Tonight I am once again sitting on the Place Richelme writing my weekly newspaper column. Since I first arrived here, this has been my choice place to write. I love to watch the day turn to night and take in the constant action of the square. It’s like nothing we have in Eau Claire, Wisconsin or even in Minneapolis. It has it’s own heartbeat; a life of it’s own, that I seem to feed on.
It is a cool evening, still t-shirt weather but cooler than normal. The everyday bustle of the square is a feast for my eyes and ears. I’m watching an old woman with flaming red hair try to manage her 3 tiny dogs as well as a man in an automated wheelchair trying to maneuver through the crowd and over the cobblestones (I don’t know how he manages in a city of hills, steps and no elevators). I have been so busy lately, with visitors and moving, that I've forgotten to take the time to watch and listen, and I didn’t realize that until just this minute.
Every single day here on the Place Richelme, in the very early morning before my eyes have even adjusted to daylight, white vans arrive from the nearby countryside. The vans wander in like a band of white druids gathering for a mysterious ceremony. This particular square has a food and fish market every day but there are several other markets here that offer antiques, books, flowers, clothing and artisanal items. But all proceed in the same fashion. It’s a choreographed ballet and all the dancers know their roles by heart.
The vendors climb out of their vans and begin to unload their wares, their tables, their kitchens, their scales, their coolers...whatever is that they need to display, sell, or prepare their goods. They set up, assemble, lay out, and prepare for another day. Soon after, the people of the city with shopping baskets in tow, begin to arrive for their own ceremony. They purchase sausage, roasted meat, cheese, vegetables, honey, lavender, olives and tapenades, spices, and fish of all kinds. They are the old and the young, children and dogs, tourists and residents. Every single day they congregate at this market.
There is market protocol, which I am quickly learning. For instance, don't scoop up the cherries with the little shovel provided. Apparently, it's just there for decoration. If you attempt this maneuver, the proprietors will shout, slap their foreheads, look at each other in exaggerated disbelief, wag their fingers and shake their heads. Protocol demands that you apologize profusely, in French, and then buy a lot of cherries. Never try to pay with a 50 Euro bill, always say Bonjour, Merci, Au Revoir and Bonne Journée and if you can manage a little chit-chat in French, go for it! You are a hero if you bring your own shopping bag and if you go on a rainy day, be prepared to lose an eye from the innumerable and dangerous points on all the shoppers’ umbrellas.
Around 1 o’clock the market draws to a close. The remainders of the day are packed in crates, booths are disassembled and reloaded, garbage is deposited on the ground, and the white vans slowly wander back, one by one, to wherever they came from.
Then come our men in blue and yellow. These are the guys that clean and wash our streets....daily. They pick up all the garbage, the boxes, the old vegetables, the fish guts, the cigarette butts, and, yes, the dog poop. They sweep the square with these weird implements that look like old-fashioned twig brooms but they are actually made out of green plastic. Then they begin with the hoses, washing the square so it is pristine and looks as if the market never happened. The smell of fish, however, remains a little longer.
While they are still working, you begin to hear a rumble coming from all the streets around the square. From all directions come men pushing trolleys filled with tables, grand and colorful umbrellas, and if the weather is cool, tall heaters. These items are stored wherever a restaurateur can find storage space so they may be pushing the carts a long way. As the cleaners wash away the market, the waiters begin setting up tables.... 50 or 60 or 70 tables. They set up the tables, the umbrellas, and the chairs. They set out ashtrays, and menus and hang the chalkboards with today's menu on the trees.
And soon, new people arrive to fill the tables. They are full all day! It makes me wonder when people work here. Lunch is a 2-hour affair; dinner is late but can take 3 or 4 hours. There is, of course, afternoon coffee and wine, the after work coffee or apero, and the evening pre-club dinners and gatherings.
During the summer months, as the sun sets, a bar is set up near the tables, and music plays. The buildings surrounding the square act as an amplifier and it is so noisy, mostly from the din of conversation, that you can’t even hear a telephone call. But it’s not a cacophony…it’s actually quite pleasant. That is, if you’re not one of the unfortunate souls with an apartment on the square who needs to get up early for work! People are everywhere, eating and drinking and conversing; a sea of black and white (heaven forbid you should wear color) and candles. As a special treat, summer Sunday nights on the square are Tango night. It's magic to wander through the mass of dressed-up, high-heel wearing dancers as they glide (okay the word "glide" is a stretch for some of them but hey...it's dark!) through the candle-light shadows under the night sky.
As the tables disappear, the groups of people, mostly under 30, stand up to leave. The kisses begin and after everyone has kissed (once on each cheek) everyone they’ve spoken to, or even looked at during the evening, they wander off, either to return home or to continue their evening at one of the all-night clubs.
As an American, who formerly often did not even take the time to sit down and eat, let alone meander through a market on a regular basis, this is an education. And one of the most pleasurable fields of study I have ever gone through. Everyday I must remember to take the time to enjoy.... to converse.... to savor...to watch, and to attempt to make my crabby waiter smile. I'm not sure how this class will look on a resume but I'm trying to take it very seriously.