Belleville Open-Air Market
If you're ever in Paris on Tuesday or Friday morning, the multiethnic Belleville market is worth a visit. The prices are quite cheap, but the real reason to go is to "take a cultural bath," as our French teacher Isabelle says. The market runs almost a kilometer south down the mid-strip of Boulevard Belleville to the Ménilmontant stop. I've walked in its wake a few times on a Wednesday or Saturday, strolling under the neatly rolled awnings that remind me of hundreds of toriis, and avoiding bits of rotted cabbage and fruit in my path. But until this Tuesday our schedules had not aligned.
By the time we arrived it was getting on 11:30am and the place was flooded. To give you a frame of reference, Paris produce markets usually setup by 8-9am, really get going by 11am and wind down around 1-2pm. I'd already read a few enthusiastic posts online by local bloggers, encouraging people to experience this colorful produce market. Because in the throes of so many people, that's all you can really do. The general recommendation was to start at the beginning and let the energy pull you forward like a tidal wave (or a raging river), getting a bit jostled and bruised along the way, but hopefully not splayed out on all fours by the end — and hopefully with your fruit still intact!
The mouth of the market, at the Belleville stop, was filled with vibrant West African patterns cut into oversized moo moo shapes, glittery pumps, and dirt-cheap Converse knockoffs. At one stand a group of women were lined up trying on colorful headscarves and giggling to one another. The stall owner beckoned me over using the market showmanship I've come to expect in India and parts of Asia — she batted her eyes my way, broke into a wide grin and motioned with both hands. In a Parisian farmers' market this behavior would be quite forward. But this is not Parisian Paris. The other day Isabelle, struggling with a way describe Belleville said simply, "It's different." That it is. But Paris on the whole is as varied as any global metropolis. In New York it would be completely natural to rise out of the subway and find yourself in Chinese or Greek Queens. Why not here? I smiled at the vendor but walked on, not quite ready for my first sales exchange of the morning.
Without much ado, we put ourselves squarely in the stream of people and began. Stalls lined either side, leaving enough space comfortably for two people with market pushcarts to pass each other in opposite directions. True to its reputation of having fantastic deals, the music of sales rang out from start to end, mostly from North African/Middle Eastern Men. En euro! En euro! En euro! or Yalla! Yalla! Yalla!, they called, and sometimes Yalla! En euro! Yalla! En euro! Yalla! En euro! for variety. "Hurry! One euro! Hurry! One euro! Hurry! One euro!" Some syncopated the beat of words until they were just urgent sounds, hypnotizing the crowd into a buying frenzy. In this environment, sentences lost meaning. Instead, the vendors relied on the theatricalities of tone, volume, repetition and sweeping gestures using their whole body. Quatre pièce, en euro! Quatre pièce, en euro! En euro de quatre! En euro de quatre!, they called, with their hands outstretched in front of them.
At this point we're well accustomed to the dance of buyer and seller. But rarely have we seen such a varied group. From what little we could even discern from the myriad of faces, the crowd was a mix of French, West African, Middle Eastern and North African, a few Bengali or Indians, Chinese, Thai and we two Americans.