I really hate haggling, dickering, bargaining or whatever else you wish to call it. I would have been a severe disappointment to my Highland ancestors who thought that a good day out could always be had by nipping over into the next glen to negotiate the transfer of cattle from some neighbouring clan, usually at the point of a claymore.
Even though my Lowland mother was also an inveterate seeker after a good price, my aversion is probably a classic example of nurture over nature. When my Dad was stationed in Singapore, I was, apparently, at home speaking in English or in the dialects of our Chinese cook and my amah. I am reliably informed that Mum used to drag me around all the stores and markets, relying on the traders’ favourable reaction to a little, blond-haired and blue-eyed boy, prattling away in a childish mixture of Malay, Hokkien and English. My elder sister tells me that my mother got some really great discounts as a result.
I obviously suppressed the whole thing and I lost my linguistic skills on the troopship home – by the time the ”Empire Trooper” docked in the U.K., I was a monoglot. I had, however, developed this deep and abiding detestation of all aspects of haggling. In due course, I followed the usual route and married a girl just like my mother. I have spent what seems like a large part of my adult life hanging around shops and stalls in various foreign countries making helpful suggestions like ”Just pay them what they want and let’s get on’, while she enjoyed the cut and thrust of striking a bargain.
The Arab quarter in Jerusalem, Turkish bazaars, Thai and Egyptian tourist traps, flea markets in Athens and elsewhere, and street markets in too many cities and countries of Europe to list. You name them, and I’ve been haunted, hunted, harangued and harassed through them. The red mist of bargain-hunting has only descended on me once.
On a Nile cruise, our group went off to visit the temple of Hatshetsup (pre-massacre). They did the usual trick of driving right up to the temple and then parking on the other side of the stalls so that we would have to run the gauntlet on the way back. My wife got back on the bus with one of those little black Egyptian cats for her feline-crazy sister-in-law. When she told me the price, it seemed a lot. It had been a long day and something inside me snapped. I got off the bus and bought an identical one for half the price at another stall. She then got off the bus and came back with one that was even cheaper. The sun was hot and we had time to kill before the stragglers got back from the temple. Those other tourists who were already back on the bus entered into the spirit of things. The stalls were suddenly busy with people buying nothing but cats. It got nasty towards the end. Traders were grabbing cats off each other’s stalls to satisfy demand and we had to drive through reinforcements hurrying up the road with fresh supplies when we finally came to our senses.
Thailand sticks in the memory as well. I once went out without my wife in Bangkok. My watch strap had broken and I had seen a stall selling them about 50 yards from the hotel. I still blush to think of the many and varied delights that I was offered during the short walk involved.
And so to my avatar. This summer, we went on a month long visit to my wife’s cousins in South Africa. On our third day in, we stopped at a small town in what is now called KwaZulu Natal. Aforesaid wife and cousins went to the tourist stall and found some items that they wanted to buy. Not a lot happened because the two guys running the stall were too engrossed in their chess match to come across and sell us anything. When they did finally wander over, the prices quoted were so cheap that even my wife could not be bothered to argue. I thought that I had finally come to a country where I could find true mercantile happiness and I took the picture to commemorate the event. It was, of course, far too good to be true. When we got down to Durban and in amongst the Indian market stalls, we were back to the haggling and my wife was happy again.
With a new year on its way, I feel the need to change my avatar and I have drawn up a short list from which I will choose a replacement, after I recover from Hogmanay.
A Good New Year to those of you who are already in 2008 and a Good New Year (when it comes) to everybody else