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Among Pigs' Feet in Athens

Skinned pigs' feet seem to enjoy a special status in the market halls of Athens - they can be found in both the meat and fish sections, neatly arranged on white shelves.

If you come down Athinas Street one morning, perhaps heading for the Acropolis in the distance, you'll soon realize where the market is, thanks to the crush of people and the cacophony of forceful male voices calling out today's offers. It sounds like a madhouse - which it is, in a way - the vendors are not only yelling like mad, but also madly brandishing their knives and axes, smeared in blood.

The meat market, encircling the fish department, isn't indoor at all, really. It goes on for three streets covered by a leaky old roof. It's a world of bloody carcasses, whole or cut into pieces, hanging or lying, at times artistically displayed with the help of balloons and light chains. The butchers' coats, once hygienically white, have gradually taken on the color of their products. The smell indicates that the temperature is far too high for fresh meat.

Sweating Meat

A young butcher, whose stall is decorated as if it were Christmas, has popular appeal, despite - or possibly because of - his brusque manner. Surrounded by sweating carcass sides, he's chopping out cutlets for a couple, still calling to attract others, with his golden bracelet glinting in the light of the bulbs. After offending a lady, apparently quite sensitive, the butcher smiles at her until she melts and buys an extra leg of lamb. He even smiles, forbearingly though, when an elderly gentleman in a straw hat brings back his piece of meat to have it cut up.

A quieter type, Eduard from Albania, is selling pale chickens with their own livers mounted between their legs, while his neighbor is dealing in rabbits. "Arnia Mytilini!" a surprisingly well-groomed man announces, visibly proud of his little lambs from the island of Lesbos. A smoking young guy strokes his skinned lamb heads, crowding sad-eyed on a table, which sell for 3 Euro for 5 heads. A colleague, about the same age, masters the art of picking his nose and feeding a mincer, simultaneously. Others take a break from business while eating an early lunch in one of the plain market taverns.

Just beneath a poster depicting a happy cow in a beautiful landscape, a guy comes dragging a case containing a meter-long fish. By following him, another world soon appears: a large rectangular hall with windows high up all the way around and huge cardboard fish dangling in the air. The temperature is slightly lower here and the tone lighter, so light that some of the fishmongers break into song, each one singing his own special offer at the top of his voice, accompanied by fishy fumes.

Fish on Ice

Fish in every size are either lying on ice or buried in it, and more ice is added all the time. Some very queer fish, frozen ones, stand on their heads. To keep the displayed fish shining, water is splashed on them constantly, making them look nearly alive, apart from those already filleted of course. White and shades of grey are the dominant colors, pale red a decorative variation. Since the selection of fish repeats itself, it's important to make one's own stall as attractive as possible, usually by means of fish nets and plastic versions of fruits and vegetables.

Even dead fish come in shoals, sticking up through the ice, a kind of display that makes the best use of scarce space. Two creative young guys display differently. They spread a fish net on top of the ice, upon which they have arranged their fish one by one, each showing to its best advantage, among lettuce, tomatoes, oranges and cherries. The wrapping paper has been shaped into cornets, ready to be filled with nourishing fish. Their neighbor's display of pigs' feet contributes to the overall neatness.

However, a neat display is not enough, as price competition is keen. This is naturally the reason that they are calling out all the time. Prices seem rather elastic. Gavros, a small fish, is selling for 2.98 Euro. Suddenly, one fishmonger announces, "Gavros, 2 Euro!" Seconds later, he's triumphantly challenged from the other side of the hall, "Gavros, 1 Euro!" Regular customers hardly pay any attention to the shouting, as they have confidence in their own favorite suppliers, who probably repay their faithfulness with a favorable price.

Threatened Treasure

Mussels crowd in their narrow cases, whereas impressive specimens of octopus sprawl on oceans of ice, surrounded by plastic carrots. Oddly, an old woman in black seems to think that exactly here, there could be a market for scrubbing sponges and garlic vines. The guy next to her, busy slitting up a fish and cleaning it, doesn't need a sponge, though; he's using his knife for cleaning.

Garlic might be practical for taking away the reek of fish and meat, but it can't take away a very real threat to this treasure of a market. During a control visit, EU inpectors established that its hygienic standards did not live up to the requirements of today. Unless the Greek authorities present an acceptable plan of action, the entire place may at worst be shut down. Modernization would involve the risk that its wonderfully wild atmosphere could be lost.

Suppliers of complementary commodities are highly attracted by the meat and fish market, and certainly hope it will remain. On the pavement outside, nuts, almonds and dried fruits make up a harmonious symphony of colors. The harmony continues on at the olive market across the street. That is also where the entrance to the fruit and vegetable market is, the fresh smell of which gradually replaces the stench of meat and fish in one's suffering nostrils.