My presentation will cover my research into the gray markets of Athens, Greece, conducted in July 2015. There has been a lot of research that has been done on how economic crisis affects major businesses and stocks, but little research has been done on how it affects the less mainstream markets, including but not limited to the shadow, or gray, market. The goal of my research in Athens was to discover if people turn to the shadow market when the mainstream market fails them. Would people become more reluctant to buy from large grocery stores and rely more upon getting their goods from their friends and acquaintances, sacrificing familiarity for the sake of maintaining their standard of living in adverse conditions? Would shady shops selling knockoff watches and cheap clothing benefit from a stagnating economic scenario from their lower prices? Ultimately, how does an economic crash impact the economy we don’t always pay attention to?
Rusetski, Kiryl. “The Shadow Market in Crisis: The Athenian Black Market in the Context of Economic Pitfall.” Research on Greece First Student Conference Website. March 31, 2017. https://researchongreece.wordpress.com/programme/shadow-currency-how-economic-crisis-impacts-the-grey-market/
Liturisis Street is an eerie place. The feeling of being there is equivalent to lighting a match next to a gas canister; while the flame is not likely to touch the gas, a feeling of precarity nevertheless prevails; a sense of dread that keeps one on their toes, biting them with the notion that anything can happen here, at any time. Liturisis St isn’t located far from Omonia Square, a part of Athens that has been historically known as the “Times Square” of Greece, but now has become relegated to what some have locals have unabashedly labeled a “Third World Concrete Wasteland”, an area synonymous with crime, drug abuse, illegal migration, and prostitution. I was a far way away from the place that I call home, blistered, and sweaty from the stinging Mediterranean heat, in a part of town that most Athenians do their best to avoid, all for the sake of a measly school project.
Walking down Liturisis, I see a green pickup truck. The back of the truck is completely filled with watermelons. Having never seen anything quite like it before, my informant and I decide to follow it. It was not moving quickly, and I didn’t have to follow it for long before it made its first stop. It was a grocery store, visibly owned and operated by a man from South Asia, along with his family. Two men exited the car, and began to carry a few watermelons, one by one to the store. The shopkeeper smiled at them and made small talk with them as they carried the watermelons into the store. I stopped to observe the exchange between them. However, the street did not feel safe. I could see three other people across the street from the store, almost as if they were positioned strategically around it, intently observing the exchange. There was no one else to be seen on the street, despite it being the afternoon hours of a weekday. A few watermelons from the truck were carried over inside the grocery store. Then, a woman with a small child and a small grey shopping bag got out of the truck and went inside the store. Being on the street became very uncomfortable now; I was still the only passerby there, and the other observers were staring me down. With sweat dripping off my brow, I backed off from the store and continued to observe from a distance. The woman and the child were still in the store. Around five minutes later, they left, but without their grey shopping bag.
This, is what the shadow market of Athens looks like.
Crossroads: A Brief History of the Athenian Black Market.
Throughout history, Greece has been regarded as the crossroads between Asia and Europe. This context can be perceived culturally as well as geographically. The people and the traffic behave more Asian than they do European, and yet, they dress European, and their vehicles are what would be fashionable to drive in Europe. This cross continental aspect boils all the way down through Greek culture to make it an epithet of a Greek’s identity – they take immense pride in not being completely European, nor being entirely Asian. They are Greek, they are unique, and they act on their will, rather than what is expected of them.
However, this makes Greece a lucrative gateway for the smuggling of illicit goods.
Earlier this year, Athenian police cracked down a warehouse that contained two tons of heroin. This was the biggest drug bust in modern European history (RT 2014). Historically, smugglers have often used Greece as an entry point of smuggling drugs from the Middle East and into Europe. Feodras, an informant who runs a leather shop not far from Omonia Square, said that the three main points of entry for illicit drugs into Greece are in the island of Crete to the south, Piraeus, a port city to the west, and Samos, an island to the east. He continues to elaborate on the very historic and traditional ties of the shadow market to Greece. Like all Athenians that I met, he states that the shadow market, simply put, is everywhere. Most of the shops around him all sold some items that they are not really supposed to sell. The shadow market is also seeped with history, and racial lines are used by some locals to define it. For example, the Georgians in Athens are supposed to have a monopoly hold on the import of illicit tobacco, while Bulgarians are by and large phone thieves and drug dealers. With the country’s nefarious history and location, drugs, and more commonly now, people, are smuggled into Greece as a gateway into Europe. However, due to increased EU awareness and security, coupled with precarity in the middle east, a lot of the drugs and a lot of the people who were smuggled into the country are now left there, stuck in a sort of purgatory between major civilizations. The smugglers soon saw this, and used it to their advantage; they took the excess flow of migrants, and employed them in the black and shadow markets. For extra profit, they began to smuggle in goods – such as knockoffs or stolen items – from China and India, and had the migrants work to sell them (Michaletos 2011). This move was quite successful, as the shadow market’s total worth in Greece was more than 65 billion in 2009, a quarter of the Greek gross domestic product (Die Presse 2009).
