Travel and Shopping Gold Winner: A French Market Essai

by Julie Farrar

Who’s buying and who’s selling at this market?

My obsession began at a Saturday street market in Metz, France.  The stalls materialized overnight in the main plaza as I slept.  Like one of those mystical carnivals that populate a Ray Bradbury story, the market seemed to sneak in under cover of darkness, and when revealed at the break of day it appeared full of light and cheer and promises of thrilling experiences and wares you had never seen before or knew that you needed.  The entire town gravitated toward this small plot of ground on Saturday morning to exclaim over the succulent fruit, to load their arms and shopping carts with bushels of colorful summer flowers, and to buy apple corers, underwear, and unplucked chickens.  But mostly I remember the dresses.  Racks and racks of dresses and skirts and summer tops woven from gossamer.  They filled stands and hung from the frames of the booths, waving in the breeze to entice me with their colors and designs.  I wanted to drape myself in all they promised – summers full of flowers, evenings of endless French food and good conversation, a joie de vivreI found hard to locate in my own daily life lately.

I wanted the life of the French women I saw wearing these dresses.  They strolled and chatted with the vendors.  They sat at small bistro tables with their friends, sipping Evian, bouquets of flowers resting at their feet until time to brighten the kitchen of a small French apartment.  The women all seemed oblivious to the summer heat in their flowing layers of linen and light cotton.  I just knew that if I could wear what they were wearing then I, too, could have that life when I returned home.  The sticky St. Louis summers that felt like swimming through molasses, the schedules of carpools, basketball practice, trombone lessons, weekend to-do lists, and every other obligation would evaporate like a dropped Popsicle on a sizzling sidewalk.  With the perfect union of a French dress and me I would rise from the caste of Midwest Suburban Mom to something “other.”

My ardor waned, however, when I realized that, even if I were twenty pounds lighter, these diaphanous dresses were not made to contain an American hourglass figure, or to forgive my long-time love affair with McDonald’s French fries.  While the women around me would flip through the selections and buy something without even trying it on, I went from stall to stall holding dresses up to check the size with a growing sense of defeat, longing for these bits of fabrics that were so out of reach.  As I resigned myself to the idea that I would never obtain my dream, I satisfied my hunger vicariously by forcing on my soccer short-garbed 12-year old daughter a fabric watercolor of cerulean and white, created for running barefoot through a meadow of daisies and sunflowers.  She only wore it once, but I’ll remember it forever.

Two years later Fate dropped me in Dijon for a chance to rekindle my passion, although I hadn’t yet miraculously shrunk to a size 2.  So on a warm July morning I joined the market crowd to achieve my heart’s desire, trying my best to imitate the attitude of the French women who always appeared to feel so comfortable in their skin.

My husband and our teenagers had made it clear that they’d rather eat horsemeat for dinner than shop for clothes in the market, so they took off to follow their nose to the fresh raspberries and Burgundy cheeses in the food stalls of Les Halles, where we’d meet in an hour.  Before this moment I had clung to my husband and his language skills that could work miracles at restaurants and Charles DeGaulle Airport reservation counters.  I made my way through the country on the previous trip by pointing and only buying things clearly marked with a price, like un Coke.  Despite several attempts in school, an acute case of linguaphobia had rendered me incapable of learning to speak a foreign language.  I tried again and again, but my lips just could not wrap around German umlauts or French diphthongs and Spanish rolled r’s.  Before first landing on French soil, I at least had mastered bonjour, s’il vous plait, andmercito get me through my day so they wouldn’t think this American rude.

I bumped my way through Dijon’s streets and stalls, mumbling one excusez-moi after another.  Surrounded by a jumble of unintelligible conversations, my body tensed with the thought that I might collapse with a heart attack at this moment.  I could see myself sprawled on the cobblestones amid the melted ice cream drips and stubbed-out cigarette butts, unable to spell my name in French or remember how to say “15” for the apartment address where they could find my next of kin as my life quickly faded.  But then the Siren song of the dresses beckoned.  They all seemed to be marked “one-size-fits-all,” clearly a relative concept.  With a sinking heart, I stopped at a bookstall, a one-size-fits-all much more my style anyway.  An Edward Gorey illustration on the cover of a thin, pink paperback enticed me – La Bicyclette Épileptique, his silly adventure tale of two children and their “epiplectic” bicycle.  The sentences were short and simple.  Voilà!  I could teach myself French through this book!  “Combien?” I asked.  Gripping my purchase I took off down the street feeling an exciting new savoir-faire.

