My first and only visit to Beijing, as the guest of a telephone company, was short and closely chaperoned. China was open, but not yet giddily so, in the late 90s -- and as journalists, we were inevitably given an earnest, slightly irritating guide who was more of a government minder.
But that was okay, right up until the day of departure, when what had promised to be a free Saturday morning turned out to be a compulsory bus trip to the Forbidden City. Perhaps it's better now, but the Forbidden City struck me as a thunderously dull sort of historical site. Oh look! Another nested square inside the previous nested square!
What made it particularly irksome for me was that there and back on the bus trip were visible the really interesting places on a Saturday morning in Beijing: the markets. I twitched as we rolled past the corner of a market square festooned with birds in cages. Now that looked good.
Because the fact is, if you want to get a feel for people, you go where they directly do commerce with each other. Trawling the markets of Hong Kong was a glimpse into the backstage of multiple worlds: manufacturing, branded sportswear, the things that could be construed as food. In Brixton, I never felt more of a Londoner than when I was addressing plump lady stallholders as "love".
Visitors to New Zealand were long denied such joys. We have largely been a nation of shopkeepers, not stallholders. But more recently -- ironically, in parallel with the growth of big-box retail -- we have gained our markets.
When I returned from a long OE in the early 1990s, the bright colours and informal networks of South Auckland's Otara Market helped me work out where Auckland was at. On the other hand, the central city, once home to the bohemian, edgy, Cook Street Market, had only the tourist tat of Victoria Park. This, too, was instructive.
In the past decade, following the boom in Britain, we've seen the growth of our farmers' markets. They're a mixed bag. For every site where you can buy food warmly and directly from the people who grew it, there's another, pricey and full of people you'd usually pay to avoid.
But there are now two Auckland markets I visit most weekends. One is the "French style" market run by the Parnell importer La Cigale. It doesn't tend to be cheap, but it is stocked with delicious things, and some of the vendors -- Mamaku Blue with their buckets of spray-free blueberries and Genevieve with her mueslis and salad dressing -- feel virtually like friends. Sometimes -- if I've earned it by riding there -- I'll have a butter-tastic French savoury.
My other regular could hardly be more different. No one at Avondale Markets has, to my knowledge, ever invited me to join their mailing list or to "Like" them on Facebook. I don't know any of their names and they don't ever seem to recognise me. And it's fabulous.
Sunday mornings at Avondale Racecourse, home to the markets since the early 1970s, are time spent at the melding edges of Auckland. If you want an idea of what's fashionable, see what's thrown out. If you want to see how we relate, watch a Thai haggle with a Pakistani over a rice-cooker, or a Chinese baker practising his conversational Maori on his customers: "Kia ora!"
At La Cigale, we're often invited to grab a complimentary sprig of French tarragon after we've bought our veges. At Avondale, I'm sometimes not sure what the herbs even are, but the amount of basil you can buy for $3 is totally mad.
It teaches you to shop assertively. The Chinese matrons know that big pile of peppers is cheap because it's on the turn and they'll stand there urgently inspecting each one and throwing the bad ones back till they have a bag full. The market is not like the supermarket.
Avondale does actually have a slightly mad website, which confirms that products and services can be sold at the market "as long as it is not any of the following. Absolutely NO food or eatable based products," of which they apparently have plenty already, and "Absolutely NO live animal products," which is doubtless a good thing.
But it's the news section of the site that's the most spirited. It reads, in full:
We hear these silly rumours about the market closing down almost every week, and we get asked if this is true, the answer is NO, the market will never close down or relocate, as its on council land and this land can NEVER be sold for housing or for anything at all as it is zoned as a park.
These are just silly rumours put out buy [sic] silly people, we will be here on every Sunday rain hail or snow.
And in a world of tidy, managed, branded retail and gentrifying suburbs, we should all be glad of that continuing fact.
This column originally appeared in Red Bulletin magazine in February 2013. The photograhs below were taken with an iPhone 4S at Avondale Markets over the past two years. You should feel free to post your own photographs in comments for this post. Upload pictures using the "choose file" button. Limit file sizes to around 1MB.