"To market" should be a verb in France. It is an important activity of everyday life, one most Americans are completely unaccustomed to (and in my opinion, missing out on), doing the entirety of their shopping in a grocery store, a supermarché or the even larger "grand surface," a place detested by my "bobo de gauche"* slightly baba cool* hostmom. I imagine she would péter un plombe*if she ever stepped foot inside a Costco, though I'm sure any self-respecting French person would wonder who could possibly need/consume 10 pounds of ketchup, a crate of mac-n-cheese or a bucket of chicken salad? Open-air markets are a staple of every French city and town; the larger the city, the greater the amount of markets. Lucky for me, I live in lovely Lyon where everyday there is an excellent market right along the Saône river (Sunday is the best--and busiest--market day). I even already have my preferred chicken man, whose adorable old grandmother (??) wraps everything up for you, and gives you (for free) a heaping helping of potatoes or rice to go with your delicious, free-range roasted chicken. With the sun glinting off the river, the stately 19th century buildings lining the banks, and the impressive Fourviere Basilica keeping watch from its hill, "marketing" here is a feast for the senses from the moment I step off the bus, even before reaching the actual market itself.
I say this activity deserves its own verb because it is an integral aspect of French life and there is a real art in it that requires a certain amount of experience to get right. (In case you're wondering, I'm still working on it.) France has the best open-air markets I've ever seen, and they are a quintessential part of the France experience--if/when you come to France, you can't miss out. Find out when market days are in smaller cities and where the best ones are in larger cities. They're the perfect place to grab a cheap and delicious lunch of local treats. When my mom and I were traveling through Europe in 2009, we were so thankful for the amazing market in Nice--we hadn't had a piece of fruit in over a week and we had gobbled up a barquette* of sugary-sweet strawberries before even reaching the end of the market.
Pretty in Pink in Paris
It might be can't-miss, but "marketing" can be an overwhelming, intimidating experience, even if you speak the language. Your senses are overloaded with colors, smells, and foods you've never seen before, stall after stall of fruits, vegetables, pastries, candies, locally made soaps, olive oils, flowers, spices, roasted chickens, cheeses, etc, all of which you are ready to impulsively purchase--but, before you know it, you could find yourself with an empty wallet, too much food, and an owl-shaped honey-comb candle that two days later, you'll wonder why in world you bought such a thing. Besides the food and products themselves enticing you to buy them, the vendors are there to give you that extra push. "Mademoiselle, mademoiselle! Deux barquettes de fraises, deux euros, seulement deux euros! Les meilleurs sauscissons secs, deux pour sept euros! Poulet rôti! Poulet rôti! label rouge!"* A mere glance towards one vendors table, and you're roped in. If you're unprepared, you could just end up buying something you didn't even really want, sucked in by the smiling vendors and a feeling of guilt--well, I did try like 3 kinds of their cheeses, I have to buy something. Oh, I looked too long at her clementines, I guess I'll buy a couple...
Cavaillon melons in Arles
Be strong! Come prepared, with at least a half-formed idea of what you want. If you're on vacation and not "grocery shopping," at least make sure to...Shop around! Wander the length of the market before committing--scope out the best-looking, best-priced strawberries, find the widest selection of cheeses, the most mouthwatering tartes. Buying too quickly could rob you of a better deal in taste, price and selection. Then narrow down the options to the few things you actually want to consume and the best local items to buy as presents for family and friends back home. A packet of herbes de provence, lavendar-scented soap made in Marseille, a jar of honey or confiture,* olive oil--a must in Provence. Just make sure the olive oil is labelled "AOC," "appellation d'origine contrôlée," meaning that its production is heavily controlled--it must come from olives from the area specified on the label, for example, ensuring it's not actually made in Spain (I actually saw a special on this a few weeks ago, where some vendors had a vague label that simply said "made in Provence," but it actually was imported from Spain). And of course, have fun and most importantly, look out for samples! It's a great way to taste new things (without shelling out the cash) and find the sweetest melons or nuttiest comté. Also, make sure to bring cash and especially to have change on hand, if possible. Many vendors probably won't appreciate a 50 euro bill when you're spending...3.
