Marseille, October 27. Bougainville, end of the metro line, past stations named for colonial heroes, socialists, and Desirée Clary, who was once Napoleon’s fiancée. In the far north end of Marseille, an area of car dealers, oil pressers, shabby apartments and even more graffiti than the rest of city, is Les Puces, the flea market. By the time we got there, late on a Sunday afternoon, the flea market was over, leaving behind a parking lot full of drifting plastic bags. But then we went inside.
“Allez allez allez,” it sounded like a call to prayer but it called to food. “Un euro pour tout! Seulement un euro!” “Tout chaude, tout chaude!” Under the roof was an enormous food market. Around the edges were bakers, butchers (all Halal), shops selling giant couscoussières and cheap kitchen ware. In the center was a greengrocer, or rather a series of them, piles of peppers, tomatoes, eggplants, onions, melons, grapes, bananas, clementines, stretching the length of a basketball court. Pumpkin, zucchini, turnips, the seven legumes for couscous, which is sold in ten-pound sacks to go into those giant pots. The floor is slippery with clementine peels and old lettuce leaves. A cage of fat rabbits near one exit door attracts a gaggle of children, but the rabbits, and the chickens caged behind them, are not destined to be someone’s pet.
The noise is deafening, not only the vendors, but the customers who are haggling at the tops of their lungs, women in full burqas and in headscarves with high heels and tight jeans. Men with and without beards, in polyester track suits and in long robes, push strollers or are deep in conversation while children wail or chew on bread or bananas. Black African men wear colorful robes and pillbox hats, the women with babies tied on their backs and elaborate headwraps. One shop sells “vêtements orientales” for men and women, burqas and burnooses and headscarves on mannequins. Old French women with dyed black hair run over our toes with their wheely carts, and young suburbanites, also with strollers, look for bargains.
We buy some beautiful butter lettuces, peppers, fennel, some round Arab bread at one of the bakeries, a baguette at another. At one of the shops we find tubes of harissa to bring back to Oregon. Everything seems incredibly cheap, and we want to buy it all. One thing missing is mushrooms; we find some tired button mushrooms but none of the porcini or chanterelles that overflow the markets on the other side of town. One of the bakeries has baklava, but when we look closer it is covered with bees, crawling over it, crowding around the edges of the pan, feeding on honey in a cannibalistic frenzy.
When we finally emerge we are surprised to find it is getting dark; the clocks changed last night. We find a bus back to the metro station, past betting shops and one selling phone cards that also has booths in the back to make overseas calls. I remember these in the post office my first time in France in the 70s. I had not seen one in many years.