Next I paused at a stand overflowing with table linens.  Luscious and vibrant, buying one would forever remind me of hot summer afternoons in Dijon.  The vendor, tall and wiry, had deep coffee-colored skin and dreadlocks down past his shoulders.  His shirt was as colorful as his wares, and a red and black crocheted tam set firmly on his head made me wonder if he took a wrong turn on his way to Jamaica.  He hustled around to the front of the stall, opening up any tablecloth my eye even brushed across, holding it high so I could experience its full effect.  At least one piece of material in this market would fit its object, I rationalized as I handed over my euros for a dramatic gold damask cloth with edging stripes of cornflower blue, burnt umber, and wheat to match my dining room rug.

A growing confidence propelled me toward the back of the market and the last of the dress stalls.  The clock on the top of the market roof told me that my search for the dream dress soon had to end. Pausing at one final booth I wistfully flipped through the racks, longing for the one meant just for me.  Holding a few up for a better look, I sensed someone at my elbow speaking to me.  Turning my head toward the voice, my heart stopped at one broad smile and an even broader chest wrapped in a slate blue tank top.  If at any point in my life I knew any French on the most rudimentary level I lost it at that moment.  The owner of that smile and that chest was speaking to me.  Maybe he was trying to help me, or maybe he was trying to pick me up. I didn’t care as long as he kept smiling.  My eyes took a quick inventory of the thick, cropped black hair, square jaw with about two days of scruff, wide shoulders segueing into firm biceps, and a chest that should be a national monument filling the tank top he wore and winnowing down to a tight waist.  Dark eyes behind wire-framed glasses and warm olive skin signaled that he was probably not of European descent.  Picking my imagination up out of the gutter, I tried to refocus when I realized that he was pulling dresses off the rack and holding them up for my approval.  Ahhh, the stall vendor.  Oh . . . right . . . I’m supposed to be buying a dress.

He motioned for me to turn around so he could hold it up to my back, all the while keeping up a steady monologue in French completely lost on me.  Dig. Dig.  I knew somewhere in my brain cells were those French syllables to tell him that I didn’t have any clue what he was saying.  Ne parle français– close enough.  He stopped speaking for a moment, then smiled again and motioned for me to raise my arms.  Huh?  He motioned again and continued to chatter.  He wanted me to try on the dress.  Over the dress I was wearing.  This vision of me buying a dress at the market had never quite extended to actually trying it on.  It never went further than miraculously stumbling upon the perfect fashion piece and “knowing” that it would fit like a dream.  Just pluck it from the stand of garments, pay my euros, and fade into the crowd with all of the other French women for whom size labels were a non-issue.  I looked at the knee-length slip dress he was holding and hesitated.  I didn’t think it would fit, but he was already trying to put it over my head. “What the heck,” my reticent self said, putting down everything in my hands and letting this eager market salesman have his way with me.

I could tell as I took over the job of pulling the dress down over my other outfit that this would not work.  Even if I removed everything underneath, this dress was not made for me.  How would I now gracefully – and without tearing it – get this back over my head?  In fact, how would I even get it back over my American breasts, which at this moment seemed to jut out as far as the Great Barrier Reef.  My Frenchman directed me toward a mirror in a corner of the stall.  I reluctantly took a step toward it to verify what I already knew.  Meanwhile, he stood there smiling and waiting for my reaction.   I grabbed my camera bag and pulled out my dictionary.  Standing in the middle of Dijon’s Place François Rude street market wearing two dresses and flipping through my dictionary, I finally patched together the words I needed.  “Serré trop, serré trop,” pointing to my large American boobs.  Way too tight.  And just as I had predicted, getting out of this dress was a two-person, international maneuver.  However, despite my own doubts, nothing deterred my personal shopper.