A market space can be defined as an area where goods and services are bartered among a collective group of people. This medium includes places such as stores; grocery stores, department stores, and clothing stores. These mediums, however, are largely regulated by corporate entities: parties that control the prices, the distribution, and the types of goods that are sold within their shops. These entities have close relationships with other bureaucracies; these include other corporate parties (such as the competition), the producers of goods at the primary and secondary levels of industry, and to some extent, the government. This trifecta of relationships between corporate entities, the producers, and the government composes the formal market system. What marks its formality is government regulation; ultimately, prices, quantities, and labor are all dictated by law of the government where the business has been established. When operating, a business has to take into consideration the prices (affected by individual taxation), how to hire labor (affected by labor laws and potential minimum wage), and how to afford its function (property taxes, corporate taxes, electricity, hydro, etc.). All three of these factors are controlled by the government. And so in turn, the government knows all the ins-and-outs of these businesses as they would need to be able to maximize revenue off of the business. Hence, to a degree, these businesses are effectively controlled by the government. However, not all businesses are controlled to this extent. Looking back at the original definition of market, there are goods and services that are bartered in smaller scales. These include friends trading their possessions with each other, people selling their used items to local stores to be resold by the store, and of course, the dealing of illicit supplies. This type of market is only regulated by supply and demand; it is a system that runs free. Through demand, a supply will be found, no matter the cost, for the payoff would always be greater for both parties in most cases.
Ultimately, this leads to my research question. The shadow market in Athens, due to Greece’s geography, has a very established presence, and the lower class depend on it for food, clothing, and other goods. However, after the economic crisis, many Athenians, especially those in the middle class, found themselves with much smaller bank accounts, but their needs remained the same. How has the economic crisis in Greece affected the shadow market? How has, if at all, the perception of it by the Athenian population changed? Has the Athenian middle class come to rely on it more for basic as well as luxury goods? Has the shadow market become a more accepted way of acquiring goods, a more prominent symbol of anti-government sentiment? Going into this project, I believed that the Athenian middle class, finding themselves in a position of precarity, would blame the poor economy on the government, and shift to purchasing goods from the shadow market. Although the goods would be of lower quality, they would still function and be far more affordable compared to their standard market counterparts. Thus, as a result of the faltering economy impacting the purchasing power of the middle class, the Athenian shadow market would experience a small boom in sales, and the middle class, becoming more reliant on the shadow market, would in turn have a lesser opinion on the government for ruining the economic machinations that have made them resort to the shadow market.
Arriving in Athens
Upon arriving in Athens, the two things that struck me the most were the heat, and the people. In Athens, the heat hangs in the air like a heavy blanket over a fire. Trapped by the mountains surrounding the city, pummeled by the sun, it seems as though the heat has nowhere else to go. Being in such a different environment forces one to adapt to accommodate it. Through this adaptation, the individual is also more or less forced to think in a slightly different manner. Thus leading to my second striking observation; the people. Their openness and frankness were the first standout characteristics I found. They seemed far more approachable and more likely to be honest when asked a question. Shortly after, what struck me as unique was their tenacity and pride. Athenians are far more vocal and political than the people that I had known in Canada. They held concerts preaching anarchy at 2 am, juxtaposed against the well-lit, beautiful, traditional University of Athens campus. They got into large, organized protests over issues such as working on a Sunday, to which police in full riot gear responded. They gathered spontaneously with flags and banners outside of the parliament building, blocking the street without any official barricade or permission, to rally against the privatization of electricity in Greece, an act usually reserved to unions and activist groups in Canada. This made me wonder; how would the pride of the people of the middle class be affected, when they were no longer allowed to access the goods that they used to get as they became too expensive for them? My thinking ultimately led me to a hypothesis that the black market has expanded in growth and scale after the fall of the Greek economy. I grounded my hypothesis in the belief that middle class individuals, finding themselves in a place where they could no longer afford to follow trends and fashions, would hold fast to their pride, and migrate to the black market to find similar goods at lower quality, but for a lower price, in order to appeal to their middle class desires. Thus, the black market would find itself in a better economic position than the standard market, and the Athenian opinion of the black market would also shift to a more positive one: one of rebelling against a system that has failed them, one that accurately provides supplies that are demanded by the general public, a system that is run by the people, for the people. And so, I began my research in Athens, observing how the markets differed, what kind of people shopped where, the different types of stores and where they were located, and of course, interviews with individuals on their experiences, opinions, and feelings of the Athenian shadow market.
