Saturday, January 10, 2009

Market Day

I have a confession to make.

I hate going to the outdoor market.

When I first moved to France, I was enthusiastic about it. Stands of gorgeous fruits and vegetables, fresh fish, even a poultry vendor where the chickens and ducks still had heads and tail feathers attached. Back in our neighborhood in Boston, we didn't have a local farmer's market so we did all our shopping at the supermarket. I was thrilled to finally have an alternative.

Now, five years later, I avoid the market whenever I can. Don't get me wrong: I love the high quality products, and I send my husband, who actually enjoys going, in my stead. But I don't like waiting in line in the cold, or being jostled and pushed by ladies with yappy dogs and handcarts, or prospecting for the best price, or leaving with the (often correct) suspicion that I've been had.

But this week my husband's winter jacket finally and definitively fell apart and he had to make an emergency outing to the winter department store sales to get a new one. So I bundled up le Petit in his stroller and headed for the Saturday morning market a block away from our apartment.

Le Petit was patient at first, and quietly watched the passersby while I choose from an appetizing display of winter vegetables. So far, so good, I thought, then noticed as I paid that he was busy trying to grab and rip apart a container of green beans.

We quickly moved on to the poultry vendor, where a long line was forming. Le Petit started to get restless and struggled to get out of the stroller. I gave him a pair of mittens to play with, and when he lost interest, gave him a package of face wipes to empty. I knew that would give me another five minutes. By the time we got to the front of the line, I'd almost run out of tricks and had resorted to singing and miming Little Bunny Foo Foo.

It was finally my turn. I stopped singing to order a guinea hen and some roast beef. Le Petit started to whine, then shout "Dada!" as loud as he could.

"Dada is out shopping," I explained.

"Dada! Dada! Dada!" he replied.

The vendor, who recognized le Petit from his frequent trips to the market with my husband, came around the stand to say hello.

"Ca va?" He crouched over the stroller and le Petit promptly stopped complaining and flashed him his best smile. "Tiens, c'est pour toi," he said, and handed le Petit a cold chicken nugget.

"I think he's a little small for that!" I started to protest, but the vendor insisted, "Mais non!" and le Petit, who knows a tasty treat when he's offered one, started to stuff it into his mouth.

"Say merci, then," I finally said to le Petit.

It was the moment I'd been dreading since we started taking le Petit to the market when he was a newborn. The friendly poultry vendor hands out cold, fully-cooked chicken nuggets out to all the neighborhood children, in between chopping apart raw chickens and slicing raw pieces of steak and without, of course, washing his hands. All my American fears about hygiene and food handling safety were assaulting me. It was soon too late, the nugget was eaten and le Petit was starting to insist "Encore! Encore!"

"No, that's it, only one," I explained to him gently while I waited impatiently to pay and leave. He continued and eventually caught the vendor's eye.

"Qu'est-ce qui se passe?" he asked, then handed me another nugget that I reluctantly gave to a very pleased le Petit.

I guess I should be happy I have a child who will eat almost anything.

I thought about the expression my mother-in-law taught me: "on n'engraisse pas les cochons à l'eau claire," or "You don't fatten pigs with fresh water," and declared the experience a French rite of passage.

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