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Chariots of Fear


PICTURE the Coliseum in Rome , dust rising, whips cracking, pounding horses hooves under the roar of the crowd. Now picture Wednesday morning at your local neighbourhood outdoor market. Your laiki. Reeking melted fish, ice flowing down the track, hollering street vendors vying for loudest eulogies about their "beautiful fresh red fragrant Thessalean strawberries," or "Home grown organic Cretan avocados, and tomatoes."

And there, hurtling towards you, steel-framed with rubber wheels spoked with freshly sharpened nails - a chariot of fear!! Leap for your life!! It's the running of the bulls in Pamplona .

But for us who must eat, it is a necessity fraught with danger.

The Romans probably didn't invent the war chariot. They copied the design from nikokires (housewives) at the Greek open vegetable markets. These ordinarily sweet, spoiling grandmothers, albeit with high pitched cluck, on these laiki mornings turn into Gladiators from Hellas.

Greece has always had a blooming street-market economy starting from pre-historic times. Hessiod, who was a farmer and also a historian who lived in the fifth century BC, wrote that whatever he couldn't sell in his village, he took to a city like Athens where he could get a fixed price.

Today's travelling food fairs, called laiki, are peculiar to Athens, moving day by day to different streets in different neighbourhoods, feeding nearly five million people daily out of the backs of small trucks which maze their way around the narrow lanes of Athens. Their predecessors from ancient Greece were farmers selling their goods in the agora and other street markets. As ancient Athens grew into a commercial town, the very rich usually had farms outside the town, as well as their town houses, and their slaves brought them their fresh food. However, there was the need to feed the growing artisan population who owned no land. This was the beginnings of the modern day street laiki.

Laiki means, "for the common folk". Almost by magic these markets appear loudly at the crack of dawn and disappear just as loudly, just as the day gets hot. They are always followed by that Neologist's nightmare, the garbage truck.

Beware: don't park your car in a laiki street the night before the market. How do you know? Like many things in Greece , you learn by experience.

The Agoranomos in ancient Athens , and still today, was and is a person whose job it is to stop vendors from setting up their stalls whenever and wherever they wanted. This has come down to modern Athens where travelling food sellers are given their set places to sell in different neighbourhoods. Gypsies are the exception, as they drive around shouting nasally through the loud speakers on their pickups. This is not just done to disturb your afternoon nap. Unfortunately, they usually are not granted permits to sell in the street markets.

Which brings me back to the market where the unassuming visitor to our beautiful shores is enchanted by the colourful commotion confronting them. The first time, little is ever bought by these bewitched voyeurs, but not through lack of trying. It's more due to politeness, from the Greek word politismenos which means "civilised". Our Greek granny gladiators are expert in shoulder-barging, foot-stomping, ankle scraping, queue-jumping techniques. But fear not, you will find that street sellers are grateful for the break from Gladiator Granny and will serve you with a smile, a joke, and a laugh.


See also Laiki Agoras of Athens and the Laiki Agora of Kypseli

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