I think we all know how I feel about French Markets. If one doesn’t, one can refer to my market-fueled bliss in previous article: Market Day. They’re so magical. And so different. Over the last few months of travel, I have seriously expanded my market horizons, moving beyond my hometown market in Rouen, the Place St. Marc, which will always have a very special perch within my cagey heart. To this day, I find the set up and the variety to be the best I’ve found in France – then again, I might be a tad biased.
Then there were the pavilion-covered markets in Cannes and Antibes, throwing tinted red and yellow light on all the produce. Thick glass bottles of freshly pressed olive oil could be found behind the radishes, and the fishmongers were the sought-after, cool kids of the scene, sold out by 10:00am, wielding sharp knives and plastic scrubs. I actually tried to find butter on my first trip to the Cannes Forville Marche, and received a puzzled look and the blunt response: There are no cows here.
In Toulon, a popular city for North African immigrants, the Cours Lafayette market was every day, sprawled along a long street in the center of town, but consisted almost purely of fresh, Provencal produce. If you wanted meat, you had to go into a Halal butcher shop, of which there were plenty, lined up and down the winding road. But the olives….the OLIVES. Fifty different varieties, heavy with spices and herbs, and each bigger than my thumb. I almost cried.
Paris is full of them, of course, and full of high prices as well – what’s to be expected, you’re in the city of
expensive stuff light! Still, the almost endless line of stalls that descend upon Saxe-Breteiul are both spellbinding and drool-worthy, with a pretty dreamy view of the Eiffel Tower. What to have, what to have….Lebanese? Senegalese? Italian?
I could go on and on. There have been markets in Bretagne on the sea, and markets in the Loire Valley, absolutely saturated with goat cheese. And then there was a magical night market, high up in the Vosges, that was part market, part village block party, and part outdoor restaurant festival. We bought pig’s stomach, freshly dug new potatoes, smoky sausage, and fresh blueberry sorbet. They’re all different, all so marked by the region, but a never-ending source of joy for me. Cheerful vendors, a little music, and food as far as the eye can see…
I always receive a warm welcome, and I always feel at home. However, a part of that warm-and-fuzzy reception lies in a rather sad truth – I’m usually one of the younger, if not the youngest, clientele. I find myself among many older men and women, a good chunk of 40-50s, and the occasional dreamy young married couple, who buy themselves flowers and not much else. Obviously, it’s different for each place, and this is a gross generalization, but unfortunately, the percentage of market-goers under the age of say, 30, is not particularly significant.
I got a look into the reasons behind this when I was staying in the South of France, and made some friends in the 25-31 bracket. They had absolutely nothing against markets, in fact, they thought they were pretty cool, and didn’t want them to die. They just themselves found Carrefour or Monoprix (two of France’s most popular grocery chains) to be easier, less fussy. No need to make conversation, no need to compare prices and make many trips to separate stalls. All-in-one, hooray!
“Just like Walmart!” a girl from Lyon told me cheerfully. “I love America”.
So that happened.
I’ve had to make a lot of mental adjustments in France, to move my pie-in-the-sky, fairytale France into real-world, modernizing France. It hasn’t been easy, and often, it hasn’t been pleasant. Accepting an adoration of American culture? Difficult. Accepting a love of McDonalds? VERY DIFFICULT. Accepting that the younger generations seem wholly uninterested in many of the things I find most beautiful about France? Nearly impossible.
I worry that in forty years, I will return, and everything I love will have disappeared. That all the churches will have been torn down and replaced by high rises, that the markets will be a tourist attraction, and nothing else. It terrifies me.
And then I spend a few days high in the mountains, or deep in the woods, or walking around old, beautifully preserved castles, and I tell myself to stop being a doomsday-er. I tell myself it’s not fair to demand an entire country stand still, and cease changing. There’s a reason France is still a power in the world, and that’s owed to a lot of change, a lot of willingness to be different.
But come hell or high water, I’ll champion French Markets until the day I die.