I’m in my mum’s country, Croatia, on an island called Murter. It was here, a good 45 years ago, that I was first unsettled by money matters. Back then, it was the Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia. There were market stalls in the village selling old-school tourist tat, carvings, embroidered cloths and so on. I was around seven years old and holding my mum’s hand as she pointed at a wooden donkey. She asked the bloke: “How much?” He gave her the price and, here’s the thing, she shook her head and said: “Ne.” Huh? What did she mean, no? I squinted up at her, appalled. But the old chap didn’t seem to mind and an agreement was soon reached for her to purchase said donkey for about half the original asking price.
This, my first exposure to bartering or haggling or whatever you want to call it, straightforward as it was, seems to have scarred me for life. I cannot bear the process and I am consequently hopeless at it. To me, it strikes at the very heart of trust and integrity. If a bloke offers me a wooden donkey – they’re still there – for 100 kuna, and I then offer him, say, 50 kuna, that seems to me to be the height of rudeness. It feels as if I’m saying to him: “OK, you cheat, you’re trying to sell me something worth half what you’re trying to get out of me.” I always feel I might be punched or sworn at, but all the evidence is that people don’t mind at all. If and when they do drop the price to 50 kuna, it actually makes me quite angry. It turns out they were, after all, trying to sell me something for double its worth. How dare they?
Only this week I wanted to take my girls to Plitvice, Croatia’s lake district, for a couple of days. A friend of mine recommended a hotel and told them to expect my call. They offered me a big room for two nights at a 20% discount. I was thrilled, until I saw this discounted price, which was eyewatering. I then checked the hotel’s website and saw the price on there was actually lower than the one they had quoted me, “discount” included. And, even better, the booking.com price was even lower than that. In a huff, I told them I wasn’t coming. When they asked why, I told them. And now I’m getting a 20% discount on the lowest booking.com price. It gives me no pleasure. I dislike them greatly for what they tried to do to me.
And obviously it is not just Croats – far from it. Back home, I have a friend for whom every major retail name is fair game for a haggle, but my issue is with professional advice: in my experience, lawyers, accountants, estate agents, builders and just about everyone else are hard at it. It is the way business seems to work. It depresses me. Why can’t there just be an honest price you have to pay? Is this what capitalism is all about, everybody trying to shaft everyone else? Or is this haggling the lubricant that helps capitalism to function (or not, as the case may be)? I’ll pay the asking price for a wooden donkey and bring it home for whoever can give me an answer.
• Adrian Chiles is a writer, broadcaster and Guardian columnist