Market Day in Provenceby Michele de La Pradelle, Amy Jacobs (Translator), Jack Katz (Foreword by)
At farmers’ markets, we expect to see fruit bursting with juicy sweetness and vegetables greener than a golf course. For Michèle de La Pradelle these expectations are mostly the result of a show performed by merchants and sustained by our propensity to see what we want to see there. Hailed upon its release in France, the award-winning Market Day in
At farmers’ markets, we expect to see fruit bursting with juicy sweetness and vegetables greener than a golf course. For Michèle de La Pradelle these expectations are mostly the result of a show performed by merchants and sustained by our propensity to see what we want to see there. Hailed upon its release in France, the award-winning Market Day in Provence lays bare the mechanisms of the contemporary outdoor market by providing a definitive account of the centuries-old institution at Carpentras, a city near Avignon in the south of France famous for its quintessential public street market.
The renewal and celebration of the outdoor market culture in recent years, argues de La Pradelle, artfully masks a fierce commitment to modern-day free-market economics. Responding to consumer desire for an experience that recalls a time before impersonal supermarket chains and mass-produced products, buyers and sellers alike create an atmosphere built on various fictions. Vendors at the market at Carpentras, for example, oblige patrons by acting like lifelong acquaintances of those whom they’ve only just met as they dispense free samples and lively, witty banter. Likewise, going to the market to look for “freshness” becomes a way for the consumer to signify the product’s relation to nature—a denial of the workaday reality of growing melons under plastic sheets, then machine-sorting, crating, and transporting them.
Offering captivating descriptions of goods and the friendly and occasionally piquant exchanges between buyers and sellers, Market Day in Provence will be devoured by any reader with an interest in areas as diverse as food, ethnography, globalization, modernity, and French culture.
Gary Alan Fine
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Market Day in Provence
By Michèle de La Pradelle THE UNIVERSITY OF CHICAGO PRESS
Copyright © 2006 THE UNIVERSITY OF CHICAGO PRESS
All right reserved.
In my memory, Carpentras is a sunrise city; it shows its truest face at dawn. The streets and squares of the city center are sound asleep, or look to be, when the small, rickety vans packed to the gills with fruits and vegetables come rocking along the boulevards. The city sleeps on, but at the edges it is already furtively astir.
The morning agitation is most intense on Fridays, when it penetrates the old city. Well before six, heavy trucks arrive at the city gates, illuminating the Place du Théâtre with their headlights. Some stop there: truck doors bang shut; unloading begins immediately. Others move cautiously with a muted roar into the thick, shuttered silence of the Rue de la République. A few head up the steeper, less practicable Rue Vigne, rattling my windowpanes. Slowly, obstinately, they push along the narrow streets to their usual spots. The widest arrive first-later the streets will be so crowded they could not get in that far-and these sellers take longest laying out their wares. Vendors set up by decreasing order of truck size. After the big mobile shops come vans, then cars with or without trailers.
Stallholders park as soon as they arrive at their spots. Mobile shops areparked directly on the right of way, while sellers who use their vehicles only to stock merchandise park some distance back. If the street is too narrow, they unload and go park elsewhere. Trestle tables, boards, stall structures, and canopies are positioned quickly. The movements are precise, and talk is reduced to a minimum. Perdiguier, who sells shoes, needs over an hour to set up on his thirty meters of tables, whereas egg and goat cheese vendors, who often display their wares on simple folding tables, are not in such a hurry. The traditional stall is getting stiff competition these days from the mobile shop with sales counter. But even these are often extended by means of tables and trestles.
The first to arrive are already piling up colorful bolts of cotton and silk, hanging lace curtains, carefully aligning men's caps. Nearby, a charcutier is hanging sausages and mortadella rolls from the uprights of his truck. At the pretty produce shop named Jardins du Comtat (Place de la Mairie), on the outdoor display tables set up on market day, employees are building pyramids of tomatoes, aligning melons, piling up lettuce heads. In winter the work is done in the half-light with benumbed fingers. It becomes harder to circulate around seven, when supply-side agitation is at its peak. The last vehicles negotiate their way among the trestle tables. The contrast is sharp now between the empty side streets just touched with sunlight and the long, shimmering ribbon of activity that winds through the heart of the old city.
