This day starts at night. I get up at 5 AM to take a tram to Trastevere. At the tram stop there are only tourists rushing for their early flights and people like me – those who are going to a morning market. Roman famously dysfunctional public transport is much bearable in the morning. I arrive to Porta Portese – the biggest flea market of Rome. There are numerous songs and poems dedicated to this place, the movie Ladri di biccicleta was filmed here. It is running constantly since the 50s and now it is hosting more than one thousand vendors every Sunday.
I catch the time when everybody is only setting up their sands. The noise of folding metal constructions, fully loaded cars are passing around me. After a while everything seems to be ready and the first customers are coming. Articles vary from shoes and clothes to furniture, books and housewares. It is very hard to remember that I am here to do research and not to buy.
There is nothing like ice-breaking in Italy. I don’t have to overcome my timidity, people come to me to talk themselves, because they are curious. First interview is with a couple of vendors that came to try their luck with hand-made jewelry. We chat about the history of the place:
“You are too young, but i remember this place very differently. Twenty years ago it was only Italians selling here, there was nothing like licence for the spot. Everybody was selling their stuff directly from the trunks of their cars. It was very wild and atmospheric. […] Now you see a lot of Moroccans selling clothes made in China, they have a huge network. I think Italians are too lazy to do it and that’s why the products are different now than before.”
When talking about the vendors practices i also accidentally discover an answer to 24/7 opened flowers stand in the city, that Lukas was so curious about:
“There is a well organised chain of people like those who sell flowers… It’s not like you get up in the middle of the night to buy a sunflower, right? Everybody knows they sell drugs, it is a commonly accepted secret and flowers are just a cover-up.”
“[…] Or those who sell the crap to tourists in Trastevere. Do you think they worry about the licence? No way! There is always one of them – a cocou standing at the corner. He whistles when the police arrivers, they pack their shit and run away in a second. After 15 minutes they are back to sell.”
The same topic continues with Tommaso, a director of documentary movies that sells books at Porta Portese for last 20 years:
“Oh yes i remember the old times here! When you had a jacket to sell you would just put in on the floor next to old comic books and perhaps you would sell it to have enough lira for lunch. Now you have to be registered, and pay for the licences. It is only one hundred of us, the strongest once, that are still doing it the old school way. We had to fight with the police and municipality, we were protesting for 6 months and after that they gave us a special permission so we can continue doing this”
We get interrupted by a man looking for a book by a popular Italian poet, the response of my new friend shocks me “No! We dont sell bulshit like this!” after he explains to me “You know, I only sell useful books. I see it as a service to society, to sell good books for a third of their price to poor people”
Tommaso introduces me to Pietro, an old man from Nigeria, selling cleaning compounds at the opposite corner. Pietro (originally Vincent, but prefers to be called Pietro in Italy) came to Rome in 90s and he comes to Porta Portese every Sunday since then. I ask him whether the business was better back then:
“It was not better, it was an absolute paradise! Lira was very strong and the stuff in wholesale didn’t cost anything! We were earning a fortune back then. Now it is very poor, the concurrence is huge plus when you subtract the money you need for licence and for storing the goods you end up with nothing in the end of the month…. I am thinking about giving up, even now I come here just because I like the place. What would I do at home? Sit on my ass? Its nice to come to the market, here you meet people and chat!”
I am very pleased with his answer, he is getting right to the point i wanted to get to – the social aspect of market places. But still, Porta Portese is not the place I am looking for. It is vivid only during the day, after 2 PM all the stands disappear and the restaurants and kafes close as well. I want to observe a transformer – place that is active in various ways all day.