Things of Latvia: School Markets

There's a peculiar tradition on Miķeļi (September 29), known in English as Michaelmas, for kids to bring homemade trinkets, food and other things to school for sale. It could be seen as an attempt to instill entrepreneurial spirit among young people, but wherever there are children involved, things are bound to slide off course. 

It is a given that most of the wares for the Miķeļi markets -- sometimes such markets are also held on Mārtiņi, November 10 -- are actually made with the help of competitive parents, the most ambitious of whom do the most, if not all, of the work. 

Parental involvement was a big part in the most vivid experience I had of these things. Flash back to Latvian grade four in the early 2000s. Me and mom have spent the evening before Miķeļi making garlic sticks with rye bread and butter. In the morning, I march into the classroom, eager to sell off these little tasty things, with garlic that not only fends off vampires and overeager girlfriends but also all diseases, as Latvians know very well.

Disappointingly, I found that everyone else's stuff was much cooler: boys and girls were selling dazzling goods like sugared cranberries, oven-baked apples coated with cinnamon and caramel, and waffles and popcorn. These not only looked better but were actually sweet and much more attuned to children's tastes.

There were also pretty necklaces made from chestnuts and acorns, and dainty baskets spread with bright green moss with candy nestling inside. And then there was an abundance of Jumji (twin fruit and vegetables) from everyone's gardens, but they were not usually for sale, being more in the order of show pieces and advertisements of general excellence.

This was pre-Instagram, mind you. I was impressed.

And then there was Aleksandrs, who sat next to me in class. He had a cardboard box spread out with rags. There was corn and a small plastic cup of water inside. Four hamsters were in there too, and each cost one lat (about 1.5 euros). The teacher raised her eyebrows when she saw the tiny things all bundled up in there, but said nothing. 

I had only half a lat to my name, and I passed up the hamsters. Ashamed, I covered my meager offering -- who would really want these salty things that make your breath and fingers smell bad? -- with a paper towel and walked around the school gloomily, looking for something to buy for half a lat or less, to keep my mind off things.

Soon I was standing at someone selling cups of coke, but I would much rather get something I could keep and cherish later. About that time I saw a classmate with what appeared to be a Weedle (a kind of Pokemon) around his neck. It was a worm-like thing made from white apples.

He was visibly depressed, as if no one would like to become the proud master of this amazing creature. Plus it actually had a large Chupa Chups lollipop (around 40 santims' worth) serving as its tail, two small Chupa Chups for the eyes (each about 10 santims) and one for the horn, not to mention the impressive craftsmanship. 

I walked up to him, and said that I only had fifty santims. Amazingly, he immediately sold it to me. No-one had yet warmed up to the prospect of owning a Weedle (the hamsters were still monopolizing all the attention). Most of the kids were still busy at their own stands. That's why no one else had bought it.

The rest of the day is blurred in my memory, until the market was about to close and everyone was exhausted. That was as good a time as any to try selling my puny garlic sticks, and I set the price at a modest two santims apiece. 

The teacher bought one and asked why I hadn't brought them into the open earlier. Others followed suit. The sticks only lasted ten minutes.

The market ended but we still had two lessons left that day. That's how Latvians are, always so studious.

The hamsters lasted longer than the garlic sticks, but not much longer. My seatmate Aleksandrs sold them all, one to a girl named Rudīte, a pretty girl with red hair. She put her baby hamster inside her locker. The teacher would not allow it in class.

Rudīte was crying after the break. The teacher asked her what was wrong, but we already knew. The atmosphere turned solemn, and after school news broke out that other hamsters had suffered a similar fate.

Aleksandrs' parents were called to school the next day and repaid the poor kids. Maybe the hamsters weren't weaned properly, or maybe they all froze to death in the cold school lockers.

Having seen how ugly capitalism can get, I was nevertheless quite content with my lot. A short while after buying my bargain Weedle, I sold it for one lat, racking up a 100% profit. Business is business. Plus the girl who bought it was saved the trauma of buying a hamster.


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