The market near my place in Paris runs on Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays. Each Thursday meat and produce vendors hold court, and things are orderly and respectful. Fridays are more boisterous, with the clientele after brand names — everything from cutlery to culottes — at low prices. (Nobody seems to question whether the mounds of Adidas t-shirts on display are real, or how they ended up in the seller’s hands.) Saturdays, though, are something else entirely.
I return to the marketplace the day after the robbery, still a little shaken but determined enjoy my only weekend in Paris. When I reach the square I’m confounded by what’s in front of me. Laid out on large cotton sheets and tarps is a sea of bric-a-brac. Each seller’s collection of objects is presented in no discernible order; half-empty bottles of shampoo are placed next to bright orange, empty Coach boxes, and no square metre is without at least one pair of second-hand shoes.
The market is like a giant trash and treasure meet. Shoppers stand before the sheets, searching for god-knows-what — something valuable or funny or pretty, I guess — amidst all the stuff. The vendors don’t hawk or holler, only approaching customers who’ve clearly found something of interest. Most of the time they sit behind their collections on low plastic stools. A few children sleep on stacked mattresses next to their seated parents, seemingly unaware of the hundreds of people in the vicinity.
I enter the fray. A day’s removal from the robbery has made me calmer, but I still move with caution. Striding over sheets’ corners to avoid crushing headphones and pairs of sunglasses, I swing my canvas bag over my left shoulder to cover my front so that I can be sure of my possessions’ security. My shoulders curve inwards, posture be damned.
There’s a wonderful, bizarre array of stuff being sold. Collectively, the marketplace could represent quite comprehensively the technological evolution of the last 20 years: there are brick phones, early Samsung models, CDs, VHS tapes, a tablet with a cracked screen. A boy in the corner has laid out dozens of Pokemon cards. I wonder whether their value has increased in recent months.
Wandering through the market, I’m stopped by a woman who recognises my bag. She thinks we’ve met before. I tell her she’s mistaken, and that I’m not Parisian, but we get chatting. Sarah’s* niece, it turns out, works for the company where I’ll start next year, and is about to visit their Australian office. This is an odd coincidence, but piques my interest enough for me to accept Sarah’s offer of a coffee around the corner.
Sarah does most of the talking once we sit down. She tells me about her niece’s romantic problems, her own teenage relocation from La Martinique to France, and her son’s burgeoning modelling career (he has a part-time job in a cafe, too). This career path, it seems, runs in the family; Sarah says she posed for Hustler when she was young. Loud and bubbly, she compliments our waitress on her bright blue eyes and fawns over a puppy named Maddy as we leave. I don’t tell her about the robbery.
Before we part ways, Sarah invites me to meet her in the afternoon at another, bigger market with more stuff and better deals. (She needs to run some errands for her mother in the interim, she says.) I wonder if I’m being naive, but I accept anyway.
I pass the following hours ticking off a few items from my ‘when in Paris’ list: a walk up to Montmartre, a quick shuffle through the Sacre Coeur, and a visit to Chateau de Vincennes, with its medieval fortress and towering, near-empty Gothic chapel.
Twenty minutes early for my afternoon rendezvous with Sarah, I duck into the markets she’s recommended to see how they differ from what I’ve seen previously. The most distinctive feature of this market is its size; where this morning I could take in the vista of bric-a-brac with a turn of my head, here the stalls seem to stretch on forever. Shade is provided by tarpaulin awnings, and each stall is dedicated to a single speciality: jeans, shoes, glassware.
I exit the market’s shaded walkway back into the August sunshine, and spot Sarah waiting at the petrol station kerb she appointed as our meeting place. Chatting with a friend, she’s dressed head to toe in black polyester, matched with pink trainers and a straw hat. I arrive and we exchange bisous. Sarah hands me a small bottle of rose concentrate she’s just bought from a stall and tells me to smell it. It’s quite strong.
Bidding her friend goodbye, Sarah steers us away from the main market towards a strip of people down the road, beyond the petrol station. I query our diversion, and Sarah tells me that we’re heading towards les Romains — Gypsies who, she assures me, have the best bargains.
Before we reach the first of les Romains, Sarah briefs me. If I spot anything I would like, she says, I should let her know and she’ll negotiate a good price my behalf — she knows the vendors well.
Sarah certainly acts the part, greeting each seller with familiarity before scrutinising their wares. Occasionally questions are passed around, either from prospective buyer to seller or between a cluster of observers. (“C’est quelle marque, ca? C’est quelle taille?”)
The goods — tangled necklaces, yet more shoes, a hodgepodge of unfolded garments — are collected on smaller versions of the cotton sheets I saw at my local market in morning. The setups are makeshift by necessity; periodically a couple of police sweep down the strip, prompting les Romains to gather the sheets’ corners together and rush further along the street. (These offshoots of the official market are technically illegal.) Each time this happens, customers are left holding whatever they’d been inspecting at the time. They watch the retreats with muted amusement, knowing (as the police do) that the sheets will be relaid in a few minutes.
Sarah and I slowly walk up and down the sidewalk, which is lined with the white caravans that les Romains live in. Sarah buys a purple and blue Hugo Boss tie, and at one point holds up a pair of lacy burgundy underwear several sizes too small and asks me if they suit her. I’m not sure whether she’s joking.
It’s clear that Sarah is a regular here. She’s stopped by fellow shoppers regularly to engage in small talk and discuss the day’s offerings. She introduces me variously as her son’s friend and her niece’s fiancé, telling me that it’s best if people think I’m connected to a regular market-goer.
Each time Sarah encounters a friend or acquaintance they compare purchases. One woman, who Sarah tells me has “l’ceil” (the eye), is particularly proud of her haul. She flicks through photos of recently-acquired jewellery on her iPhone, telling me gleefully that she never visits bricks and mortar stores. A man in his fifties shows us a pair of high quality (if slightly scuffed) brown leather shoes, purchased for an upcoming wedding. At 80€, he’s convinced they’re a bargain.
Standing on the sidewalk, Sarah spots a good friend of hers crossing the road. During her customary show and tell, said friend retrieves from her bag a pair of kitsch, imitation-limestone angels purchased earlier in the day. Sarah asks if she can have one of the small figurines, and her friend immediately hands it over.
When I’m ready to leave, Sarah offers to walk me towards the nearest Métro station. On the way I ask her where les Romains amass their goods from. She tells me that they dig some of the stuff they sell out of tips and rubbish bins, and steal the rest. The irony of this is not lost on me.
We reach the edge of a large roundabout, and Sarah points me towards the station. When we say goodbye she passes me the angel figurine, wishing me good luck and protection on my travels. A talisman like this probably would have been useful a couple of days earlier, I think, but it’s touching nonetheless.
*As in the first part of this piece, all names have been changed (except the dog’s).