Markets in Athens
One very distinctive factor about markets, stores, and restaurants in Athens is the pricing. While in Canada, prices for products differ from region to region, it is far more contrasting in Athens. In terms of food, a full plate of Gyros at Omonia Square would be priced at €8. An equivalent plate of food around Monastiraki would be around €14 – nearly double the price for the same amount, and the same quality. It should also be noted that Omonia and Monastritaki are a meager kilometer away from each other – roughly, a 10 minute walk. Price differences in Toronto are usually separated through at least 5 kilometer regions. Another distinct difference between shopping in Athens and shopping in North America is the regional planning. In Athens, it almost seems like each street has an assigned, so-called “duty”; one street would have nothing but restaurants on it for at least a kilometer, another street right next to it would have nothing but little hardware shops. Small businesses dominate the city. In my time there, I could only find two large chains, a supermarket brand and a series of malls, whereas in Toronto, major chains selling food and clothing among other commodities could be spotted several times when driving through the city. After living in Athens for a month, I failed to find the same restaurant twice, meaning, I could not find one at a different location. Based on this market model, management structure and prices would be very different from the models at play in North America. For one, there were never laid out operating hours for any restaurant or store; if there were few people on the street, it would be closed. If it was becoming late, the store would close. If it was during siesta hours, it would be closed. On Sundays, it was hard to find anything that remained open. This was clearly due to the small-business nature of the shops; they were not dictated by what they could and could not do by a faraway corporate office, they followed the dictation of the store owner. The relation between the store owners and co-workers, as well as their relation to the store itself, was quite different from the experience I had working at major chains in Canada. One evening, I met a waiter named Robertos, who was working at a restaurant in the Pagkrati area. After visiting the restaurant several times, I got to know him and his workplace a little better. He lives in the area in an apartment that he shares with two roommates. He is saving up to afford a car, and to do so he is working three jobs, seven days a week. His other two jobs are working at a café right next to the restaurant, and a nightclub within the same area. He said he got employed at all three locations because they are all co-owned by the same person, Romanos. Robertos continued to elaborate that ultimately, all three places are co-owned by four people, with two of them, Romanos and an elderly gentleman by the name of Philon holding a majority stake, and two other individuals owning minority stakes. With Philon having little energy, and the two unnamed individuals holding only a small fraction of ownership, Romanos was essentially left to be the head manager of all three establishments. What particularly stood out to me, however, was Romanos’s attitude towards his businesses. He frequented all three very often – practically every day, and he stayed in each for extended amounts of time. Despite the fact that he was a co-owner, he was heavily involved in the work that needed to be done. One night I was at the café that he co-owned for over there hours, and nearly the entire time he was there as well, busy with cleaning the dishes and making sure the orders came to the cook. In that time and place, it would have been hard to believe that he was the owner; his disposition, attire, and attitude all made it seem like he was just another employee. However, his relation to his businesses was not all work. I also saw him frequently at the restaurant, simply engaging in dialogue with acquaintances, customers, and his employees alike. Ultimately, his relationship to the businesses that he owned was not one of profit or work, but rather one of investment and enjoyment. This level of management was not uncommon, and it affected how the customers approached the business. Near Omonia Square, the destitute and homeless often approached specifically the managers of restaurants of the area begging for food, water, or money. This management structure also impacted worker-manager relations. Romanos is very good friends with Robertos. They frequently talk to each other about their lives while at work. They embrace each other joyfully. Romanos’s demeanor is further expressed to all of the other coworkers as well. Through this relationship, Robertos was able to acquire two more jobs. And so, distinct differences can be seen between a North American business and a Greek business, largely around the management structure. This management structure strongly impacts the hours of operation, the relationship between the employer and the employee, as well as the prices, which can fluctuate depending on the relationship of the customer to the manager or the employee. These findings played a strong role in affecting my results. Initially, I thought that the major businesses in Athens would run under similar structures as in North America. It came as basic sense to me, as this is the only way that I understood that effective businesses would run. However, the business model, even in legitimate operations, is in no way nearly as fixated or rigid as the businesses that operate in Canada. And so, my previous theory that the crisis would lead people to reject the mainstream system in favor of the shadow one stood on shaky ground. If the stores that most Athenians shop at are already working at a very people-oriented, rather than profit-oriented model, they would not feel the need to reject the marketplaces that operate within the standard economic sphere. My theory was more fixated on the fact that large corporate entities would make consumers feel alienated, entities that they have no control over. But in Athens, one can bargain over a price for an item with the manager themselves, and the common worker usually feels in no way oppressed or pushed to the brink by their employer, despite working long hours every day of the week. Even managers have a type of closeness to their business; they do not view it just as a business, but as a place they have to participate in at all levels. Of course, this does in no way reflect Athens as a whole, but this vignette gave me an inner glimpse of how businesses are perceived from the customer, clerk, and managerial levels within Athens. Despite strenuous economic circumstances, prices inflated by new taxes, and very long working hours, there was minimal distress or dissatisfaction with the business system in place. The more I stayed in Athens, the more I began to discard the political dissent portion of my hypothesis, to the point where I cut it out altogether. It was hard to be discontent with the mainstream stores, when the stores themselves were not following regulations too strictly.
