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The Saturday Market – My One True Love

11th February 2018

This piece recently ran recently in the Sunday Life magazine in Australia. I am getting ever-so-slightly better with my French every week, even though my mistakes are constant. (Last week, for instance, I said ‘à putain!’ to a school mum instead of ‘à bientôt!’) Also constant: my love of the markets.

I am living in the south of France for a year with my husband Keith and three small children, and I feel like a fish out of water everywhere but one place: the Saturday street market.

This market has been operating in our small medieval town of Sommieres since the 13th century, but we’ve only lived here for three months, or one school term, or thirty pastries, or one increased pants size, however you care to measure it. During the week, I am busy helping the children cope with ‘immersion’ in French school. It’s not easy, and their stress is family stress, as Keith and I juggle the four-times-daily school runs, reams of homework and school notes in French, and a chesty virus that feels like it will never end. Google Translate is not as helpful as one might think; unless it’s true that the P and P and C is ‘an association of volunteer parents who organize abductions for children’ or that liquid Nurofen should be administered into ‘3 or 4 outlets’ of the child. (I know the French are into suppositories but this seems excessive.)

From Monday from Friday, life is all about the kids. But on Saturday, the market is for me. I trundle my Nana-trolley (a purchase that represents the greatest investment in my quality-of-life since the elasticated waist) down the cobblestones of my quiet street to reach the buzzing town square. The knife-sharpening man is there, operating a machine that looks like it dates from the Industrial Revolution. There are buskers with clarinets and piano-accordions, the cobblestones are slippery, and everywhere, one must be careful not to trip over the cats.

The food, of course, is sublime. The Middle-Eastern olive stall offers ‘le gouter’, a taste, and each tapenade and olive marinade is more delicious than the one before. The cheese man offers ‘le gouter’ too. He cannot speak, just points and cuts, offering a piece from the tip of his knife. The paella lady constantly stirs her huge aromatic platters with enormous spatulas, and several charcuterie stalls sell songlier, the sausage made from giant wild Provencal boars. Line snake out the door for the hearty ‘cereale’ baguettes at the hole-in-the-wall woodfired bakery L’Armandine. Organic vegetables, herbs, baguettes and pastries are a feast for the eyes first, then tipped into the Nana-trolley to be enjoyed a second time for lunch. Market-goers luxuriate in the sunshine over wine, freshly-shucked oysters and cigarettes in front of the Rue Mazelle.

The noises and smells of the market are unfamiliar and thrilling, but their procedures are clear to me. This is part of why I love the place so much: unlike my Monday-to Friday, where I am constantly met with my own ineptitude, I know how this place works.

My terrible French is not the barrier to communication that it is in other circumstances - the school gate, for instance. There, I run out of French two sentences in, and must just smile like a gormless fool, when I am not actively humiliating myself. This week a woman I know slightly walked past me and I saw that she had cut all her hair off. Instead of ‘beautiful hair’ (‘beaux cheveux’) I called ‘beau cheval’ to her. ‘Beautiful horse!’ (In fact, I think I got the feminine/masculine wrong too, so I perhaps shouted ‘beautiful man horse’ at her; which, in my experience, is just the fear one has when one cuts all their hair off.) At the supermarket I screamed when a mouse jumped on my neck, before I realised it was just the furry hood of the shopper next to me, and I tried to ask for fish fingers by doing an ill-advised jazz-hands pantomime, before learning, too late, that the French don’t even call them ‘fingers’ and the jazz-hands made no sense at all.

When I make these mistakes, I don’t have the language to fix them. But at the market, my French is up to the task. It’s all transactional, and never veers off into unmanageable places past the limit of my sparse vocabulary. How much is the spinach? Superb! Four slices of ham please. Perfect! See you next week. I know how to ask for a ‘pannier’ or basket, and I am even figuring out the money (French maths is awful – the word for ninety, for instance, is ‘quartre vingt dix’, or ‘four twenty ten’.)

I can use my favourite French expression for window-shopping: ‘liche de vitrine’ or ‘to lick the windows’. And at the end of every exchange, ‘bonne journee!’ says one person (have a good day!) and ‘bonne journee a vous’ or ‘a vous’ replies the other (you too!) There is a lot of ‘pas de problem’ and ‘de rien’ (you’re welcome.) In general, the French indulge in a charming excess of social niceties, and as I complete these communications, and fill my trolley with soap and tomatoes and baguettes and songlier, I feel less stupid, less hopeless. I feel more like myself. At school, and in the village, I can’t joke, or join a conversation, and although the school parents are so kind, I am an outsider. I am, let’s be frank, the village idiot.

But at the markets, I’m just another customer, another lady with a trolley smelling the peaches and asking for a basket. Surrounded by day-trippers, I feel like a local; saying ‘bonjour’ and ‘ca va’ to people I know, patting dogs and executing the gentle acrobatics of the triple-cheeked kisses of Southern France.

My Saturday experiences allow me to hope that, in some distant future, I might feel ‘market confident’ in my everyday life. How amazing that would be! Until then, Saturdays sustain and bolster me for the week ahead of school runs and Google Translate-fails and eating my emotions with delicious, delicious pastry.

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