Markets are also a great place to chat with the locals--especially about their products. Show an interest in their products, and you'll likely make a new friend. At the Saturday Bastille market in Paris, I once had a delightful conversation about salt with a man selling different kinds of flavored salt that he made himself--one of which he even lovingly called his bébé and was excited to hear it would be traveling all the way to the US. While collecting food for a picnic lunch in Arles, Joy and I made a detour at the soapman, and while I was choosing scents, Joy won his coeur*--a small, heart-shaped lavendar soap.
Isle-sur-la-Sorgue, whose Thursday market
winds around the entire center of town
My last bit of wisdom involves cheese. One of the best things to go to the market for is the cheese. You won't find cheese this fresh and flavorful in the grocery store, even if they sometimes have a comparable selection. At first, I was too intimidated to venture a purchase. I didn't know how it worked--in the US, when I go to the deli section in the grocery store, I ask for 1/4 pound of swiss or 1/2 pound of provelone, but being outside my English units comfort zone, and normally only desiring a small piece to last me for a few days, I wasn't sure how to go about it. Finally, I could resist no longer and just dove in. "Euuuh...je voudrais un petit morceau de comté s'il vous plaît." And like that, I was in. "Comme ça?" he asked, indicating the perfect sized chunk with his knife before cutting. "Oui, parfait!"* I smiled. After learning the hard way, I also now make sure to verify the cost before paying--once I spent way too much for some emmental that wasn't even very good. A simple request to taste it first would have spared me both euros and disappointment. Little by little, I am gaining the confidence to speak up and get what I want (though success is never guaranteed), rather than meekly giving in. Despite the fact that I speak the language and the culture, I still operate on a diminished self-confidence when in France when I really need an extra dose to get past the barriers. "Marketing" is just the activity to gain back this lost sense of confidence. Yes, I just spent 10 minutes trying 5 different types of your saucisson sec, but no, I will not actually be purchasing anything. Merci et bonne journée.*
bobo de gauche: this term encompasses an entire mindset and lifestyle (it is often used pejoratively, but here, I just state the facts, plus my host parents use it in self-reference all the time): "bobo" means "bourgeois-boheme" meaning someone from a bourgeois (money, conservative) family who has chosen to lead more of a moulin-rouge-bohemian lifestyle, sort of revolting against his/her upbringing, or just thinking it seems romantic to pretend to be a penniless artist (I kid, sort of). They don't like to conspicuoulsy or needlessly spend money, though they are generally fairly comfortable, care about leftist issues like the environment and lower classes. In my host mom's case, it's actually a revolt against her conservative family, as she is de gauche (on the left) through and through and in many ways rather hippy-like (ie very anti-microwaves).
baba cool: hippy
péter un plombe: go crazy/lose it
barquette: basket for fru
Mademoiselle, mademoiselle...: 2 baskets of strawberries, only 2 euros, the best dried sausages, 2 for 7 euros, roasted chicken! red label (mark of high quality)!
confiture: jam--often of the delicious, homemade variety, especially when found in Provence.
Euuh je voudrais...: "Umm I would like a small piece of comté (French version of the Swiss gruyère), please." "Like this?" "Yes, perfect!"
Merci et bonne journée: Thank you and have a nice day.
PS. Besides the general food/flower markets, there are also marches de puce or flee markets, and also, at some markets, especially the larger ones, you will often find cheap clothes, kitchenware and other household items, jewelry and more. Some markets (like the Saturday Bastille or Arles markets) can really be a one-stop shopping experience.
"I had come to the conclusion that I must really BE French, only no one had ever informed me of this fact. I loved the people, the food, the lay of the land, the civilized atmosphere and the generous pace of life."