Friday, April 4, 2008

vic markets

I just got back from a weekly grocery shopping trip at Victoria Market. Groceries might not sound exciting, but they are. Queen Victoria Market, which has been around since 1850, is the largest open-air market in the Southern Hemisphere. We are lucky enough to live three blocks away.

Vic Market, as it’s colloquially known, is huge. Most of the vendors set up in stalls arranged in rows under roofs of corrugated tin: think warehouses without walls. The aisles are usually thronged with people. The more crowded it gets, the more the merchants holler: “Nannas wan-dalla, wan -dalla, wan-dalla-a-kilo! Aussie nannas!” (Translation: “These Australian bananas are selling at the truly bargin rate of one dollar per kilogram.” This is especially amusing because “Nanna” is also a common appellation for one’s grandmother). The market stalls are a riot of colors, with the products, sinage and the vendors themselves all competing for your eye. The smells are varied, pervasive, and sometimes – in the case of the butchers’ building – strong enough to shock you into immobility despite the urge to flee.

This is not a farmer’s market. Aside from a small local and organic section (small = ¼ acre), the produce piled in the 50+ fruit and veggie stalls comes off of containerships every morning. We’re still trying to figure out where the containerships come from. It used to be that they came from Europe. My Nono’s (grandfather’s) first business when he came to this country from Italy was a fruit and vegetable stand in this very market. He used to tell me tales of getting up at three o’clock in the morning to meet the boats. Looking at the boisterous, cheerful, and hectic atmosphere of the markets, I can see why he loved this work and why he did so well here.

The fruit and vegetable section is only a small portion of the food market. There are equally large sections devoted to cheeses and deli products, butcher stalls, fish, breads and baked goods, prepared foods, wine, live fowl, and anything else vaguely consumable that you might possibly desire, heavily weighted toward an Italian palate. It’s all incredibly fresh and the prices are amazingly good.

And that’s not all! There’s not just food: anything cheap that can be shipped in from China is sold here. A lot of it masquerades as Australian souvenirs (ugg boots, sheepskins, leather hats, Aboriginal-styled art objects, stuffed koalas), but unfortunately anything actually made in Australia seems to be scarce. As you might imagine, the market is a very popular tourist destination. The nice thing is that it’s still well utilized by locals too. There’s clothes, general-store stalls, home goods, decorative bits, fabric, even a few pet stalls.

It’s kind of a classic free-market capitalist set-up. You can sell anything at whatever price you want, and either people buy it or they don’t. The only factors are supply and demand, price and quality. From talking to some of the stall-owners, there’s a lot of resentment that some of the stalls are being owned and staffed by foreign distribution companies (instead of owned by Australians and selling the goods of foreign distribution companies), making the money “go abroad instead of going to Australia.” The countries involved are almost entirely China and it’s Pacific Rim allies. Feelings are especially high about this because the market has such a long-standing tradition of being the place where new Australians get their start: with the money and stall spaces going to foreign companies, the many new immigrants don’t have a chance. While I love buying the cheap fresh organic produce, I hesitate to buy any of the free-market goods because I’d rather the money stay in Australia and not go to an economic system and government that I don’t want to support.

See, I told you grocery shopping was fun!


Sarah said...

Yet another fabulous post I enjoyed reading. I absolutely adore open-air stall-type markets. Thank you so much for writing about this! I'm pretty sure I want to visit Australia now.

Petra said...

Oh please do come visit! You're amazing and we'd love to see you.

h sofia said...

I love open air stall markets, too. There was one in Madrid that made me think, "I could live here!" Food shopping is my favorite type of shopping; I just love how hands on it is, and open air markets involve all the senses. Mmm ... the colors and textures are the most exciting thing!

I can understand the resentment about foreign goods for foreign markets. That was how I felt when I returned to Jamaica Blvd in Queens after many, many years. In my childhood, the shops were locally owned, and useful things were sold. Now, it's cheap, cheap goods of extremely low quality and dubious necessity. It was depressing.