Food For the Eyes

photo: fromage stand
No line - the big rush for cheese is over for the day.

Waiting Lines and Weather At the Marché

Paris:- Friday, 4. December 1998:- I am not going to say that people who stand around outside in the middle of winter waiting to buy food are different from you and me. If I do say they are French, you will think what you want no matter what else I say.

There is an open space, which normally is used as a parking lot. This type of thing is pretty common in our world - we've got all these cars and they have to sit someplace while we're not using them. Empty or full, parking lots take a lot of space in our cities, towns and villages.

In French cities, towns and villages, parking lots are used for other things - like markets - marchés. Once or twice or even three times a week, all the cars are told to park themselves elsewhere.

Where the 'regular' cars park is a mystery to me; and where the people who are driving in especially for the marché park their cars, is an even bigger mystery. In theory, there are twice as many cars and one less parking lot.

When I lived in Meudon, sometimes I'd drive out of my garage and park right away. Then I'd walk four long blocks to the marché. I did this after learning that right outside my apartment, was as close as I get to park near the marché if I left it too late.

It is true that a lot of people in a city, town or village, actually live close to the marché, and the parking is no problem for them. They carry their purchases home instead of to a car. This is sensible, because it saves them from also carrying all their stuff from the car into their homes or apartments.

In short, when you live in France and you want to shop at a marché, it makes good sense to live within 50 metres of it.

It is fascinating to watch a parking lot being transformed into a marché. On the afternoon before the day of the marché, the police and then towtrucks show up at the parking lot and get rid of the cars owned by drivers who do not read the signs saying the parking lot is going to do a Cinderella act, and transform itself into a 'no parking' marché.

Before the last car is towed away, a whole bunch of trucks arrive, loaded with poles and awnings. A great crew swarms out and sticks the poles into holes in the pavement and then throws the awnings overphoto: fish dealer them. Another crew strings cable and hangs lights off the supports, while yet another gang sets up dozens or hundreds of well-worn, wooden trestle tables.

Fresh fish on ice, even in winter; no packages at all.

Well before dawn on the day of the marché, the merchants show up with their trucks. They put oil-cloths on the wooden tables and put whatever equipment they have on them. The fish guys pour out tons of chipped ice. They put up their stall names at the backs of their booths.

Then they bring out their wares and set them out for display. At small marchés, all of this can be very rudimentary and simple, but at big-time daily marchés, it is very elaborate. It's like every day is moving day - twice - because it all gets dismantled at the end.

But before the merchants even show up, they have to get their stuff - what they sell - from other, bigger marchés; or maybe from their own farm. I don't know how early they have to do this, but I'm sure they don't do it the night before.

At about six or seven, or maybe eight in the morning, everything is set up, displayed and ready for the customers, and some customers are always ready at these times too.

In winter, at these times, it is still night. Depending on where it is in France, it can also be cool, cold or freezing. No need to worry about the fish or meat getting too hot.

Some merchants with end-stalls, will have a wind-break flap. Some will have gas-fired local heaters too. But 'below freezing' can be minus five or ten, and if there is a wind, it can be hellish cold.

A popular merchant will have customers from the earliest time until everything is or it's closed down for the day - usually about 12:30 or 13:00.

At certain times there will more than a few customers and these will form waiting lines. When it is minus seven and there is a bit of wind and you are eighth in the line, and the lady up front being served is ordering mixed cheeses or a variety of charcuterie, you may wonder why you and all these other people are standing around, breathing frozen fog on the backs of each other's necks.

On top of it, this might be the third waiting line you've been standing in; and after it, there's still the vegetables and the fish to get.

There is just so long that you can stare at the back of a loden coat, so you and everybody else spends most of the time looking at the food on offer.

Usually the line of customers is strung out along the length of the table. Generally the line forms behind the customer being served. If this one is doing their business near the beginning of the particular merchant's table, it means the line of prospective customers will stretch backwards - but must avoid being part of the line at the adjoining stall.

