If you close your eyes and ignore the aroma of grilled pork souvlaki, you could imagine yourself to be in a Middle Eastern souk. The crowd swarms around you, a babel of different languages buzz in your ears, the haggling escalates. People squeeze into the narrow passages between the bedsheets on which sellers display their medley of wares, and somewhere in the background comes the distorted tinny sound of popular singer Stelios Kazantzidis from a 80s-era stereo ? which is also for sale.
The Hermes Union of Pickers has moved from the central neighborhood of Gazi down the road to 94 Iera Odos, a depot where the City of Athens?s garbage trucks are normally parked during the week which on Saturdays and Sundays becomes a multicultural flea market where you can find almost under the sun ? treasures picked from the garbage, found in old storerooms, abandoned during home removals or likely even stolen if one is to judge by the large amount of GPS devices for sale.
?Even an old mobile phone charger or a chandelier can always find a new buyer. This is recycling in all its glory,? said Dimitris Xanthoulis, my guide to Athens?s biggest flea market. An aficionado of flea markets, Xanthoulis has traveled all over the world and used to run his own secondhand store, Exerevnites (Explorers).
He took us around the Iera Odos market, stopping every so often to examine an object.
?I?ve always loved bazaars,? said Xanthoulis. ?They?re like entering a city through the back door; like visiting a home starting from the kitchen rather than the living room. They show you the human geography of a city, the real average standard of living and allow you to draw conclusions about its social and political situation.?
He stopped to pick something out of a pile of junk at his feet. I wondered: Does he have a talent for sniffing out a good find?
?You start with one thing and end up with another,? Xanthoulis said.
An old issue of the Triponto magazine lay beside a book on a cult and a 1970s soft-porn novel. On the other side of the bedsheet, there was a rusty musket, a woman?s wig, a guitar without strings, a Benny Goodman vinyl record and a box full of jars of honey that expire in 2013. It was a random and odd collection of things, wares without a target group, overseen by a Roma man sitting contentedly in a plastic chair. Other sellers were removers who set up stalls with their finds or immigrants from the former Eastern bloc.
Further along, a 50-something man was rooting through a bag full of Playmobil figures. ?Are you looking for a present for your son?? I asked him. ?No,? he said. ?They?re for me; I?ve been a collector for years. Look at this. It?s old; you can see the date of manufacture printed on the bottom of the foot,? he said as though he had found a nugget of gold in a river.
Another man was going through a stack of yellowing issues of sports newspapers.
?I?ve had this hobby since 1980 and I spend hours looking for special issues every Saturday and Sunday. I don?t smoke, I don?t drink and I don?t go out. I spend all my extra money here,? he said.
Xanthoulis was looking for traditional folk-style ceramics from the 60s. He found two platters and started haggling with the seller over the price. ?Ten euros? You must be mad!? he shouted, pushing the price lower.
?The sellers recognize us regulars and they don?t push us too hard. They know that we know the real value of an item,? Xanthoulis explained. ?If they see that you have no clue, though, they will ask for a lot more. You need to be cautious and it?s best if you go shopping with someone who knows the sellers, their wares and the way to do business. What?s remarkable is that they haven?t reduced their prices because of the crisis. And it?s not as if the flea markets are inundated with valuable items because of the crisis either. The real valuables usually go straight to the antique dealers.?
Xanthoulis explained that the Iera Odos market is very different to the Monastiraki market, where there are organized shops and stalls and you can choose between items that have already been screened by the stall owner.
?At the Iera Odos market,? he said, ?you might not find great art masterpieces, but you can make some great discoveries because the stuff just ends up here and you have the first pick. The sellers themselves often don?t know what kind of treasures they have.?
Xanthoulis suddenly stopped in front of a bedsheet of women?s shoes, where a pair of Paul Smiths in relatively good shape was going for 3 euros.
?Half are size 38 and the other half a size 40. Maybe they belonged to a mother and daughter who got tired of them and threw them away. When you?re shopping at a bazaar you make up stories about the previous owners of items. That is part of the charm,? Xanthoulis said, smiling. ?I?ll get two pairs for a friend of mine. She?ll appreciate them more than a cake as a present.?
Further along, an African man bought a pair of cloth sneakers. Shirts cost 5 euros and sweatpants 3 euros. A group of Russian women tried on clothes, not relying on a mirror but on the comments of their friends instead.
?Flea markets are the poor man?s mall,? said Xanthoulis. Indeed, the majority of the shoppers did not seem to be connoisseurs or collectors, but regular people on a tight budget looking for a good bargain. The sellers know this, which is why there is no shortage of stalls with household cleaning equipment, toilet paper, old mobile phones and radios.
Xanthoulis admitted that he has been robbed a couple of times.
One of the security guards on duty cautioned our photographer, Nikos Kokkalias, to hang on to his camera: ?Otherwise you might see it on sale here next week.?
Our walk with Xanthoulis then took us toward Asomaton Square at the end of Ermou Street.
?Last week there were a lot of sellers here, but they?ve been chased away. Every so often they change the street where the hold their weekend bazaars,? said Xanthoulis. ?When will the municipality realize that the bazaars benefit the city? It?s incredible that the one on Iera Odos is held in a garbage truck depot. Just think about the health risks. It?s a completely inappropriate space. In Paris, the marches aux puces are the pride and joy of the city, and constitute a tourist attraction. Here it is just the opposite,? said Xanthoulis, who has spent several years in France.
The whole atmosphere at Monastiraki is different and I was surprised to see that some of the items we had seen earlier that Saturday at Iera Odos were a few hours later on display in shop windows in Monastiraki.
?Even store owners shop at the Hermes market,? said Xanthoulis.
In Monastiraki many of the shoppers are Saturday strollers, out for a coffee or lunch, who may pop into a shop or pause at a stand if something strikes their interest. There is plenty of chaos here, as well as a disparate array of wares, from kitchen utensils to old comics. Xanthoulis discovered two enamel planters.
?How did you spot those?? I asked him.
?They spoke to me,? he said.