LONDON — A sea of silver stretches down the hill and around the block. Silver coffee services. Silver bangles. Exquisite, twisted silver iced-tea spoons, wedged next to tables of old-fashioned cameras, antique toys, old war badges and bric-a-brac.
I've rarely bought anything at the weekly Portobello Road market. But if I'm in London on a Saturday, you can be sure I'll stop in.
For me, the energy is irresistible. Vendors crow their bargains, their meaning unmistakable even when the language is beyond me. The unadulterated zest for wheeling and dealing stirs my little capitalist soul, and the bargaining that seems so bothersome in a stateside car showroom becomes a gleeful game. The smells waft past: corn on the grill, musty incense, strange pungent spices, the oh-so-airy fragrance of orchids, the less glamorous scents of livestock.
And then, of course, there are the items for sale.
The Christmas packages I recently wrapped were full of them: antique jade dragons and hand-painted perfume bottles from Hong Kong, handcrafted belts from Guatemala, miniature statues from Bolivia, wooden musical instruments from Thailand, wooden ornaments from Mexico, all marking traditions far different from my own. My apartment overflows--with weavings crafted by careful hands through countless days, amulets promising good health and fortune, masks signifying hundreds of years of traditions. My wardrobe is packed with shirts and sweaters purchased on the streets at a fraction of their U.S. cost. . . .
But it's the people I really go to see. Markets are living museums, portals to local lifestyles outside the usual tourist experience. Conversation comes easily with eager sellers; when we don't share a language, we simply smile and gesture, depending upon calculators to indicate price. In Tibet, for instance, a friend and I had long, laughing "chats" with colorfully dressed women who scoffed at the cheap cosmetics we offered to trade them and instead chose samples of expensive, designer perfumes.
I often can learn about a country from the way the vendors bargain, bicker and trade goods. Those with little will settle for almost nothing; those with more will refuse to go too low. In some places it is a laughable game; in others, business is downright cutthroat. And buying leather sandals as a free-roaming cow looks on, as I have in India, is about as cultural an experience as I can imagine. (In the Hindu religion, cows are sacred, left to wander through markets, railway stations and even homes.)
Many worthwhile markets are unmentioned here. Some--such as Otavalo in Ecuador and the Grand Bazaar of Istanbul--I have yet to see. Maybe it's time for another run out to the market.
BANGKOK'S WEEKEND MARKET
That strange reed contraption covered with beads and one-inch, silver-colored balls is not somebody's idea of a bizarre holiday decoration. No, that thing on my wall is actually a tribal headdress from northern Thailand.
When I first visited Thailand five years ago, I went trekking in this region, staying in the homes of tribeswomen who wore such extraordinary headgear above the odd combination of hand-woven skirts and Nike T-shirts. I was too shy--or too foolish--to buy a headdress from these people, but when I spotted them earlier this year at Bangkok's Weekend Market for $22, I couldn't resist.
Ditto the wooden musical flute ($16), the fanciful puppet with a beard made of real hair ($15), the hand-carved Burmese figures dressed in sequined jackets ($4).
Bangkok is home to so many markets that there's a special map to find your way around them--Nancy Chandler's Map of Bangkok: The Market Map and Much More (sold at tourist haunts in Bangkok). One section specializes in Buddha images, another in cheap clothes. I was disappointed to find that two of my favorites, the orchid market, with its blocks of fresh blooms, and the Thieves Market, filled with furniture and housewares, seemed to be shadows of their old selves. But the Weekend Market, near the northern bus terminal, was as jam-packed as ever.
The place sprawls, as unstoppable as science fiction's "The Thing," in makeshift stalls and more permanent booths. Anything you can think of is probably there somewhere: cocktail clothes and T-shirts, fish for the aquarium and fish for dinner, semiprecious beads and stones, antiques and handicrafts. Despite its name, the market is open daily.
PIKE PLACE MARKET, SEATTLE
As a child I was enthralled by the baskets of polished vegetables and the overall-covered folks who sold them at the local farmers' market. I'm still fascinated . . . all the more so when a market includes sea creatures and fresh eats.
Apparently, I'm not alone. One of the last authentic farmers' markets in America, Pike Place Market draws 9 million visitors a year, making it one of Seattle's top tourist attractions.