Tuesday, July 15, 2008

Market day

Yesterday morning we took our current guests to the market to collect picnic supplies. Melons from the organic farmer down the road; tomatoes, salad, and peaches from the reserved but cheerful woman next to the rotisserie chicken truck; mushrooms from the shy mushroom man; eggs from the egg lady. She's missed the last two weeks at the market--her eggs have been there, sold by someone else, a younger brother maybe, or a cousin--but she was busy having a baby. Yesterday she was back, with the baby snuggled deep in a sling across her shoulders.

I wanted to buy some cheese for our picnic, and we walked down to the far end of the market to find my cheese man. He lives in the Var, an hour or two away, and does the market circuit--our village market Mondays, Valbonne Friday, I imagine others in between. He always has a few words for me--he meets almost all our guests, makes recommendations about where to take them, tells me about his favorite beaches. We compare notes on life here versus life in the States: we agree that, in general, it's awfully nice here. We both have high hopes for the election this fall. I look forward to buying my crottin de chêvre each week. He's kind about my French, eager to laugh, gracious, kind. This winter, when I brought three different guests on three successive Mondays, he shook his head and said to me: "C'est un hôtel chez vous. You're running a hotel at your house."

But Monday he was not there, so we got in line at the other cheese man's stall. I don't like the other cheese man. Occasionally when I've had to buy from him in the past, he has spoken English to me. Now, my French may not run to long wine-infused dinner parties, but I can buy cheese, and it offends my pride to get English back when I offer French. He also sells all sorts of charcuterie--sausages, hams--and varieties of bread--olive, fig, walnut. He jokes loudly with customers, and calls out to people as they pass his stall, drumming up more business.

C, along with me because it was Bastille Day, pointed out that cheese from the market, even cheese from the wrong cheese man, was still good cheese. And a lot of other people agreed: I waited at least ten minutes. At the market, there's rarely a line in the American sense of the term, everyone neatly, tidily lined up one behind the other, no breaking, please. It's more of a free for all that relies heavily on eye contact and small nods. I made the eye contact after a few minutes, and still it took a while before my turn arrived.

While I waited, a svelte and bleached blonde grandmother arrived beside me, market basket bulging on one side, granddaughter on the other. The granddaughter reached just below my waist, waiflike, with limp ponytails and hot pink plastic-rimmed eyeglasses. La petite was fascinated by the flies on the cheese and sausages, and began commenting on their numbers in her lovely high child's voice. "Mémé, regarde les mouches sur le fromage! Granny, look at the flies on the cheese!" The fromager heard her and reassured her: "C'est normale, c'est normale, les mouches, n'inquiète pas.'' The little girl was mollified for a moment, and then, when the next customer was up, she said: "Il y a des mouches sur le saucisson! Mémé, regarde! There are flies on the sausage, Granny, look!"

I could tell that my turn was about to come up--it's a sixth sense you develop--and I was figuring out which kind of tomme to buy (cow's milk, goat's milk, or sheep's milk--I always end up just choosing randomly). The fromager handed the little girl a tiny, finger-sized sausage to eat, no doubt to silence her observations. He turned to me: deux crottins de chêvre and un morceau de ce tomme-là. Turned out it was brébis and expensive; also very good. As I handed over the money and took the cheese, I felt something touch my derrière and turned, startled, to see what it was.

La petite looked up at me, saucisson in one hand while she brushed at my dress with the other. "Madame," she said, ''il y a une mouche sur votre fesse. Madame, there's a fly on your butt."

I'm fairly certain that her grandmother's turn came next.

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