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  • Debra Palmen

Learning How to Haggle in Jaffa

Updated: Aug 26, 2022

At this time of year, the hot, dry plains surrounding Tel Aviv are drab shades of brown, sand and white limestone, punctuated with dusty greens from eucalyptus trees and the deep almost black-greens of pencil pines. There are occasional huge bushes of flowering bougainvillea, providing a stark contrast to the dusty, wilted landscape in which they sit.

Further out you find citrus and pomegranate orchards, together huge groves of date palms and olive trees. Often these fields are surrounded by thick, impenetrable barriers of prickly pear – if you want to steal some fruit your prize will be hard won.

The city of Tel Aviv is modern and its builders certainly didn’t place a great emphasis on architectural merit. The buildings are primarily off-white, dirty-cream and concrete colour and overwhelmingly they feature a brutal modernist design. Actually, that’s being a little too kind. It’s more like brutal ‘functionalist’ design – it provides shelter but has little aesthetic appeal.

Many years ago I was offered a posting to Tel Aviv. Apply and you’re guaranteed to get the job, I was told. So much for merit selection. It was actually part of a not very subtle plot to get me out of the country so I would stop proving to be such a distraction to a certain case officer who management preferred to concentrate on his job.

At the time his job was to thwart a rather serious terrorist organisation that was trying to set up shop in Australia, so you can see management’s point. But seeing how Douglas went on to become the 3rd most highly ranked officer in his organisation and we’ve now been together 35 years, I would say he was able to focus on me and his job, wouldn’t you agree? And I worked in the same area, so in my own small way I did my own little bit of thwarting as well.

Now I’ve seen Tel Aviv I’m glad I didn’t wind up living there for a few years. Having said that, many young Israeli men have a certain lean, hard look that’s quite attractive. Just saying ….

But I digress. The job offer included the opportunity to train with Shin Bet (the internal Israeli intelligence service), which I did find appealing. But in addition to my dalliance with Douglas, I was just about to start my degree and decided on career advancement through intellect rather than killer strangle-hold. But who knows, maybe a quick demonstration of krav maga in interviews would have worked a treat. Hey it worked for Jason Bourne.

But those were the good old days. Fast forward many years and today we’re having fun as antiques dealers. And fortunately, as antiques dealers that means we have to travel about, finding new locations to buy great things. Well we don’t have to, but why wouldn’t we? And that led us to Jaffa.

Jaffa is an ancient seaside town that today is more-or-less an outer suburb of Tel Aviv. It’s retained much of its old character and charm, with stone buildings often covered in distressed render. Many windows feature big old pale blue wooden shutters, some nicely distressed, some that left ‘distressed’ behind a long time ago and are clearly about to fall off their hinges.

This area is home to many artist’s studios and interior design shops, as well as packed to the gunnels with higgledy-piddledy vintage shops, some full of utter junk, some with surprisingly good finds. It’s also full of cool, laid-back, outdoor cafes with a distressed, vintage, almost steampunk feel. Certainly many stylish young Israelis are drawn to the area, as well as a whole lot of tourists. The food at the cafes is cheap and delicious, and as usual Doug ordered the best things. When will I learn to just copy him?

We booked a hotel right in the middle of the flea market precinct and immediately set out to explore. The actual Jaffa flea market is a large, ramshackle trash and treasure bazaar, mostly with goods set out on the ground, mostly things you wouldn’t glance at twice. Some of the surrounding shops were just as ramshackle - in some you weren’t quite sure if it was an actual shop or someone’s very junky storage shed. But others offered great opportunities to bury yourself in a bit of rummaging, with the bonus of eventually surfacing with great finds.

Doug told me the wrong exchange rate between the shekel and Australian dollar, so initially I was thrilled with the prices and had big plans about buying up a storm on future trips and shipping it all home. When he realised his error that deflated my plans somewhat. A whole lot, in fact. But the prices were still sufficiently good that I could do some shopping and carry home my purchases in my luggage. Not good enough for large-scale shopping and shipping, though.

