On the way back from the train statio I could see that the market was a lot bigger than I first thought, and took up several streets. I bought some fruit, glorious fruit, from a fruit stall, and a pain au chocolat and a lemon tart and went back to the hotel to say I was staying another night. Then I retired back to my room and fell upon the delicious patisserie items like a wolf ravaging a sheep.
Once I had cleaned up and got all the lemon curd out of my hair, I decided to go out again to do the market properly. I love markets and I was pretty excited about this one, since I’d had no idea that it was going to be there, it was a right on the doorstep, and looked large and a bit unruly, just like a market should be.
As I came out of the hotel and round the corner, I came into the aftermath of an accident. There was an ambulance, just closing its doors and leaving, and a bunch of police, standing around, making notes, and the municipal dust truck parked up on the kerb. So I guessed that someone had had a dust-up with the dustbin truck. All these soldiers to protect you from the terrorists, and then you walk out in front of the dustbin lorry.
I spent ages in the market. It really was a fantastic market, with one street of vintage and antiques, another street of food, and a street of clothes and household stuff. Obviously autumn is a good time of year for produce, but the produce on show was exceptional. There were whole stalls dedicated to selling tomatoes; fat, odd-shaped, sun-ripened ones in three colours and six or eight varieties. There were whole stalls selling mushrooms, ten or twelve kinds, fresh and dried, some of which I’d never laid eyes on before. An indescribable soft, salty, earthy smell rose up from the combined heaps of mushrooms, making me long for a kitchen where I could cook a huge pot of mushroom soup. There were unidentifiable pastries, odd coloured cheeses, vats of pate, and strange, wizened, obscene-looking sausages.
It was pleasantly busy, not with tourists, but with French people throwing things into straw baskets, chattering nineteen to the dozen, and loafing around in the surrounding cafes smoking and drinking strong coffee as it somebody might make it illegal tomorrow. To add to the atmosphere of chatter, the streets were lined with plane trees, which were filled with flocks of birds – starlings, I think – which kept up a persistent yikk-yikk-yakk, oblivious to the hordes below. There was also, down by the meat stalls, one of those old-fashioned fairground roundabouts, where children can ride on painted ponies, accompanied by the noise of wheezy accordion music.
I was sorry I couldn't buy meat and cheese, but I had no room in my bags to carry it home. I did buy some massive yellow tomatoes and a quiche for lunch, and wandered up towards the end of the street that was clothes stalls. There were lots of stalls selling clothes with Made In Italy tags – I’m unconvinced by the veracity of that - but they were nice garments, colourful, feminine without being uncomfortable, and more individual than chain store stuff. I hadn’t intended to buy clothes, but I ended up browsing, all the same. Clothes shopping can often be stressful, I find, as you wrestle with the sizes and find that you are too fat/too tall/too short/too busty/too whatever for whatever the fashion store deems to be an appropriate female shape. A lot of this stuff, however, either didn’t have any size listed at all, or else had quite a random size. This felt rather liberating, as you simply had to hone in on stuff you liked, hold it up against yourself, and guess whether it might fit your size and shape. It felt less judgemental, somehow.
Besides, there was a great atmosphere, with a ruckus of Frenchwomen from 16 to 60 trying on a colossal jumble of things, throwing potential outfits together, clambering into dresses in tiny makeshift changing rooms, jostling for a chance at the mirror, and offering advice, solicited and unsolicited. None if them seemed to be having a crisis about being too fat or too old or too short, they were just taking pure pleasure in adorning themselves. I was immediately drawn in, and felt welcomed into a sort of female society, despite being a stranger. I tried on a green dress which I liked, and a green sweater with extravagant sleeves that tied at the wrists with pink ribbons, which looked great, but would, I decided, drive me insane every time I wanted to take it off.
I hesitated over the green dress, which was made of corduroy, and had a swirly pattern of braid that reminded me of some of the medieval church ceilings I’d seen. Anyway, I needed to go to the cashpoint, which caused some discussion. I couldn’t remember the French word for a cashpoint and the woman on the stall didn’t know the English word cashpoint, either. Anyway, having eventually made each other understand, she then proceeded to teach her two assistants, and all the other shoppers at her stall, the English word cashpoint as well. We were all pleased, I think, to have exchanged this useful piece of information.
I went off in search of the cashpoint, but also to see if there was anything else I liked better, and just wandered round, browsing a bit. I couldn’t help taking pleasure in the unashamed preening and fluttering of the flock of French ladies. How marvellous it is, how freeing, to put oneself out into the world, not in a way that someone else dictates that we should, but just for the pure selfish, sensual joy of making yourself appear as you want to be seen. And how generous in spirit it seemed, how much less neurotic than a trip to a shopping mall, as if they weren’t competing to be lovelier than the next one, but were all content to be collectively plumed and gorgeous.
There were a lot of lively older women as well. I couldn't help comparing it to Italy where I think they think women over 40 are ripe for the polyester slacks zone. I couldn't see a polyester slack in sight in Aix, though I could see lots of grown women out shopping with their grown-up daughters, and both of them looked great. I may be wrong, but I do suspect that while the Italians think a woman of 50 is basically dead, the French just think 50 is a good time to start having affairs. And I know some women would think that’s oppressive, that it’s about being over-sexualised, but I know which state of affairs I’d prefer! It’s weird how much people’s attitude to sex shapes your experience of a place, even if you’ve not had sex with anyone in the vicinity, or even any plans to.
I decided to go back and buy the green dress, which was €49. I tried it on again, and the woman on the stall said I should buy it because it made my boobs look good. You don’t get that in Dorothy Perkins, so there. Sold.
I actually very much enjoyed this shopping expedition, it made me feel very welcome, and part of the community, even though I had been in town less than 24 hours. Everyone I spoke to was very friendly. I thought again about communion, and sharing, and how much we all need it, and how I would never have felt such a thing in a shopping mall.