Place du Théâtre-that is, the northeastern side of the place officially called Aristide-Briand, but that name does not seem to be used-is an essential pole of the street market. Situated at the intersection of highways to Avignon, Pernes, and Saint-Didier, this square is sometimes called Place Notre-Dame in memory of the eponymous gate destroyed along with the citywalls in the 1800s. It is nearly impossible not to pass through, as it adjoins the main north-south thoroughfare into the city center, the Rue de la République, and is the starting point for the outer boulevards running east and west. This is where the old merchant city meets the lush irrigated primeur farmland. Carpentras's vocation to be a combined agricultural and commercial center is highly visible here. Elegant, imposing buildings line the square. The hôtel-Dieu (hospital) commissioned by Bishop d'Inguimbert, with its long, tall-windowed façade topped by flambeau urns in pure eighteenth-century style, attests to the glorious past of the Comtat capital, while hotels and banks are evidence of the city's current dynamism.
The Place du Théâtre maintains its privileged position on Fridays. It is one of the main loci of the market and the means of reaching the rest of it. This is where vehicles and buses let people off coming in from the country. The size of the square, its renowned merchants, most of whom are traditional stallholders from well-known families, and the diversity of available products explain why it is bustling with customers as early as 8 a.m. There are at least thirty stands of all sizes here.
This is also where the truffle market is held every week in the winter. Though at a slight distance from the rest of the activity and relatively in accessible to strangers, it is nonetheless a focus of general attention, as reference point-stallholders unload "in front of the truffles," "just behind the truffles"-and the place where habitués discuss what price the black diamond will bring today or comment on the presence of this or that local hero of the truffle world, thereby keeping a sort of chronicle of the weekly event.
Near the hospital, a set of wide, shallow stairs, vestige of the Dominican monastery, descends toward the intersection at the edge of the square. This is where fripes (secondhand clothes) are sold. Dresses, shirts, pants, and blouses are heaped onto bare boards laid over low trestles, a tangle of different fabrics and sizes, men's and women's jumbled together. By 9 a.m. a colorful, heterogeneous crowd-ordinary Comtadines, immigrant workers, passing tourists-are elbowing into the bays and turning over the merchandise in tireless search of a bargain. A shirt is extracted from somewhere near the bottom of a pile; the customer lifts it up for examination in full sunlight before asking the price. On top of the steps, two or three secondhand luxury clothing dealers set up. These clothes are on hangers on long racks: immaculate starch-stiff white shirts, tiny price tags-one hardly dares touch. In display cases set on damask-covered folding tables, a few objects from another time: antique pocket watches ornamented with brilliants and lids featuring enamel-painted portraits and scenes, glittering paste belt buckles, tortoiseshell pill boxes ...
The center of the square is occupied by la confection. About fifteen stands offer quite ordinary clothing: canvas and corduroy pants, jeans, heavy knit sweaters, plaid shirts, batches of socks. In summer, garlands of bright-colored T-shirts attached to awning poles twist in the sun, giving the whole place a festive air. Some stands are specialized in men's, others in women's. The labyrinth also features baby clothes and lingerie. In front of the Crédit Lyonnais, Perdiguier père and fils sell shoes from their mobile shop: sturdy ones for walking and working in the country, "city" shoes of comfortable appearance, carpet slippers that never wear out, and so on. At the edge of the market space, there is another big mobile shop, this one a hardware and cleaning products "bazaar," a sort of downsized, itinerant BHV basement.
During the hunting season, a big stall in line with the Rue de la République sells cartridges, game bags, boots, hats, knives, and other gear. This is where truffle excavators customarily spend a part of their morning's earnings. Next to it the small "Maisons Provençales" truck often sets up, with models of local villas similar to the full-sized ones on view on the way into the city: pink rough-cast walls, a covered terrace for meals. Information and sales brochures available here.
