On Tuesday, my family and I went to check out one of the four farmers’ markets that occur each week in our city during the summer. We go with high hopes, but always come away disappointed. We have to commend our city for attempting to have regular markets, but they leave a lot to be desired. We chose to visit this particular market because there was supposed to be live music, which I thought would be fun for the kids. The band was listed as “bluegrass,” which is not normally my genre of choice, but if it’s lively and upbeat, it could lend an energetic atmosphere to the market. Instead, it turned out to be one man singing sad, mellow ballads. Way to bring down the mood, dude. There were only about ten stalls total: milk, honey, rock jewelry, bagels and flowers, and then the rest were all selling the same vegetables on the same tables under the same tents. It took us about two minutes to walk from one end to the other, only because we were creeping along. The kids got a free carton of milk and the girls drew on the street with sidewalk chalk and that was it. They try here, they do, but I think they’re missing out on all a market could be. They could use a visit to a real European market. To a French market!
The French appreciate fresh produce and fresh food in general; even with the influx of convenience foods in recent years, most people still shop frequently throughout the week. They have to — their kitchens and refrigerators are so small, there’s no sense buying in bulk. But there is so much more to the market than just the produce!
The town where we lived was Rueil-Malmaison, a suburb of Paris. We lived in centre ville, and three times a week (Tuesday, Saturday and Sunday mornings) we were treated to a fabulous market. I made my first visit in July 2005, shortly after we moved from the States. I didn’t know what to expect, never having been to anything like it before, so I was a little intimidated. It was probably the best time of year for my inaugural visit because the town was half emptied out in the annual French tradition of les vacances. When they vacate, they really vacate. Because of that, the market wasn’t nearly as busy as it was the rest of the year. Everything I had read said to choose a vendor and then establish a relationship with them with repeat business, but there weren’t really any tips on how to choose a good one. What if I chose a vendor and he turned out to sell me mushy potatoes and wilted lettuce all the time? Would I be stuck with him? How do you break up with the vegetable guy? That’s some kind of pressure. Fortunately, I chose possibly the best produce vendor out there. I never did get his name, but in my head I called him Monsieur Legume (Mister Vegetable). He was so good-natured, he probably would have even liked that nickname. I nervously approached his stand — several long tables pushed together, stacked high with strawberries, plums, peaches, nectarines, melons, apples and more, and behind him was an artful displayof onions, several types of lettuce and other greens, carrots, and potatoes. I don’t remember what I bought that first time, but I do remember how Monsieur Legume set me at ease right away. He asked why I wasn’t on vacation, too, and I replied that I had only just arrived in France! He was intrigued and of course, wanted to know where I was from (an American who speaks French?! Et sans accent? Pas vrai!) and he called me Mademoiselle, which I found endearing. 🙂 “Sold! Give me one of everything!” Ok, not really, but I was convinced that he would be a vendor worthy of my patronage. Nearly every week, I would come with a vague idea of what I wanted, he would make suggestions and carefully choose each piece of fruit or vegetable before he weighed it and placed it in my market bag. During busier times, he had helpers: his very tall son whose name I forgot, a grumpy man who really wasn’t in as bad a mood as he appeared, and a girl a few years younger than me named Sue-Ellen (“Mes parents ont regardé beacoup de “Dallas,” she explained with an embarrassed smile.)
After my weekly visit to M. Legume, I would then take my time to wander the rest of the market. I could easily spend an hour down there, checking out all the different stalls. All of the food vendors were housed under the central covered area. Among them could be found several fruit & vegetable stands (each with different wares and displays); fresh seafood lying on beds of ice; naked chickens and other poultry sitting side-by-side in a case; honey and beeswax products; gourmet candies and nuts; charcuterie (cured meats); cuts of beef and lamb; towers of cheeses; fresh-made crêpes; par-cooked seafood casseroles encased in pastry (I have no name for these, but they were really good); eggs, sausages, and more. You really could buy everything you needed for the week right there.
Then, on the perimeter of the market, things got even more interesting: cut flowers; potted flowers; baby clothes; sewing supplies; tablecloths & napkins; jeans; toys; purses; men’s shoes & women’s shoes (with flattened boxes to stand on while you tried on your size); hats, scarves and gloves; boxes of socks to sort through; handmade jewelry and trinket jewelry; dresses and sweaters hanging with portable changing rooms nearby; pottery; antique furniture; porcelain dishware for every purpose (garlic keeper, anyone?); vacuum cleaner parts and dish gloves; hair accessories and sunglasses; books; flower pots; clothes for young girls; clothes for old women; CDs and DVDs. If you could think if it, it was probably there. Wouldn’t you want to go to a market like that? This market happened all year round, rain or shine, unlike most markets here that run just through the summer. Admittedly, I didn’t linger as long on a rainy February day, but the market always merited a walk-through just to see. Some vendors set up just every other week, swapping out with others, so there was always something new to look at.
The market was a social event, even if you didn’t know another soul there you felt a part of the community, a shared experience with hundreds of other people. I remember walking down the main street in town, and feeling the energy and excitement growing in the air as I neared the market plaza. Once I rounded the corner, it felt like stepping onto a carnival midway: Everyone was enjoying the morning out, the opportunity to bump into friends, the possibilities awaiting at the many, many stalls. My kids would not have been bored at that market, even without music. I can only hope that someday our city’s markets will live up to all that they can be.
And to Monsieur Legume and Sue-Ellen, wherever you are: Vous me manquez.