It’s a Friday morning, the fridge is empty, and you haven’t received your paycheck yet. In a city where food is expensive, particularly if you like fresh produce and unprocessed meats, this can only mean one thing: it’s time for a trip to the market.
But not just any market; depending on where you live in the city, markets can be just as expensive, if not more, as buying food at the grocery store. While markets such as le Marché Saint Quentin and Saint Pierre are well-known for the quality of their products, the prices can be exorbitant if you’re on a tight budget. So what is a young 20-something year-old who wants to eat well while living on a small income to do? Pack a good book and an empty backpack and ride whatever public transport you have to take to get to a market at the edge of the city! Make a coffee date with a friend who might live nearby for afterwards and you can make a morning out of it.
Down at the southern edge of Paris in Malakoff, le Marché de Vanves has become my go-to for produce and other perishable good needs. It’s about a forty-minute trip from where I live but the ride doesn’t feel that long with thoughts of all the good food I am going to walk away with swirling in my head and the satisfaction of saving money. As soon as I step off the metro, I follow the steady stream of people pushing caddies and carrying empty bags into the streets of Malakoff. Along with the distance from the city’s center comes the refreshing feeling of being in a small town. A couple blocks down and the main square is filled with tents selling everything you could possibly need, a taste for what is to come when you step inside the covered halls of the market.
The market offers a slice of life in Paris, the place where so many different people gather – the elderly, for whom the market serves as the social outing of the week, stopping to chat with their favorite merchants, some of whom they have frequented for years and where they are greeted by name. Housewives and working women, young and old, families and students alike line up by the stands with their baskets and bags of every shape and variety. Stands of representing different nationalities and cultures – Indian samosas, Algerian delicacies, Lebanese falafel and hummus, and freshly made Italian pasta – bring together the cultural variety normally separated into neighborhoods by the social boundaries of the city.
Within the marketplace’s narrow aisles, the tough Parisian exterior falls away. Strangers smile to one another and make friendly conversation, virtually unheard of anywhere else, pointing out the best deals and remarking on the weather. A woman shows me how to pick the best clementines – not too ripe but one that gives a little to a squeeze. My sweet potato merchant – as I now feel I have the right to call him for never failing to supply me with my favorite fall vegetable – asks me how my week has been as he weighs my vegetables and a conversation ensues. Where does he get his vegetables? Little town southwest of Paris, part of a food cooperative. Maybe it is simply the product of living on one’s own and occasionally being in great need of social interaction that leaves me open to conversation with such strangers. This is the meeting place where the human need for nourishment, nutritionally and socially speaking, dispels the petty judgments and preconceived notions of daily life to which we often give ourselves over.
As I pick out my apples at one of the many fruit stands, an older man recommends I try a different variety I’ve never heard of before called une reinette, a muted yellowish color. I hesitate. I am drawn to the dark red apples that shine like jewels next to the drabber reinettes.
“Don’t be fooled by the color. It’s not the outside that counts,” he chuckles.
All varieties are going for the same price today, 1.80€ per kilo. It won’t hurt to try. I pick a few of each. He nods in approval. I learn that he used to live in Maine where he dated a beekeeper. Go figure.
After packing my week’s worth of veggies into the backpack and a cup of coffee with a good friend, I head home, laughing to myself at how carrying a cauliflower through the metro has become normal. I unpack my loot at home and calculate that I’ve spent about 12€ on food that will last me a little over a week. Not bad at all. And the apple was delicious. Not the red delicious but the unassuming reinette. Thank goodness for marketplace wisdom.