Often enough, the voice of a hawker pitching his product maybe heard above the general hubbub. The Place du Théâtre is a favorite spot for posticheurs touting and demonstrating the merits of a miracle stain remover or ever-so-easy-to-operate food processor. A small crowd regularly gather s around, scattering when the spiel is over. In summer, "pizza trucks," beignet sellers, long rows of all-purpose cooking pots, and diverse clay receptacles set out on canvas cloths on the ground take their places among the usual stands.
The market continues from the square into the Rue de la République, penetrating the old city. The city center is a tight weave of streets, buildings joined and pressed close together. Into the narrow spaces left free by this configuration the market flows, infiltrating the labyrinth of narrow tortuous streets, many of which give onto unexpected public squares. At first glance, it seems to invade everything, insinuate itself into the smallest interstices. But a more attentive look reveals that it is organized along two axes, one running north-south between the Porte d'Orange and the Porte Notre-Dame, another east-west between the Porte de Mazan and the Rue de l'Evêché. It is only after entering the heart of the city, between the episcopal palace and the town hall, that the market flows unhindered into nearly all available space. In fact, its trajectory follows the streets on which the main storefront shops are located.
In the Rue de la République as elsewhere, the tightness of the space requires stallholders to set up in the roadway and sometimes on the sidewalk. The stalls are not in an unbroken line, as they are in Paris, and stallholders are careful to allow pedestrian access to fixed boutiques, though some stalls do somewhat block display windows. Here there are no mobile shops, except in an occasional recess or where the street widens. The sedentary shops in the Rue de la République sell prestigious goods: perfume, jewelry, sweets, clothing, cameras, and the like. They are among the city's finest and best-known. The thirty or so market stalls here are generally of modest size, and with the exception of a shoe stand, are small businesses run by a single person or couple. They are not always the same from one Friday to the next; this is one part of the market where stallholders are likely to be "occasionals." The products on sale are extremely varied. Next to a "Paris articles" stand (the term generally refers to notions), a man engraves name and address plates; baby clothes maybe purchased next to a Bible stand; tools next to used books. But the stands fall roughly into two categories: "crafts" and "organic" products (lavender sachets and other fragrance diffusers, wooden toys, leather bags and belts), sold primarily by stallholders without a permanent spot; and clothing, "fittings for the body" in administrative language, a term that encompasses hosiery and notions, and fittings for the home, all sold mostly by regulars.
The intersection of the Rue de la République and the Rue du Vieil-Hôpital is one of the liveliest spots in the market. This is where the city's most renowned posticheur, Jacky Thevet, exercises his talents. A native of the region who lives in Avignon, Thevet has been coming regularly for twenty-five years. There is enough space here for a stall open on all four sides, enough space for a crowd to gather round. And Thevet always gets his crowd, a mix of potential customers and amused onlookers often there just for the show. His script is always the same, and the regulars in the audience eagerly a wait their favorite bits, as at a concert. The idea is simple. He chooses a couple, usually country people or immigrants, and makes his pitch to the woman, presumably an expert in his subject and likely to hold the purse strings. His dishcloths were woven in the Vosges, his blankets are made of merino wool, his sheets won't fade at 60°C. Because the wife "knows about such things" she can have eight dishcloths for the price of six, four blankets for the price of three-he counts them out ostentatiously, leaping from corner to corner of his stall with each new item, unfolding each piece of linen, exhibiting it on all sides, then briskly folding it up again and piling it onto the arms of the dumbfounded husband, who ultimately disappears behind a mountain of napkins, collapses under sheets and bedspreads, to general laughter and merriment.
Further on, the Rue de la République intersects the Rue du Collège and the Rue Moricelly to form the Place Sainte-Marthe. The houses here are imposing, richly decorated. The place holds ten or so small stands: a honey producer, a goat cheese maker, sellers of novelty and imitation jewelry, candy, underwear, faïence, and earthenware.