He grabbed other dresses, waiting for my approval.  They were all lovely, but that didn’t solve the problem.  I didn’t need to try them on to know they wouldn’t fit.  I found the size label in one of them and then pointed again to my chest.  Serré trop.  He pointed to the back of his stall, running his hand lightly across the back band of my bra and repeating “Cabine . . . cabine . . . essayage.”  Was he being forward or helpful?  Again I pointed to my chest, “Serré trop” and to the dress in his hand “muy petit.”  Muy?  Just seeing those biceps flex every time he gestured frazzled me to the point of forgetting what language I spoke so badly.  My dark-eyed vendor just kept smiling, pointing at something – I didn’t know what – and saying “cabine.”  My incompetence at French didn’t suppress his enthusiasm in the slightest.

Essayez– oh, “try it.”  In a corner of the stall I saw a makeshift dressing room and realized that he assumed if I removed my dress and slightly padded bra then his garment would fit better.  Did my willingness to do anything to buy a piece of French fashion extend to undressing behind a curtain on a busy street corner in Dijon?  And would removing any clothing truly have an effect on the outcome?  Once again I pointed to my chest and said “très grand” with a weak smile.  Crap.  My one chance with a gorgeous and charismatic Frenchman at least ten years younger who seemed eager to dress and undress me and I had to focus on the magnitude of my American proportions.

While I tried to decide what to say next and how to exit this hopeless liaison gracefully, my salesman shifted the conversation.  He ticked off on his fingers mardi, vendredi, samedi, naming random days of the week.  Then he pointed to the other stalls, “Marché, mardi, grand.”  Ah, grand.  Apparently he wanted me to know he had a bigger size (how embarrassing) and he would bring it to the market another day.  Then I heard a distinct Comment vous appelez-vous?I knew those hours of French language CDs I listened to on the plane would come in handy, answering with a strong “Je m’appelle Julie.”

Zhoolee, ahh.  Renevez-vous, mardi.  Moi, François Rude.  Grand.  Combien de jours êtes-vous ici?

I stared blankly.

“Ici, en Dijon?

I held up ten fingers, guessing he had asked how long I’d be in Dijon but with absolutely no recollection of the French word for “10.”

Zhoolee, tu(he pointed to me) et moi(pointing to himself) ici aujourd’hui” and nodded to a nearby café.  Those chocolate eyes kept staring at me intently while enticing me with that smile.  I paused . . . one beat, two beats . . . and let that French sink in.  I knew my skill with the language was abysmal, but I was pretty sure I got that message.  I thought I was here for a dress; what was he selling – and was I buying it?  I smiled, shook my head, and with a small laugh answered, “I can’t.”

Mariée?

“Oui, I’m married,” pointing to the ring on my left hand, trying to emphasize that fact even further with a mangled “Husband, deux enfants en Les Halles.”

En Dijon, oui?” he repeated as he mulled that fact over for its implications.  “Moi, no femme, no married.  I, no woman.  Où habitez-vous? Combien de jours dans Dijon?

After about twenty years of marriage I’d gotten a little slow.  What did where I was staying and how long I was here have to do with buying a dress?  Flirting might be the national sport in France, but was this how it was supposed to work?  I couldn’t help answering, though, “Rue Amiral Roussin.  En Dijon seven (hold up fingers) jours.  Paris on Friday” (thumbing through my dictionary for days of the week).  Paris didn’t entice as much anymore as I gave this complete stranger with the rock-solid chest and wide smile my full vacation agenda.

OK.  Moi, je travaille dans le marché le mardi, vendredi, samedi” as he again ticked the days off on his fingers. “Moi, je suis quatre kilomètres de la ville.  Bus six, très facileTu connaissez bus six?”  I nodded as if bus routes normally figured into buying a dress.  “Tu(pointing to me) . . . et  moi(pointing to himself) au café dimanche?”  He looked at me with an expectant smile, as if he asked a perfectly reasonable question about getting together on Sunday to which I’d respond with a resounding oui.  What would a Frenchwoman do?  If I could have spoken the language I would have grabbed one to ask.

“No, tomorrow (leafing through my dictionary),demainma famille á Jura Mt.,” I replied as if I were checking my calendar for open dates.

No dimanche?” he nodded, “Mardi revenez. Come back,le marché dans Place François Rude.  J’aurai un grand ou XL,” and he pointed to the dress in his hand.  Had he been negotiating a sale or something more?  The situation had escalated out of the control of this language-impaired traveler.  If I said “oui” at any moment during this conversation was I agreeing to a date, or to buying a dress from him on Tuesday?

