By Andy Dabilis
The mouth-watering smell of food and the sounds of traders wake up Athenians every weekday morning. This is the sign that the farmers’ market, or Laiki, is open for business.
Laiki usually starts at 6am and ends around 2pm. One can buy everything here: farm-fresh fruits and vegetables, cheese, fish, flowers, herbs, olive oil, honey, shoes and clothing. Colourful stands of fresh fruits and vegetables in the street attract buyers.
At one stand, George Kovos is barking out prices for his oranges: “40 euro cents per kilo!” Laiki is a social event, he says.
The supermarket doesn’t give people a chance to see each other on a regular basis; nobody in the market is screaming out prices and sharing jokes — and misery — explains Kovos. “It’s a tradition, you communicate with other people,” he says.
Many Athenians prefer to buy food from Laiki, where farmers offer fresh products and customers can try before they buy. Buyers say the quality of products at Laiki is usually high and prices usually are lower than in supermarkets and department stores. But the economic crisis is taking a toll here as well.
“They [customers] don’t say anything, but I see by what they buy,” Kovos says. “They used to buy 10 kilos, now it’s just three or four.”
Laiki vendors say sales have fallen by 30% to 50% in the last two years.
“Onions are a staple for Greeks; every dish starts off by simmering onions, people even buy them to decorate kitchens and balconies,” explains Costas Manesis, who sells onions at Laiki. “But now they’re buying half as much … you don’t need to cut onions anymore to cry.”
Consumers try to spend less on food, vendors say. “It’s especially tough for pensioners, some have seen their benefits during the crisis cut to 400 euros or less,” Manesis says.
“I’m buying more cautiously and less products than I used to,” says Evgenia Arvaniti, 82, who has been coming to Laiki for decades.
Panayiota Kallergi, 80, has been shopping at Laiki for 40 years. She is upset that sellers do not keep pace with the crisis.
“Despite the cuts, the price index is still high,” she says. “People come and go, just look at the stands.”
“I have kept my prices mostly the same … for now,” says Constantinos Kokkalis, 34, who sells olives at Laiki. His family has been producing nearly 50 varieties of olives for more than 14 years. He sighs when customers walk past. “If I lower my prices, I’ll have to fold up,” he says.
Hundreds of vendors are temporarily suspended from selling, says Constantinos Kakarantzas, president of one of the nine unions overseeing them.
The union unites about 3,000 vendors and about one-tenth of them are struggling to pay their rent and insurance fee to the union, Kakarantzas says. Unions ask sellers to pay 500 euros a month for rent, insurance and cleaning fees. If vendors don’t pay for two months, they aren’t allowed to set up their street stands, Kakarantzas explains.
When it gets nearer to closing time, prices are going down. “Mono ena evro, Mono ena evro!” (only one euro). Already 2pm, traders are ready for final offers and shoppers for better deals.
“Some days they [prices] are very good,” says Arvaniti.