Some friendships just make sense from the beginning.
For Peter and I, the connection was food. Or more specifically, the pleasure of sharing food deeply rooted in place with someone who appreciates it just as much. This was the foundation of a recent day spent in the capital of Greece, with my friend and Athens resident leading the way. Peter had a food-focused, sensory-overloading walking tour planned. And the best part? All we needed was a few euro coins to nibble our way through the heart of the city.
We turned a corner, waited for a swarm of motorbikes to pass, and approached the koulouri vendor. These thin rings of bread, covered with sesame seeds, were piled in stacks. Peter broke off a piece for me, and the curious vendor watched me take my first bite. As I chewed, I noticed locals all around me had shopping bags in their left hand, and koulouri in their right.
The window of our next stop was full of tempting pies of every variation. Dating back to 1906, Ariston is a bakery where both savory and sweet pies, or pita, are made fresh daily and sold in individual portions. There was feta pie and spinach pie, some with meat and others vegetarian. On Peter’s recommendation we tucked into a piece of mushroom pie. There are no tables at Ariston, so we took our flavor-packed pies back into the street and devoured them straight from a paper bag.
Next up was the market. Before we entered, Peter put up his hand, motioning for me to stop. “Remember, this isn’t your average meat market.” Justly warned, before entering I paused to look down at my poor shoe choice: a pair of Italian leather sandals with pristine white straps.
I marched on inside behind Peter, through a working butcher shop, with every inch of space utilized. The first thing I saw was a plate full of lamb heads. We ducked into a cafe, tucked inside the market, where trays of snacks and meals were ready for the lunch rush. Back in the market, we weaved through customers shopping, finding the best products and the best prices. The butchers called out their specials, served customers, and barely noticed small pools of blood on the floor. They had the correct footwear.
“On Mondays, when I plan on cooking a lot that week, I will come down to the market with 10 euros in my pocket,” Peter said. We moved from the meat market into the fish market, where fishmongers were scattering the daily catch over ice, enticing customers with promotions, as if the most enthusiastic seller will be the most profitable. There, piled high, was the fresh fish I had devoured with such enthusiasm during my week in Greece. Piles of octopus. Wooden crates overflowing with small silver fish. Large fish waiting to be gutted and filleted. “For that 10 euro, I leave with produce, fish, and meat for the week. It’s incredible.”
I could see why this city center market was thriving. My mind drifted to overly-curated stores in New York that display a few items sparingly, with a (often shocking) price tag rarely in sight. These stores, focused on beauty and “perfection” are missing the point. They should take a cue from the market in Athens, focused on feeding people, in a wholesome, fresh way that offers value and a sense of community.
We continued on to the produce market, piled high with vibrant fruit, vegetables, and herbs. At the olive stand, a vendor lured us into a sample. We sank our teeth into olives of different sizes, colors, and intensity.
All of this was before 11am.
In a time when Greece has been criticized for its economic situation, it is worth noting what is happening each day in the streets of the capital city. Citizens still live here, work here, and can find reasonably priced restaurants to eat and drink. Things are baked fresh every day, traditions are kept alive, and people go to the market to see what looks good, to feed their families for a fair price. In a time when Americans are being chased out of (increasingly culture-less) city centers due to sharply rising costs, we should look to Greece for guidance on what these basics contribute to a quality of life. And what a quality of life can then contribute to the wider society.
Thank you, Peter, for sharing the soul of your city with me. And for the mushroom pie. I’ll be back for more.