by Gabriela Castellanos

I watched as my friends placed their feet inside the clear tank where tiny Garra Rufa fish rapidly swam excited to suction dead skin off their feet. As I stood next to the spa in the Monastiraki flea market, waiting for their 10 minutes with their feet in the tub full of little fish, I looked to my left where a small sky blue pouch outside one of the shops caught my eye. I crossed the street to further inspect it, only to see that it had gold designs all around with the word “Greece” circled in the upper middle. I instantly fell in love with it! Upon looking around, I noticed so many different types of jewelry: leather, chain, sterling silver, gold, copper, and string. They all had different designs like the evil eye, tree of life, and the Phaistos disc. I could not stop my feet from taking me further and further into the shop. As I lingered by the doorway, I saw a woman approaching in my peripheral vision. She smiled warmly at me and encouraged me inside the shop. I looked around and saw the walls were filled nearly ceiling to floor with jewelry, and the fluorescent lights caused the colors of the bracelets and necklaces to shine.

The flea market in Monastiraki is interwoven with ancient ruins.

While I looked around, I learned her name was Athena (after the Greek goddess of wisdom and war, and the patron of Athens city). Athena kept close to answer any questions I might have while managing to not be intrusive at all. My eyes could not have gotten any wider when she told me she and her father made all the jewelry and metal in the store! I soon found myself looking at some of the previously mentioned symbols, in wonder. Athena took the time to explain what each symbol meant. The evil eye is used for protection from a curse that is said to be cast on someone when they are given an evil stare (and evil energy) when they aren’t aware. The tree of life stands for long life or eternal life. And finally, the Phaistos disc contains hieroglyphics that were found in the Minoan palace of Phaistos on the island of Crete.

The evil eye.

As Athena explained these Greek cultural  meanings, the gleam in her eyes brightened, her smile widened, and her hands moved more rapidly. Even when I misunderstood the meaning of something, her demeanor remained open and friendly and she was super willing to help. She not only helped me pick the perfect souvenirs for my family members, but taught me about her “world” and even asked about mine. She asked about where I was from and asked me about San Diego. To my surprise, Athena had really nice things to say about the United States, which was a bit shocking to me considering how many people around the world feel about Americans.

The Phaistos Disc.

My experience with Athena was beautiful because I got to talk to a local Athenian about the elements of culture that are actually important to Greeks. It was humbling to expect a pushy saleswoman and instead to make a friend. My experience with Athena was refreshing in comparison with the typical looks we receive from others while we walk around in a group speaking English, looking like your everyday tourist. Slowing down, asking questions and opening up makes a difference.