Paris:- Friday, 13. December 1996:- It has warmed up slightly under the grey sky but I doubt whether it will top five degrees. When I arrive at the Marché des Batignolles in Paris' 17th arrondissement - in the north of the 17th next to Clichy - I am glad to see that it is a covered building - one of Paris' many municipal markets - marchés.
This is not quite as romantic as the older open-to-the-elements marchés around town, but it is a purpose-built one and it contains other municipal services such as a crèche and on higher floors, subsidized apartments.
All the same, like most other public marchés, all the streets that surround it are full of shops that are often selling the same sorts of things as are found in the marché itself.
The wine dealer, Eric Vergara, whose 'Paris en Bouteille' I've come to visit, has at least two competitors opposite the marché, one of them a unit of the big chain, Nicolas. For the consumer it means that a lot of shopping for prices can be done within quite a small area - something that cannot be done inside a supermarket.
Another thing that marchés have that are hard to find in supermarkets, is personal service. Each stall in a marché is operated by its owner and if you want to complain about something you don't have to hire a private detective.
The other side of this 'personal' coin is that if you fall out with your particular merchant after years of satisfactory transactions, his or her competitor may be in the next stall and if you take your custom there all sorts of interesting social situations can arise.
Being in a marché itself on a regular basis is an 'interesting social situation' and I suppose many papers by learned scholars have been written about it.
For example, this whole Christmas feast affair - this isn't something that you decide to get out of the way on a whim after the late late show on TV. Oh no. Not in France. Not in a country where the number one topic of conversation is about the meal you are having, the meals you have had or the meals you intend to have.
I am just guessing, but I estimate that 65 percent of all conversation in restaurants is about meals in other restaurants. Same thing at the private Christmas feast; after all the relatives have been thoroughly discussed, or even before this is finished - because it can go on for days - past Christmas feasts are discussed, and the wine discussion itself can take several hours. If these two subjects get exhausted - an unlikely prospect - then all of the guest's personal marchés can be flung into the train of conversation.
Meanwhile back at the marché - if you are a regular, then so are all your neighbors, and if you meet them in the marché this requires a bit of chit-chat. In lulls of activity, the merchants themselves dash out to the always present nearby cafés to have their hurried chit-chats. In busy marchés or at the times when they are busy, you stand in line and pass the time of day with other people who are always standing in the same line as you, year in and year out.
The structures built for these municipal marchés are functional, but without frills, and their one great advantage over the open-air marchés is evident in winter; even every time it is raining. As much as they may be made of fairly raw concrete, you are safe from Siberian winds inside them. When the weather is fine, there is nothing better that the outdoor marché - because you can sit on the surrounding café terraces - unless, of course - it is you who has to 'faire les courses,' or if you have to act as a line 'placeholder' for the shopper in the family.
Shopping in a marché takes time. If you have none, you go to a supermarket. Shopping in a marché takes strength and stamina - there are no shopping carts or buggies - but there's no waiting at the checkout either - an activity which has to be the most stunningly boring invented by modern society. Marchés most always close around 13:30, many marchés are only on certain days of the week - the reason for the permanent shops around them. When your particular merchant goes on holiday, you are out of luck.
No two marchés are alike. Besides the physical aspects of them, the mere fact that each stall of operated by an individual and independent merchant means that marchés have individual and collective personalities.
On the marchés that are not operating every day, there are nearby communities where they are on when yours is off. This means that on Tuesdays your charcuterie man is in Clamart, but your exotic-fruit guy is over in St. Cloud, and maybe on Thursdays they are in the opposite places.
The marché workers generally get up very early to go buying at the central food marché at Rungis, they work six days a week in all weather and seasons, and they have to deal with a great variety of steady customers if they work several locations. At the end of a day's session, they have to reload their small trucks with the unsold goods, just as they had to unload it and set up their display equipment, probably while you were still in bed.
Life in a permanent building, such as the one I am at today at Batignolles might be a little easier - but the day is longer and the floor is hard.
I used to wonder, as I waited my turn on Saturdays in winter, with the temperature below freezing, why they do it. I used to wonder why I stood in line too, but I used to do it every Saturday - but not from 8:00 to 13:30. For the next ten days the lines will be long.
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