At the threshold of the Rue Moricelly the market stops. The city's most elegant buildings are on this street. Despite the damage Carpentras suffered in the nineteenth century, its architecture remains fairly uniform and is not without grace. Most houses on this street are two and three stories high with a supplementary half story, "the attic," characterized by a horizontal line of square openings. This is where mulberry leaves were left to dry when many of the city's inhabitants kept silkworms and were engaged in some farming activity. The pulleys used for bringing up the leaves may still be seen on several façades.
The prestige of this street cannot be fully explained by its architectural qualities. People speak admiringly of the hôtels particuliers (private mansions) of the Pazzis and the Isnards, whose ancestors won renown in the time of the popes; they speak of the magnificent wrought-iron balustrades of their staircases. The old Comtadine families living in this street are evoked with veneration-an elderly demoiselle, for example, of whom one may catch a glimpse in her garden overgrown with wisteria and lilac, moving amid stone statues enlaced with fig-tree branches. The street is named after one of the local "benefactors," a baker's son and freemason who in the 1880s, after making his fortune, undertook a major reconstruction program, one feature of which was to destroy the Vieille Juiverie [old Jewish quarter]. The synagogue barely escaped this treatment. The Rue Moricelly is sometimes called by its former name, Rue Dorée. Shrouded in mystery, a discreet vestige of the former Comtat capital in the midst of today's hardworking merchant city, the street does not figure on everyday itineraries.
The Rue de la République leads to the Place du Palais, the historical heart of the city. Along this narrow rectangle the city's two major structures, Saint-Siffrein cathedral and the episcopal palace, stand side by side-an unlikely arrangement that somewhat recalls certain Tuscan cities. The main entrance to Saint-Siffrein is slightly off the square. The seventeenth-century façade of the adjoining palace (which in 1801 became the hall of justice) is harmonious but harsh, its rigor broken only by the entrance gate, topped by a majestic balcony.
Old Jeanjean parks his small van at the entrance to the palace, sits on the tailgate in front of a folding yard table and lays out small bags filled with seeds. Known to all who come here, he is the most striking figure of the square, and his activity seems to sum up that of the entire place. He is, however, nothing more than the last vestige of the old "grain market" in a space otherwise given over today to dealers in clothing and accessories (sunglasses, purses, belts, and so on). You can get both the latest cheap fashions (T-shirts, windbreakers, scarves) and more traditional items (classic men's hats, straw hats, caps, and slippers), as well as nearly everything sold in city boutiques. Some of these stands specialize in a single article: women's aprons, sweaters, socks.
The Place du Palais is also the fabric kingdom. There are actually only two fabric stalls, but one would think there were more because the wares are so amply displayed. One of them, the biggest mobile shop of the market, partially hides and blocks access to the entrance to Saint-Siffrein. A short way on-ward, next to Gilbert Boniface and his ready-made curtains-mounted so the customer can appreciate them "in situ"-and right in the middle of the square, is the chaotic treasure of Noël Cappo's bazaar: sponges, shoelaces, clothespins, dishcloths, cleaning brushes, floorcloths, bathmats, and tubes of brilliantine piled into plastic baskets and supermarket carts.
The approximately twenty stands along this long, narrow square are positioned as on a street, lined up either against the cathedral and palace or a few meters in from the square 's stores and businesses (Prisunic supermarket, Banque Chaix, Bar des Palmiers, and so forth). But there is space enough next to the major stalls (the fabric concern employs five people),whose owners have in many cases been selling here for twenty years and more, for a few "occasionals" with more flamboyant merchandise to set up: scarves, sunglasses arrayed in an open umbrella, the newest sewing machine models, jewelry in small display boxes. These sellers make the goods for sale here seem less homogeneous than they are. A watch peddler carefully goes through his spiel; a young Senegalese squats next to a red canvas cloth selling his poorly tanned bush hats. At the end of summer market mornings, two brass instruments and a guitar playing in a nearby café maybe heard above the continuous, subdued bustle of the square. (Continues...)
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Meet the Author
Michèle de La Pradelle (1944-2004) was director of studies at l'École des Hautes Études en Sciences Sociales and author of Paris Luxe and Urbanisation et enjeux quotidiens. Amy Jacobs has translated a number of books, including An Anthropology for Contemporaneous Worlds by Marc Augé.
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