sensible folk (unlike the hordes besieging them). As I found throughout Athens, they went about their business with good humour and rather than bemoan their lot in life – that is having to deal with ill-mannered barbarians – they saw themselves as providers of necessary nourishment for an army of famished wolves who needed some care and feeding (in this case something akin to placebos) in order to be placated. Greece has known her share of hungry wolves.
17 November 2006