Omonia Square has a very colorful past, and has played a significant role in the shaping of Athens. It was designed in 1833, just when Athens was declared the capital of the newborn Greek state. In 1888, an underground train terminal for a train line running from the port of Piraeus to the suburb of Kifissia was built right underneath the square. This development effectively turned Omonia into a landing point for migrants, as this was the first stop that newcomers to Athens would experience at that time. Numerous hotels and coffee shops targeting the migrant population began to open around the area, offering bargain prices to accommodate their market. Thus, this is how Omonia Square’s reputation as a rough, blue-collar area began. However, this remained juxtaposed to Omonia’s other reputation for being Athens’s go-to area for rallies and celebrations. It has long been an area for assemblies and political speeches by the Communist Party of Greece who are headquartered nearby. When a local or national soccer team won a game, Athenians usually flocked to Omonia to celebrate. Omonia continued to be renovated and redeveloped throughout its history to accommodate the growing city. In 1957, a massive redevelopment took place at Omonia, where it became encircled by a four-lane road, and a very large fountain was placed right at the centre of the square. In order to accommodate the pedestrian traffic that used to flow through the center of the square, large sidewalks were paved around the road. This redevelopment was significant as it reshaped the function and image of Omonia; suddenly, it became a national landmark for Greece. Property prices around Omonia grew sharply. Greeks inhibited romantic notions of life around Omonia with the help of Greek cinema.
However, this golden era for Omonia would come to an end. Eventually, the fountain stopped working, and it spent many years in disrepair. In the early 1990s, an influx of migrants from east Europe arrived to Omonia, seeking refuge from instability as a result of the collapse of the USSR, which further shaped its blue-collar demographics. In 1998, a design competition was opened to remodel Omonia, in an attempt to revitalize the area before the 2004 Olympics. The results were revealed in 2003, and Athenians reacted very negatively to Athens Walk. The greenery, a landmark of the square since its conception in the late 1800s, was entirely replaced with concrete. Small, abstract monuments took up different cordons of the square. The square had effectively become a large, drab, gray slab of pavement. After this point, Omonia became practically relegated to migrants and the destitute by Athenians. Property prices dropped significantly as well as the cost of living in hotels in the area. With time, these once majestic, elite properties became entirely owned by the poor migrants themselves. Graffiti leaves its mark nearly everywhere in the area. Migrants from the Middle East continue to seek refuge in Athens, settling in Omonia as they cannot afford to live elsewhere. Ultimately, all of these factors – its history, its development, and its reputation – have made it an excellent starting point for my research. The destitute are usually the primary consumers of stores and markets that would be considered to be shadow market. Looking around Omonia, there are products for sale that do not seem to be fully authentic. These include “Higo Boos” perfume, as well as “Daniel Klein” watches, among other goods. Stores that sell a variety of used cell phones and other used electronics litter the streets around Omonia. If I were to search for the presence of a shadow market, this would ultimately be the best place for me to begin.
