Today is market day here; it happens every Thursday and I impatiently await it. I awake early and traipse off to the “centre ville” right after having my breakfast consisting of a green smoothie (yes, I consume them, but not –heaven forbid- to live like a chimpanzee or have their health, but because I find them delicious) and a bran cracker. I have nothing in mind to buy, but the bustle and gaiety, the colors and sounds are actually my kind of “party”. So I, who am not a shopper, who will do anything to avoid going to a department store, await the street market with fluttering anticipation and heightened curiosity: what will present itself today. I love street markets. And, strangely enough, I do not like to barter, which is what one can do mostly in street markets. No. It is the festive mood it brings to a very small town like Salies. Here in Salies, the “town hall” or perhaps the “Bureau d’Animations et Fêtes” pipes festive music through the loud speakers mounted on buildings at street corners with subdued good taste (in other words, not blasting one’s ears out, the French are sooo low tone). One gets to know the regulars as the same ones come week after week, their familiar faces, the voices announcing their wares, the bright colors all is part of the delight of market day.
My itinerary is precise: leave at 9a.m. for the park with Salomé; then walk to centre ville, browse through the first stalls until arriving at the bakery, buy one or two (ended up being two) croissants, head for Rene’s Café, have coffee and view the passersby. At 10 a.m. begin the slow run of the whole display, stopping as will or fancy would have it wherever the eye may catch. Everything perfect. Once in the park I notice the sun is playing hide and seek behind some very wet-looking and heavy grey clouds; I have popped a shawl into my bag just in case, but the day definitely tends towards hot and muggy. Nine is still early for the saliessiens but one industrious housewife is already headed for home with her bundles in tow. Croissants in hand, I walk towards the streets designated for the market.
There is an empty table on the front porch of René’s and René himself –as always- takes my order (un café allongé). The day has officially begun; I settle back with pen and notebook waiting for whatever strikes my fancy. Salomé takes her place at my feet, also surveying the surrounding area for whatever strikes her fancy (people from who to extract caresses, dogs to sniff, morsels from my croissant which she knows I will share).
As I sip my coffee and nibble on the croissant, the street begins to fill. I watch the people. Suddenly, a middle to aging woman catches my eye as she “swishes” by, yes “swishes” by in a long flowing dress. What has made her stand out is her elegance. She is donned in an ankle-length gown of very fine material in patterns of subdued red and beige. The bodice is fitted, with a low, wide V-neck and practically no back till right above the waist line, and the long, loosely fitted skirt flays out daintily with each step. Her feet are clad in high-heeled sandals that match a large shoulder bag in red leather. Two large loops of silver dangle, one from each ear, and her neck is adorned with a matching necklace distributed in silver and red “buns” separated by silver “tubes”, very modern.
I watch as she walks by with a perfect pace, neither too fast not too slow, undoubtedly conscious of the fact that she stands out amongst so many women dressed in fisher-man length pants and over-blouses with sneakers or sandals on their feet. The consciousness is not of the flaunting kind but rather from the consciousness that she is the perfect picture of elegance, the right elegance, the proper elegance, neither ostentatious nor feigned, just it.
There, I think to myself: that is what my brother would have me look like on a Thursday morning for the market, and I review the possibilities in my mind. The heels are definitely out, but perhaps I could wear sandals instead of the Dr. Scholl’s walking boots (old, dirty and worn) that I love and am so comfortable in. They definitely would not go with the dress, but sandals might, though they couldn’t be the thin-strapped models that have a leather thingy between the big toe and the next one because I can’t walk in those and hate the feel of anything between my toes. So, ok, sandals. The long dress would be acceptable, but my elegant lady has a perfect tan to show off with the bareness of the upper part of the dress, and there is no way that I have ever been able to get a tan in my whole life. I smile to myself as I remember a certain trip to Puerto Vallarta with my husband who always wanted me to get a fashionable bronze. I was determined at that time to please him so I bought a bottle of coconut oil tinted with iodine (the kind the natives sell to tourists on beaches), donned my best two piece bathing suit, oiled myself silly from head to toe and threw my body down for a bath of burning sunlight for well over ten days. When I looked at myself in the mirror with no clothes on so I could compare the sunned part with the whiteness of the untanned skin, the difference was obvious: I saw a good tan, not that perfect golden brown that Hollywood stars sport, but a decent tan nonetheless. What, however, would be my surprise upon arriving in Mexico City and being asked by several of my friends if I had avoided the sun altogether. So much for my tan! What I did get for all my trouble, however, were a handful of new freckles and wrinkles. That was the end of my suntanning days and henceforth I informed my husband that if he had wanted a brown-skinned woman he should have married one. So the tan was out. So much for becoming my elegant woman.