If the stall-holder is at the end of a row, the line of waiters might stretch out beyond the anti-wind flap; might stretch out into the street. It might be more subject to falling rain, morephoto: meat & sausage exposed to the elements. If you are out in this Siberia area of the marché, you will have checked the nature of the line beforehand to make sure it is one you want to be in.

Of all the no-fun aspects of the waiting lines at marchés, being at the Siberia ends of lines is the worst. You cannot even see the food.

Varieties of sausages and charcuterie are nearly as numerous as types of cheese.

People say the French will not stand in line with any discipline. The French believe this too, so they are on a constant lookout for line-jumpers. 'Is this lady looking at that Redball billygoat cheese, or is she trying to wedge in?' is a common sort of thought to have while waiting in line.

Everybody worries about line-jumpers so there are hardly any, but this doesn't stop people from worrying about them. This is about the only other thing to do besides look at food - and if you are out in the 'Siberia,' it is the only thing.

But if you go to the same marché all the time, at about the same time, you get to know the other people who do the same thing; and you may even get to know them a bit.

If it goes further, you might even become friendly. But nothing is perfectly timed - especially not waiting lines - so being near enough to somebody you know to talk to them, is rare.

The opposite can happen: every time you go to the marché, you end up behind the same lady who always orders an entire cheese party kit. She asks for 15 different cheeses and while doing it changes her mind a lot.

The merchants can be co-conspirators in this. They'll ask, 'Have you tried the Redball billygoat cheese?' and offer a taste if the answer is no. This will mean you are not only in the buying line, you are in the tasting line, and the thinking about it line.

Other merchants are cool. They put on a show. They have a patter and they invent comedy bits. One guy, who dealt exotic nuts, olives and twig-things - had a routine going with a butcher across the way. 'Pierre has his finger on the scales,' he'd cry out. And Pierre would shout back, 'His olive oil is putrid!'

About ten, they would take a break and I'd see them together in the café, drinking Calva and hatching up new routines. But these two were rare, and mostly it is just 'standing in line' and waiting your turn.

For the smaller marchés, the merchants might do two of three different ones every week. Twice a week here and there, and once a week at a third place; with usually one day off. But no matter where it is; it is get up early, get the goods, get set up and stand and sell for hours, and then break it all down and take it away - for 47 or 48 weeks a year.

The oddest thing is the customers, who put up with this business. If you've done it for a long time, it can be really disturbing when 'your guy' goes on holidays and you have to switch to one of his competitors.

One who might be a bit cheaper and a bit friendlier, but who isn't quite what you are used to. I mean, withphoto: chicken & poultry all the time spent waiting in lines for 'your guy,' both winter and summer, you have a lot invested in him - or her.

Finally, here's a bit of a line - for chicken and turkey.

Shopping at the open-air marchés is not only a physical business, it is also mental. It is French. More time is spent in France standing around outside looking at food than is spent inside, eating it. Only cooking it takes more time than either.

Even the French change though. Somebody dreamed up the idea of 'Hypermarchés.' These are like airplane hangers, surrounded by parking lots that aren't used for anything else. Large bits of France, paved only for part-time parking.

Inside the hangers - none of which open as early as 7:00 - there are food marchés, which share the huge spaces with clothing and tires and televisions and books as well as pots and pans and toasters for sale. Big ones sell holidays in the South Pacific and small houses and insurance too.

Some of the hypermarchés have their own bakeries, their own live fish tanks and cold storages for meat. You can wait in lines for food inside these places too. But usually what you do, is wait a long time in lines to get out of them. This is cruel and unusual - there's no food to look at, and what you've got is so heavily packaged you can't get at it.

This is the advantage of open-air marchés have over hypermarchés. By shopping at marchés, you have already seen the food, already stood in the lines, and you are always outside.

You might have to walk just as far to your home, or your car in the hypermarché parking lot. But from an open-air marché, maybe you will be already nibbling on something tasty.

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