I began my research by looking for places that matched my criteria in and around the Omonia area. I looked specifically for stores that sold products that were clearly not connected to large distribution network – an example of such would be the second-hand cell phone and products that were clear knockoffs. Through window shopping, I looked for obvious signs second-hand usage – cellphones that were scratched, cases that were worn out, products clearly lacking their original boxes. I also looked for products that were made from visibly low quality materials coupled with a surprisingly low price. As it turns out, there was no shortage of such shops in Omonia. Shops run by Chinese migrants offering “Quality Western Goods”, usually had the owner’s name as part of the name of the store. There were countless little cell phone shops, the dusty windows of which stocked to the brim with a grand variety of cell phones, tablets, and other electronics, the majority of which were run by South Asian migrants. I then proceeded to go into some of these stores, and after asking them if they spoke English, asked them a few simple questions on how their businesses were. In my interviews, I noticed a distinct trend; all the businesses were badly hit by the economic crisis, mostly around 2008 to 2009. Since the initial crisis, these businesses have been struggling to get back on their feet. All of the subjects I interviewed said that things were not as bad as they were back then, but they are still nowhere near as good as they used to be before the crisis. Contrary to my hypothesis, these businesses almost unilaterally said that the vast majority of their customers are “lower class residents and migrants”. This had been the case before the crisis hit, and this remained the case to the present day. I believe it is also important to note that none of the businesses were very old – the oldest one I had interviewed had been open for around 25 years, whereas the others were all between five to ten years old. Hence, most of those businesses were born only after Omonia’s last major renovation. While I am not sure whether or not this is a natural cycle in Omonia or Athens proper, looking back, I find it a very quick rotational cycle for the businesses. Which lead me to ask: how long have businesses, on average, lasted at Omonia Square? This question, however, would have to remain unanswered.
Recollecting my fieldwork around Omonia, two vignettes stand out in my mind. The first shop I had interviewed was called “Feodras’s Leather” – a small leather boutique completely packed with bags, satchels, and backpacks of all shapes, sizes and materials located north of Omonia Square and run by an elderly man named Feodras with his family. As I did not speak the language and did not know what would be an effective manner of approach towards the store clerks of this area, I initially had an informant speak with Feodras. Unabashedly, my informant entered the small leather shop and bluntly asked if his products were “legitimate”. At first, Feodras resisted, claiming that everything in the store was perfectly legal and came from fair, legitimate sources, while products that were illegitimate came from several stores in the area, but had no place here. But after a while of conversation between Feodras and my informant, Feodras revealed that the majority of the bags that he sold came from China, which conflicted with my observation. Nearly all of the tags on the bags said that the bags came from Italy, or from Europe proper. Feodras then proceeded to describe to my informant in fairly great detail how the shadow market in Athens operates, which I have discussed several pages back. This grand gesture of trust by Feodras really surprised me. Within minutes, he confided to my informant that not only what he was doing was not exactly legitimate, but he also gave him a concise overview of the shadow market’s role in Athens. Later, I had come back to Feodras’s shop to ask him a few more questions, albeit in English. His answers remain an anomaly in my fieldwork. Not only was he the most trusting of me, his store had experienced a small but significant surge in middle class shoppers after the crisis, thereby confirming my hypothesis.
This fieldwork experience, however, remains juxtaposed with my experience interviewing the shopkeepers of Ali Mobile. Their store banner contained more English than it did Greek, and so I assumed correctly that the clerks there would have a fluent understanding of English. To confirm that Ali Mobile fell under my research criteria, I browsed what they offered for sale on their window display. Seeing several cell phones which had very significant scratches and paint loss on their screens, keys, and body, I had come to the conclusion that this store sold items that were unseen by the government’s eye. As I was window shopping so to speak, I observed a man enter the store with a small child and a dog. He greeted the shopkeepers and spoke with them joyfully. He then proceeded to pull out an Ultrabook from a plastic shopping bag, along with its power adapter. Once he surrendered the computer, the shopkeepers observed the exterior of the laptop, and opened it, continuing to look solely on its exterior condition. There was no receipt or warranty of any sort, nor was there any official packaging. Ultimately I saw no monetary exchange between the man and the shopkeepers, but I found it incredibly peculiar that a brand name Ultrabook in pristine condition had been dropped off at this particular electronics shop, which practically seemed to specialize in used and cheap-end electronics, in this notorious part of town. The fact that there was no monetary exchange made it all seem so much more unusual to me. Once the man left, I entered the store. I carried out my interview questions to the shopkeepers. Their answers by and large challenged my hypothesis – business has been bad, their main consumer base were the migrants and lower class residents of Athens, with no change in demographic after the brunt of the crisis had been weathered. But what stood out to me the most, was the guardedness that the shopkeepers had shown. I felt one of them intently staring down my notebook as I was taking jot notes on the answers they were giving me. Thankfully, he did not speak English, so I had assumed he could not read what I was writing and asking. Despite me proclaiming myself as a student, and listing details about where I lived in Canada to prove that I was in no way a local, they nevertheless asked me at the end of the interview whether I was working for the government or the police. Their body language was very guarded and pensive, and they seemed to be rather uncomfortable. When I had carefully asked them where they get their products from, the man who I assumed was the head shopkeeper loudly, almost defensively proclaimed that all the products in his store were brand new, never used before, and completely legitimate. I decided not to probe him about the cell phones by the window, or the Ultrabook exchange that I had just witnessed taking place, seeing as how I had already made them uncomfortable through fairly simple, non-intrusive questions. This interview was very different from my interview with Feodras. Feodras was open nearly to the point of fault and his answers painted a picture that matched my hypothesis, whereas this interview gave answers that went directly against my hypothesis, and the subjects were very careful and guarded with their responses. At Ali Mobile, I felt that I was on the cusp of understanding how influential the shadow market was on the operations of shops around Omonia, but clearly I did not earn the trust of the employees there for it to be taken further.