I was amazed at the amount of good, old French and Italian pieces available in so many shops, together with the huge selection of nautical pieces, especially ships lamps. The first thing I bought was a charming little Italian stovetop coffee maker (it didn’t have a label but it’s called a Minuette if I recall correctly), and a lovely little French porcelain trinket box featuring a peacock on the lid.

A bit further on we found a very heavy Islamic brass pestle and mortar, easily 150 years old. Not cheap, but not totally outrageous and we did like it so it’s coming home too. I’ll offer the coffee maker and porcelain trinket box to customers, but I’m pretty sure Doug won’t be handing over the pestle and mortar for me to sell any time soon.

The ships lamps, and also a good number of theatre lamps on tripods, were much admired but 1) there was no prospect of fitting them into our luggage, and 2) the prices were enormous. The range of interesting lamps on offer was much greater than anything we ever see in Europe, but the prices were more than twice as much.

I found a pile of antique Indian textile stamps at a much better price than those I bought in England, but being wood I couldn’t bring them home in my luggage. Quarantine already has a cow when it sees the stuff I import in my container, and I have no intention of personally engaging with them at the airport at the end of an enormously long flight. Especially when I know they’ll all be confiscated for fumigation – even though they were fumigated to get into Israel in the first place – and that will cost a ridiculous amount. So the fabric stamps had to stay behind, much to my regret.

We found a 1950s salon hair dryer that looked for all the world like an alien mind-control device, and I totally loved it. If there was any prospect whatsoever of fitting it into my luggage it would have come home for sure. It was only the second one we’d ever seen, with the first one being at the Peterborough Fair on this trip. The one at the Fair that had been turned into the coolest ever lamp, but the price was ludicrously high so it had to say behind and so did the one in Jaffa.

After an afternoon and next morning touring Jaffa, it was time to leave for Jerusalem. We wanted to catch a late-morning train so we could get to Jerusalem at a good hour and find our way through the Old City to our hostel, buried deep in the labyrinth of souks in the Muslim Quarter.

But during one last sweep through the flea market precinct I found a lovely old metal figure of a carp. And yes I did buy that lovely turquoise ceramic carp in the Porte de Vanves market in Paris, so yes it does appear I’m developing a carp thing. There’s got to be something weird behind that. Anyway, this one was going to be easily left behind because the price was way, way too high. So I put it back down.

The seller immediately handed it back to me. Lovely lady, he said, tell me the price you want to pay. So I told him the price. He physically recoiled, clutching his hand over his heart, and nominated a price 10 shekels cheaper than his original outrageous price. No, really, I said, I’ve given you my best price and that’s all I can pay. We have to keep moving because we have a train to catch.

Lovely lady, he said, you really don’t have the first idea about haggling, do you? I nominate a price, then you nominate a lower price. Then I tell you how ridiculous your offer is but slightly lower my price. Then you tell me what a criminal I am but slightly raise your price. And so on. In the end we will arrive at a price we both like. So, let us begin again. I will start. And he lowered his asking price by another 10 shekels.

I understand, I said, and ordinarily that sounds like fun. But we really do have a train to catch, so I’ve gone straight to the best price I’m prepared to pay. Because we really do have to go.

Can’t you raise your price by a little bit? he asked. Then I will lower mine by a little bit ….

If you’re not picturing the haggling scene from the Life of Brian at this point, you need to watch that movie straight away. I turned to Doug. The Romans are closing in and all I want is this fish, I whispered. Then it was all he could do to keep a straight face.

I put the fish down. I’m so sorry, I said. I love this fish and I would like to buy it. But this is all I can pay and now we really must go because we have a train to catch. And that secured the deal.

But we did miss the train.

Jaffa flea market was fun, and the entire precinct has a very cool vibe. I have no doubt that with a little longer I could have found plenty more things to squirrel away in my luggage. But not enough things, and not good enough prices to warrant inclusion on a future buying trip. The prices asked for good old French kitchenware were comparable with Paris, and actually a lot more expensive than my contacts in the French provinces offer me.

The lady from whom we bought the pestle and mortar told me that the best antiques and vintage shopping in Israel is actually in Haifa, about an hour from Jaffa. So that’s something to consider should our travels lead us back in this direction.

Next stop, Bet Shemesh.

All change for Jerusalem.

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