AIX-EN-PROVENCE, France – The sounds and smells of the Saturday market are unmistakable in this Provencal city. The tastes are even better.
First comes the music of the vendors, calling out to customers, walking shoulder to shoulder down narrow aisles sprawling over two squares of the city.
The “thank yous” alone are music to the ear. “Merci. Au revoir. Bonne journee” — words not so much spoken as sung, their end syllables rising in an expressive cadence.
Don’t come here on an empty stomach. The spice tables alone will make you salivate at the smells of dozens and dozens of varieties, from the exotic, things such as Hawaiian black salt and Jamaican pepper, to the rich mélange that makes French food French – from tarragon and thyme to basil and rosemary.
Imagine the biggest U.S. farmer’s market you’ve ever visited. Now multiply by perhaps three. Add women and men dressed to be seen, not just to shop. Add children and dogs slithering through the crowd. Add elderly women, bent at the shoulders as they pull carts piled high with tomatoes the size of small cantaloupes, and carrots, cucumbers and lettuce fresh from the field. Add the food here you’ve never seen at your local farm stand – paella fresh from the sea and prepared before your eyes fir 6.95 euros (a little less than $9), chevre pastry puffballs, olives of all persuasions and preparation, breads and honeys, fish straight from the Mediterranean, eggs laid this morning, cheese like you’ve never tasted, even in specialty shops.
“You can get every kind of bean here,” Kathy marveled as she deftly wiggled through a logjam. “It’s amazing.”
And, if you tire of the food, you needn’t wander far. Follow one of the narrow streets joining the two sprawling food markets, one on Place des Precheurs, the other on Place Richelme, and you can buy almost anything else – hand-made soap and aroma therapy kits; straw hats to shield against the brilliant sun and salad bowls; Marcel Proust (used) and Led Zeppelin (vinyl); leather sandals and belts; sun dresses and antique silverware – even scarves, the classic French fashion staple though no one wears them here in summer.
Three years ago, Kathy and I lived here for five months while I worked on a sabbatical book finally scheduled for publication in September (sorry for the delay; the topic is writer’s block). We never missed a Saturday market. So it’s special to return, to start the first full day of our three weeks back in France in the midst of perhaps our strongest and warmest memory.
You see, in this leisurely, graceful city, where life is lived outdoors, where men and women alike pause in the middle of cobblestone streets to plant kisses on both cheeks of their neighbors, market day is not merely a way of eating splendidly, but a way of living.
It is central to the region’s rhythm, as I wrote in this piece in the Christian Science Monitor, a major reason tourists flock here, to the bemusement and, occasionally, distain of the vendors. But if you stumble through an attempt to use the language, these and other natives will humor you, tolerate you — sometimes even welcome you.
It is worth the test. You’ll never taste fresher food.