In conclusion, my interviews at Omonia Square gave me results that varied from my hypothesis. All of the businesses that I conducted interviews with stated that they were doing poorly since the crisis. Only one business noted that they had more middle class consumers post-crisis. The big middle class shift that I had expected was not there. As a result of my fieldwork here, I decided to look further. Perhaps Omonia was not quite the place I needed to be looking in. Perhaps I needed to interview more middle class consumers, rather than business owners and shopkeepers.
More People, More Places
Meeting people in Athens is not a very hard activity. The nightlife is amazingly vibrant. People often stay up until 6 am, and nightclubs and bars are usually teeming with people seven days of the week. Athenians are also more than eager to meet new people, with no discretion towards immigrants, tourists, or native Greeks. This is especially true of the younger generations of Athenians – those aged from 20 to 29. By going out, I had the luck to meet several middle class Athenians in this age group, and ask them several questions regarding my project. Their answers generally followed the same train of thought. The shadow market was a teeming enterprise in Athens and visually, it was nearly unavoidable. Nearly all of them could point out a street or an individual they knew that was noted for selling products that did not seem to be very legitimate. However, despite knowing it was there, and knowing it sold commodity items at a much more discounted rate, they seemed detached from it. They seemed to regard it more as a marketplace for the poor or less well-off than for themselves. In any case, they did not seem to view it as a place where they would go to shop for commodities. One of the people I interviewed, Agneta, was a 23-year-old resident of Athens. She had recently completed university and had just been hired as a kindergarten teacher at the time of my interview with her. While she was in university, she had worked as a store clerk at the Hondos Centre located in Omonia Square. Hondos is a chain of retail supermarkets in Greece, and they have several stores dotting all over Athens. The Hondos Center at Omonia was a six story tall building, with each floor containing several stores which sold a specific type of commodity. The first floor exclusively sold jewelry and makeup, the second floor was women’s clothing, third was children’s clothing, etc. As a clerk, Agneta could be working at any one of the small stores in the centre. As a whole, she said that the store was largely empty, unless there was a large sale happening. Interestingly enough, she said most of the people shopping there were middle class. However, she did not have the experience of working there before or during the crisis, so it was impossible to compare how this may have changed post-crisis. Another interesting observation she made was that wealthy individuals often came there to buy toys – especially when there was a sale happening in that section of the store. While her experience working at Hondos was intriguing, I could not fully apply it to my hypothesis as she had not worked there prior to the crisis and had no knowledge of how Hondos was before the crisis. Plus, Hondos by and large sold quality, brand-name goods. At one point when I was with her, Agneta pulled out her cell phone, an iPhone 4. There were no Apple Stores, or even legitimate Apple retailers in Greece, which had greatly inflated the price of the iPhone in the country. Effectively, this made the iPhone a powerful symbol of status throughout Greece. Agneta proceeded to absent-mindedly describe to her friend the process she went through to get the phone. She went to a small electronics shop not unlike those dotting the area around Omonia, requested one, and received one second-hand, along with a set of headphones and a USB cable. She paused for a moment, and then looked at me, realizing that such a purchase pertains directly to my project. She quickly apologized for not telling me this before, and further explained that such purchases were so ordinary among young, middle class Greeks even before the crisis that they overlook the fact that the sources that they are purchasing from can be classified as shadow market stores. Her friends recounted similar stories. One of them bought her phone off of eBay, whereas two others got their phones in a process similar to Agneta’s. I understood this as part of the way of life here, as imported electronics here came with soaring levies and taxes. As an example, the Xbox One, a gaming console, would be sold brand new in Athens for around €800, or $1200 Canadian, whereas in Canada, the same product would be sold for $499 – less than half the price of what it would be sold for in Athens. Cell phones were no exception to these taxes and import fees, yet they were just as popular among young adults in Athens as they are among young adults in North America. Where there is demand, an accessible source of supply will be found. In this regard, the shadow market had gained an upper hand. One could assume that relying on the shadow market for electronics would increase after the crisis, but more research would have to be done to come to true conclusions. After all, the shopkeepers that I had interviewed all said their businesses were not in good financial standing. Ultimately, my time with middle class young adults in Athens was fruitful, but much like my fieldwork at Omonia, my hypothesis remained elusive. They acknowledged the presence of the shadow market and its size, but they did not acknowledge themselves as users; instead, they diverted the customer base to the elderly and the poor. But, it is crucial to note that they referred to the shadow market for electronics and in particular, cell phones, as government fees and control over imported electronics had driven mainstream market prices to near unattainable levels. Then again, the shopkeepers at Omonia did not feel such a sentiment. I continued my search, intrigued by my own results.
