It was thrilling, and completely unexpected: to meet someone who so obviously hated Pat and liked me. This never happens. Except here in France. With a certain produce vendor.
This was years ago, and we were staying on Ile Saint Louis. Around the corner from our hotel was a produce stand, and every day Pat would walk up and select an apple. Every day, the vendor would tell Pat not to touch the fruit. Every day, Pat touched the fruit. I can’t explain it. Not then. Not today. Pat never deliberately annoys people. (During review of this post, Pat asserts he just didn’t understand.)
By the end of the week, when the vendor saw Pat approaching, he would spit and hiss. Like a provoked cat.
Me? I would ask for an orange and accept the proffered selection. When the vendor saw me, he smiled. We exchanged bonjours.
If you are coming to France, market french is the easiest to learn: Highly predictable and repetitive. It requires nothing more than memorizing the names of your favorite fruits and vegetables and knowing how to count (or always ordering that number you know. I’ll have 3 pears, 3 oranges, 3 apples.)
French produce vendors love a foreigner who can speak market french.
Now, in Paris, I visit the same produce shop almost every day. Everyone there knows me. They ask about my vacation. I ask one man about his back pain. When we pass each other on the street, we stop and chat. No matter what I want to buy, I ask for it. The vendor selects it.
Why wouldn’t I use their expertise? To pick out my own produce would be akin to hiring a surgeon and then asking them to watch while I remove my appendix. Or hiring a house painter, then serving him ice tea while he relaxes in the shade, and I paint my house.
And yes, I understand the paranoia that French vendors will unload the overly ripe stuff on unsuspecting American tourists. But if you smile, that won’t happen (keeping in mind the French tend to like their produce very ripe: sweet and juicy).
In France, a produce vendor (or any food vendor) is a professional, not akin to the 17-year-old kid making gas money by stacking cucumbers at the local Krogers. I once had such a worker ask me the difference between a zucchini and a cucumber. I didn’t let this kid pick my peaches.
But my French produce vendor isn’t spending his free time looking for a better gig. He knows which fruit is best for tarts, to juice, or to eat from the hand and can differentiate which are ready now, this evening, or tomorrow (we never go further than tomorrow.)
Once, I asked for two pears: One to be eaten today and the other tomorrow. He picked through 10 or 12 pears, gently testing each up by the stem. Then he held two aloft. With one, he said, “today.” With the other, he said, “tomorrow.” For a moment he thought, considering his options lest I be confused. He picked up the ripe pear and twisted off the stem, and as he did this, he repeated, “today.”
I ran home and ate it immediately. It was delicious.
But I will admit, the entire produce purchasing process gives me anxiety. I sit in my apartment and psych myself up. This is a french only pursuit. There are inevitably days I want to buy something and don’t know the name for it. There are days one of the vendors asks me a question that I don’t understand. I freeze. Panic. Consider going to Lidl where produce waits on the rack, and I don’t have to talk to anyone about anything.
Then I remember that buttery avocado. The tiny plums so sweet, I brushed my teeth after eating a handful. The tomatoes that sliced into meaty slabs for sandwiches. The peaches. The figs. The apples.
The other day, my bad-back vendor (who is also the pear-stem vendor) handed me a bag and indicated I could pick my own. I froze. Thinking. Translating how to respond. Then I said, “Will you pick them please?”
And he smiled. “Of course.”
Post Script: I’m writing this from a coffee shop in Saint Malo, France. Yesterday, I asked the market vendor where the apples came from. “Chez moi,” he replied. His. And added that they were delicious. I bought 4 (and yes, they were delicious). When I asked for two peaches, he replied, “No. End of season. Not good.”
We’ve loved this town. I’ll be writing about it.
Categories: A year in Paris