While I bargained for my virtue, the sun had climbed higher in the sky and I felt the heat coming on as a few ribbons of sweat rolled down my back.  I sensed my family tapping its collective foot impatiently inside the entrance to Les Halles.  All I had was a tablecloth I really didn’t need and a French book I couldn’t read to show for my morning in a French market.  Whether out of lust for the dress or for the man who promised to help me procure one, something pulled me in further.  I whipped out my camera and cobbled together enough French to ask if I could take his photograph.

Moi?”  My salesman appeared slightly confused but flattered as he cocked his head and smiled again at me.

Oui,” I answered, grabbing the shot before I lost my nerve.  While I hurried to gather all my things and meet my family, my new French friend made one final pitch for whatever he wanted from me.

Tu, Place François Rude, mardi.  J’ai des beaucoup grands.

I offer a weak smile and shrugged, with a non-committal “Maybe, I don’t know.”  Linguistically depleted, I didn’t even try to find the language to fend off his enthusiastic pitch.  If he would go through the effort of finding me a dress grandhow could I refuse his request?  And then in one last attempt to prolong this rendez-vousI pulled out of my camera bag a pen and the small notebook with my travel notes.  I held it out to him and asked, “Votre nom, s’il vous plait?” (just for the sake of accurate travel records, of course).

He took the notebook and with a grin pointed to it and asked, “Mon nom?  Ici?”  With a firm hand he wrote “Hamid” (I was right – not completely French).  I reached to take it back but he kept writing.  Finished, he held it out and, pointing to each word with the pen, he read off the days, “Mardi, vendredi, samedi.  Place François Rude.”  Then he pointed in particular to his phone number, carefully reciting each number in French and then repeating it the best he could in English.

“Hamid, I’m married,” I repeated, holding up my left hand and waving my ring finger in the air in front of him.  Either my French stunk worse than I imagined or he just didn’t care.  Smiling (always smiling), he held his hand to his head in the international “call me” sign, adding a confident “Oui?”  Laughing, all I could get out was “I can’t.  Ne parle français.”  Perhaps that fact would hinder this budding foreign affair if my marriage proved no obstacle.

Hamid smiled again because he knew he’d won.  What . . . I didn’t know, but he’d won.  He recognized the surrender in my eyes.  “Mardi, bon . . . bon,” and he reached out, rested his hand on my upper arm as if we were now old friends, leaned in for the very French kiss . . . kiss on each cheek, and directed that victorious smile at me again.

Wavering between returning the smile and giving him my most determined “Mom look” in an attempt to wrestle some level of control in this situation, I informed him “Peut-être,” but there was no perhaps about it.  At this point I didn’t know which held the stronger draw – the chance to finally buy myself a dress in a French street market on Tuesday or a chance to watch him pour his all into trying to sell me on something.  I gave him a parting smile in return, leaned in, and laid my cheek against his scruff that had been warmed by the summer sun all morning, au-revoiringas casually as if we met on the street and chatted every day – and as comfortable in my skin at this moment as any Frenchwoman.

As I moved toward Les Halles and my waiting family, I turned for one last look and saw his smile still following me until he had to greet another customer.

*****

I did return on Tuesday morning and saw that Hamid had kept his word.  At his stall I found exactly what I wanted.  So that day at a French street market in Dijon I bought a granddress that shouted “summer.”  It fit me perfectly and I wore it as I lazily sipped Perrier in the afternoon at a sidewalk bistro, and I wore it to a late supper with the family that night at Place de la Libération where I indulged in steak marchand and dame blanchewhile French street life – its dogs, and buskers, and grandmothers, and children jumping in fountains, and waiters with loaded trays gliding seamlessly between close tables – swirled all around me.  And just briefly I imagined a life of cafés, dark eyes, what ifs, and a spirit of essayage.

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I live in St. Louis, MO where I write and spend my days trying to master French (or at least become more articulate than a four-year old). Dijon, France feels like a second home after so many trips there and perhaps some day I will have my own balcony there on which to hang my own pots of red geraniums. I continue to travel and wait for that perfect photograph. You can experience more of my journeys in pictures and words at www.traveling-through.com.

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