Several informants had told me of the existence of several Chinese-owned shops in the area northeast of Syntagma Square, just before Omonia. These shops largely contained goods that came direct from China, which were very low quality, and never truly legitimate. Of course, I had to go see these shops for myself.
I didn’t realize, however, how much these shops would impact the results of my findings.
I stumbled into the area largely by accident, and upon realizing where I was, I continued to venture deeper into the area. There were many such stores absolutely filled to the brim with what seemed like to be nearly anything one could imagine. Dirty white boxes filled with anything from socks to candy to spices to CD cases all over the floors. And indeed, the products had been very low quality and for sale at bargain prices. They felt more like warehouses than stores, and it seemed like it would be a challenge to try to get across from one end of the store to the other. These shops were exclusively run by Chinese migrants, and the owner’s name was usually also the name of the store. This area was absolutely filled with stores like these, and indeed was exactly what I was looking for. I knew I was only on the surface, yet I felt like I was very close to the thick of it. However, the more I wandered down the area, the more unnerved I felt. I was the only white Caucasian male there, as far as I could see. Everyone here was a foreign migrant, for the most part, South Asian or Chinese. I saw people staring at me with anger in their eyes. I slowly began to realize that I was really standing out. Several people I passed by asked me what I was doing there, those people being migrants. The longer I was there, the more fear began to take a hold of me. After being in the area for around twenty minutes, I turned around and took the quickest route out. Getting out of there felt almost as relieving as finishing the final exam before the summer break began.
I think that the way I experienced this quadrant of town could be directly applied to my research. As stated before, I was the only white male there. Only migrants were shopping at the Chinese-owned shops. Only migrants populated the streets of this quadrant of town. I felt terribly out of place, and the locals there almost seemed to smell it off of me. This was an area that provided all sorts of commodities – electronics, clothing, jewelry, and groceries – at very low quality, very large quantity, and very low prices. According to my hypothesis, this would be a place where struggling middle class Athenians would be shopping to make their ends meet. However, even after coming back to the region a few days later and spending more than an hour there, I still did not see anyone who would fit this category. Both times I had went there, I had received stares and comments which indicated that I was unwelcome there; that I was an oddity, a sheep lost from the herd. This was the polar opposite of what I had stated in my hypothesis.
Nonetheless, I was left wondering, if my hypothesis was wrong, where exactly did it go wrong? One evening, I was invited along with my classmates and my professor/informant to the suburban home of Iris, a notable but retired actress in the Greek cinema industry. Her answers reflected much of what I had heard before. Few people who were middle class used the shadow market; they simply swallowed their pride and bought fewer commodities with what they could afford. There were a few older people who, in attempts to remain fashionable, would seek out the shadow market to buy a bag at a lower price, but such individuals were few and considered to be anomalies. As the night went on, I described to her my hypothesis, and asked her how accurate it would be. She went on to say that, there was no large middle class group struggling to maintain their status by purchasing more frequently from the shadow market. Those who shopped at shadow market stores were effectively lower class. The poor got poorer, and so, those who were poor before the crisis became too poor to afford commodities from the shadow market, and those who were middle class before the crisis became lower class and took to shopping at shadow market stores, resigning to no longer being members of the middle class. Effectively, this would explain why the shops around Omonia experienced no boom in business after the crisis. This would explain why the people who shopped at Omonia remained being lower class citizens. This would explain why the middle class still relegates the shadow market as the orifice of the poor and precarious and why their opinions on the political regulation of the economy did not change after the crisis.
