“Heeeeeeeeeeiiiiiii. Allez-allez-allez-allez ! Two for 1,50 ! Fresh, beautiful. Don’t believe me? Try!Here!”
Simply being a casual observer at the Belleville market is impossible and before I can react, the stall keeper pulls out his knife and starts slicing into the pink, cactus-like Barbarian fig. “You like it? I make you a gift. Get yourself 5 for 2 euros!” He tosses a plastic bag in my direction and turns to seduce his next customers.
Touching the fruit and bargaining go against the tradition of food markets, one of the most sacred of French institutions. But here, the stall owners won’t handle your vegetables with the expected delicacy nor share their wives’ cooking tips with you.
Beneath the trees and neglected stone buildings of this bustling boulevard, the open market resembles something of a strange hybrid: the romanticism of tradition with a touch of bazaar. In spite of itself, the cultural make up of Paris is evolving and here presents an opportunity to witness the interweaving of the incredibly diverse ethnic communities.
A Chinese man in a sports coat and blue jeans picks up each of the cods and sniffs until he finds the two most satisfactory. The fishmonger weighs his selection while turning to exhale a mouthful of cigarette smoke. Beside him seven live carps lie sideways in a small cooler. They have to rest still to fit under the shallow water but the occasional gill movement signals life. Can’t argue the freshness there.
An undeniable energy radiates from Belleville, one of the most colorful neighborhoods of the city. Squeezed into the crowds between the two rows of stalls, I’m surrounded by chatter in dialects of Arabic, Chinese, and other tongues I don’t recognize. An African couple in front of me in colorful traditional dress converses in Creole.
The stall keepers call out their sales pitches. It takes me a while to figure out who is shouting in their native language and who is calling in accented French. It comes to me with a feeling of glee that this is one of the few places in France where as a foreigner, I don’t stand apart. Here, speaking little to no French doesn’t leave anyone excluded from the experience. If anything, it’s the norm.
In fact, I come across only small handful of French shopkeepers: the fishmongers, the dairy folks with coolers for the cheese but only tabletops for the yogurt, a small grandmotherly lady selling honey.
Here, the only baker represented is Tunisian with his honey coated pastries, round spiced breads and no baguettes. Most butchers have signs up verifying that their meats were prepared under the standards of halal. Instead of a range of familiar pork products, I come across four pale chickens laid side by side, skin and heads attached, only the neck ripped clean for the comforting evidence of a job done properly. Nearby, a woman sells homemade nougats labeled ‘kosher’ next to 16 varieties of marinated olives.
Most shoppers pull upright carts closely behind them as the traffic flows in one of two directions, we packed into a space, at times, hardly wider than a yard. One doesn’t stroll through the market during peak hours. One squeezes through, is squeezed, and waits out jams as fellow shoppers pause to ponder a purchase. Heaven forbid if it involves a baby stroller and a lane switch.
Thick wool cardigans return for the season while the shoe stand is still pushing sandals. Pantyhose hang from an overhead tarp. Down the street, an old man sells a variety of polyester undergarments presented in dignified stacks.
As the pace of the market picks up, the stall keepers actively ride the energy. One takes a deep breath and calls out with his dancing tongue: La La La La Lee Di Da! His customers patiently wait for their change. Another pair shouts aggressively at each other from facing stalls. I look up and see their faces jolly and laughing. The fat one starts singing accompanied by his neighbor’s pounding on a metal bowl.
In a quieter area of the market, an Indian man stands alone. He holds a plastic bag in his right hand and offers a pair of new black socks with his left. He murmurs a casual and ineligible sales pitch into the ears of passersby.
Some distinctive streets intersect this market, from the bustling main avenue of Paris’ second Chinatown to the Boulevard de Belleville itself, lined with Maghrebian Jewish commerce. Rue Oberkampf begins at the south end of the market, one of the trendiest areas for bar hopping.
Around noon, I watch an African woman makes her way home from the market. Her day’s shopping is packed into a lumpy sac larger than her torso. She strolls slowly, the sac balanced on her head, kept steady by her right hand. Her full length tunic in batik print completes the silhouette, challenged only by the Chanel style handbag swinging from her left arm.
While a growing number of ethnic groups are making their home in Paris, many prefer living within their individual communities to retain their lifestyles and languages. But at the occasion of such markets, one witnesses an openness of spirit as they take part in the evolution of traditions. No matter where you are from, you are all but invited to take part in the vibrant cacophony.
Travel Editor Vic Foster’s guest this week is freelance travel writer Karin Ling, formerly from San Francisco who now makes her home in Paris. Consult your travel agent for tours to France. Travel the world on the internet at www.travel-wise.com.