(As I scribble this in my notebook, René comes up, winks at me and jokingly asks for my autograph. I ask if he would like me to write it on his hand, and he answers that it is ‘for the director’ and points to the upper level of the building. I am sure that neither of us has really understood what the other was saying, but these crossed conversations with René are the norm given my little French and his forced whisper -he seems to have lost his vocal cords for some reason- but they are no problem for, really, when in the world have two individuals understood each other anyway: the thing is to have fun, no matter what is said.)
I have watched the elegant woman disappear amongst the stalls after buying what looked like two pair of shoes. My mind wonders and wanders. Seeing her I would immediately think that she is married to a rich and perhaps powerful man, who likes to have the “perfect” woman. This is sexism at its best, of course. I realize I have given up trying to look elegant and that does not mean I don’t at times, but not in the way this woman does, not that perfect almost magazine type elegance, yes, she could have appeared in Vogue or some other fashion magazine perfectly. Yes, I decide, my brother would have admired her.
The elegant woman reappears and walks directly over to Rene’s. As she enters her heel gets caught between the wooden boards of the veranda and –twice- she must bend down, take the shoe off and struggle to extricate it before reaching a table and sitting down. Ahhh, elegance, and yes: at a price. I smile as I picture myself in that dress and with Dr. Scholl’s walking boots on my feet. What fun!
I am finishing my coffee when another person catches my eye, this time someone a world away from the elegant woman: a small, semi-crippled young man. He is clean shaven and neatly dressed in beige pants and a white shirt. His height would not be over 4’11” at the most and he is neither stout not thin, just middling. What calls my attention is his “gait”, if it can be called that. He walks with the aid of two canes and the movement makes me think somewhat of a caterpillar for it runs all down his body from the head to the feet which are actually the last to move. It is a jerky, rippling movement that courses through the whole of him until the legs and feet actually catch up to the head, and then begins again for each step. I watch for a moment as he recedes into the crowd that now mills between the stalls on either side of the street. What was it the Indian poet, Rumi, said (I heard it quoted by Deepak Chopra on a tape one time): something like “if you just sit there, the whole world will roll at your feet, it can’t help itself”… Yes, the whole world, walking past Rene’s Café on a Thursday morning in Salies de Béarn, France.
Suddenly the wafting odour of Indian curry fills my nostrils, then a slight aroma of cooking fish; soon the perfume of chickens roasting on the spit will awake my hunger; I am reminded that time is passing and the market will close at 1 sharp, so I must get to my browsing during which I will definitely buy whatever my stomach fancy’s for lunch.
I pay, cast a smile in the direction of René, wish “bonne journée” to his wife Michelle, and take my leave. The street vendors are all in place and people from Salies and surrounding towns, saunter up and down the aisle between them. This is a leisurely process, involving entire families, both of the vendors and of the possible buyers. Some vendors come with their children, the dog, the mother-in-law; everyone helps: the older children look after the younger, the dog looks after its social life and its stomach cleaning up droppings of edible merchandise, husband and wife announce their wares to the families passing, pushing baby carts, pulling a leashed dog or conferring between each other as to what the day’s purchase should be. It is a tapestry woven of buying and selling, of barking out the wares and demanding a price for this or that as both vendors and buyers socialize, consume, converse, spend and earn money; it is team work at its best, a local beehive of interwoven activity with nothing out of place, a perfectly coordinated and absolutely free and undetermined organization, each one vying both for him or her self and contributing at the same time to the perfectly harmonious network, the perfect dance of social and mutual good. This, I decide is what makes it so beautiful, so delightful to be part of the dance, the weaving in and out, the brushing of bodies, the interchange of energy in so many forms both visible and invisible. It is the Thursday Dance Fête in Salies. Everyone, locals and tourists, street vendors and store owners, adults and children, women and men, dogs and cats, merchandise and money swaying back and forth, moving, intertwining to an inaudible rhythm that would seem both to emanate from them and to direct their part in this waltz apparently directed by some unknown Force. There seems to be no sense of competition as the travelling vendors buy from the local “commerçants” and the locals buy from the visitors, and as both inhabitants and tourists take their choice now drifting into a store, now choosing the merchandise offered in the stalls on the street: each to his own, each for the whole. One understands the intricate social life of the beehive as one physically lives and witnesses the paradox of being both an individual and a cog in the social machine, of contributing to the whole by giving to oneself.