Looking at the calendar, I put my pen down, close my field notebook, and begin to pack for my journey home. An anthropologist’s fieldwork rarely, if ever, draws concrete conclusions, but in any case, it was time for me to go.
My methodology over the course of my ethnography revolved heavily on attempting to gain a better understanding of, and perhaps trying to enter the shadow market of Athens. In order to get a better understanding of it, I focused on trying to find an area where I could break into it; to be immersed by it, to become enveloped in it to fully comprehend its magnitude and scope. In order to try and break into it, I investigated. I found an area where I believed the shadow market would have a strong presence (Omonia Square) and I carried out interviews there with shopkeepers. However, my interview technique, as I only realized later, was heavily flawed. I was entering shops, asking shop clerks if they spoke English, then proceeded to pull out my field notebook and ask them a set of pre-made questions. This made nearly all of my subjects very nervous, and they presented much caution towards me and the questions I had asked them. What I should have done was approach them, and open with a discussion about one of their products, or something similar. Then, I should have guided the discussion in the direction I wanted to take it in; an informative one that would answer my questions as based on how well the business is doing, what kind of people purchase these goods, etc. I outlined in my proposal that I would be as much of an unobtrusive observer as possible, but with the method that I was employing, I was doing the complete opposite. In part due to my blunderous methods, I had failed to completely penetrate the shadow market. The other reason why I had failed to access the black market like I outlined in my proposal was that I did not understand what type of people were involved in the shadow market; by and large, they were minority migrants. Even if I had tried to blend in by wearing local clothing, I would still have had to have a mastery of Greek, which I could not have acquired over the course of a month. I could not have been able to penetrate it without acquiring the trust of someone involved in it. I would have needed an informant who was already heavily involved in the shadow market who I could trust, who could guide me into it and show me around it, giving me a better understanding of its inner workings. Although I did not state this in my proposal, I was ultimately hinging on finding someone who would take this role. Unfortunately, I could not find one, and had practically scared off any potential informant through my interview methods. The “intimate relationships” that I had outlined in my proposal did not happen for these reasons.
I tried to stick to my original timeline in my proposal as much as possible, and while I did not penetrate through to the shadow market, I feel that I stuck to it fairly well. Through immersing myself in the culture in Geertzian fashion, I gained a much better understanding of the Greek people, of the Greek culture, and the Greek way of life. This understanding that I had gained through immersing myself led me to understand how the Athenian middle class perceives the shadow market that perpetuates strongly throughout the city. Nevertheless, I found it very hard to be an unobtrusive observer as I had no translator, or translating informants, and I did not entirely understand what would be going on in some circumstances, due to my lack of understanding of the Greek language. Although I had counted on this, I had not counted on it being such a big issue. On the other hand, I met several Athenian locals who were more than happy to answer my questions and interact with me on my subject and their lives in general. Even though they were not involved in the shadow market, they gave me the critical periphery outlook which I was searching for. While this was not mentioned in my ethnography (as I thought it would poorly fit the narrative and take up space) I also spent quite some time observing population movement around Omonia Square and the Hondas Center there to achieve an understanding of what sorts of people frequented this area. Much like the rest of my findings, my observations only ended up skimming my hypothesis. Most of the people who entered Hondas Centre were middle to upper-middle class, and nearly all of them were entering the store to get one or two items, and leave quickly, rushing back to the subway station. Few people that day seemed to buy items related to livelihood, but instead more oriented towards clothing and makeup. None seemed to be locals at Omonia, and few looked like they were struggling to make ends meet. There were nearly no other Athenian locals who I would label as middle class to be found at Omonia, other than those leaving and entering Hondos Center.
In conclusion, my methods, as listed in my proposal, were focused on the Geertzian concept of “Thick Description” – to fully immerse myself amongst the Athenian people, and use this immersion to my advantage in finding out how the shadow market operates. While I got a strong insight on how the shadow market is perceived from the periphery of the younger Athenian middle class, I failed to penetrate it, in part to my botched interview methods, in part to my lack of knowledge of the Greek language, and in part to lacking an informant who would be willing to take a white Caucasian male into a zone that was nearly monopolized by minority foreigners. That being said, I still believe that I had achieved what I wanted to do with the paper; I presented how common Athenians see and use the shadow market in a place like Athens in a text that can be accessed by an academic as well as casual audience. While my hypothesis was wrong, I had found out what made it wrong, and where I can continue next, if I were to ever come back to this topic of research.
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Brief Note on Sources – if source looks like its unsourced, it is part of a larger collection of information collected and then cited when the collection of knowledge attained from citation is complete.