All senses alert, I drift from stall to stall, taking a taste of fois gras here, a macaroon there, a piece of cheese further on. As if imitating our undirected drifting, clouds and sun play with each other, taking turns lighting or shading the street. Parading before my eyes are t-shirts, shoes, belts, bags of all shapes, sizes and colors, bijouterie, even old horseshoes painted in bright colors and decorated with flowers; colourful toys, noise-makers in the shape of frogs or armadillos for children young and old, second-hand books, pizzas and curry, cheese, macaroons of all flavours and colors, vegetables, fruit and wine all offered up for the sight’s or stomach’s delight.
I am distracted by the stand offering piles of –would it be second hand or factory discards- clothing at 3€ or 2 for 5€. There nothing is hung, just heaped upon the table to be sorted through by the bargain hunter. Behind the stand are two couples that stand out because they are so obviously not family, not married, quite the contrary. One couple, seated on the back hatch of the truck, young, thin and beautiful, are necking, there is no way else to put it. I could say kissing repeatedly, but no, they are practically eating each other up, more than kissing, definitely more; the other couple stands behind the table with the merchandise. He is older and wears a long beige and grey scarf tied around his head and hanging down his back almost like a pony tail or braid; his face is tanned and worn. She is in her early twenties perhaps and hangs on his arm caressing his biceps as if the touch were still quite new to her. Definitely not married. Have these two girls been found and picked up en route from market place to market place, or are they regular stand-ins for wives left at home to tend babies? For a while I watch, hidden by the blouses hanging in a nearby stall. Then I continue on: the market tapestry has its Romeo and Juliet’s, its romances or perhaps tawdry meetings that add a frisson of emotion to the colourful design.
I continue moving amongst the sausages, the DVD’s, the trinkets for children, the colored soaps and perfumed creams, CD’s, umbrellas and antiques, junk and toys, scarves in every shade imaginable, a rainbow of headbands, curlers, scissors and knives of all sizes and shapes; fish, seafood on ice, paella for the midday meal at 9€ the serving.
Salomé stops to sniff the canine perfume of a passing Jack Russell; she too is part of the weave, going from dog to person, scenting, being sniffed and petted and admired, giving a lick here, permission for a pat there; everyone loves her and asks if she is a terrier or what breed of dog she is: schnauzer, I reply and they repeat: shnooozzzer… One marchand asks if the breed is chinoise; No,allemande, I answer, never tiring of repeating what few phrases come spontaneously to me in French. He wants to know if I am allemande also. No, I say, espagnol. He throws his hands up; it isn’t possible (Pas possible!) and breaks into Spanish. He once had a Spanish fiancée. Ah, are you Spanish? I inquire. No, he responds, Italian (he now is speaking French again). We laugh together: such an international crowd! We now know each other, have met, have conversed; next Thursday we will greet one another like old friends. That is how it is, the social cloth expands or contracts to fit everyone in or make up for those that have departed. We are threads in a living loom, shuttled back and forth as the unknown pattern of life evolves, back and forth, back and forth, until the market’s end at 1pm.
I have three items to buy: white socks –the short kind used with tennis shoes; a half a roasted farm raised chicken and Victor Hugo’s Quatrevignt-Treze if I can find it. On the way to the second hand book seller, I notice a funny event: the woman who sells foie gras is putting tastes of it on small squares of bread. She has slipped a rubber glove over one hand, I presume to make the operation as hygienic as possible for the taster. However, the hand with the glove, the right one, is the one holding the knife and it is with the other hand, the ungloved one, that she is handling the bread. I watch for a moment waiting to see if there is any reason for this, and can observe none: it is the kind of thing one would see in slapstick comedy. I gently chuckle to myself and move on.
Having fulfilled my duties, Salomé and I head for home. The market will continue still for another hour (the church bells are announcing 12 noon) and then it will disappear as quickly and as completely as it appeared earlier. By 2pm there’ll be no sign that there ever was a street market: not an empty can nor a piece of paper or half a macaroon will be left to testify to the crowd that this very morning filled the pavement with their wares and businesses. I wander home with my booty under arm, revelling in the delight of the morning well spent and thinking already of the way I will now weave this same woven reality but with words.