Friday, March 13, 2009

Rabbits, dinosaurs and a damn good coffee

We have a Saturday morning ritual. It started last year. Sophia decided one morning to try out the farmer’s market in the nearby village of Villefranche-du-Perigord and came back raving about it. So now, every Saturday, we talk about going.

“Do we need anything there?”

“We could maybe use a few more tomatoes.”

Inevitably one of us has recently been to the big, efficient and aggressively un-picturesque supermarket in Montayral. So we shrug, look outside. It’s raining, or it’s already late morning, or we’re feeling lazy.

“Next week, definitely.”

But occasionally one of us bucks tradition and actually goes. As I did this past Saturday.

Villefranche is one of the old “bastide” towns, “new” towns built around the time of the Hundred Years War (14th and 15th centuries) as centers of trade that would be loyal – ie pay taxes - to the king rather than to local feudal lords. As picturesque medieval villages go, Villefranche is a pretty ratty one. Lost deep in the forest, far from just about everything, its claim to fame is that the surrounding woodlands are teeming with chestnuts, cep (porcini) mushrooms and deer. Villefranche has a real backwoods feel to it, like the Ozarks only with better food.

The market itself it tiny, especially off-season. There are three or four fruit-and-vegetable stands, our local Montcabrier vintner selling his wine, and usually the mobile pizza van. That’s about it, which is what I love about it. I suppose it appeals to my sense of solidarity with the underdog. I’m a lot like Charlie Brown, who goes to buy a Christmas tree and chooses the smallest, saddest one because it needs him. Surely Villefranche needs me.

And surely no one in Villefranche needs me more than the guy running the smallest of the fruit-and-veg stands. He’s always there, at least he has been every time I’ve shown up, with just a small table of vegetables set up in front of his little van. I don’t know his name – I probably wouldn’t be able to understand it if he tried to tell me. He’s one of these gruff old farmers who speak in a garbled patois that most Parisians wouldn’t understand either, which gives me some comfort as I smile and nod idiotically at the various sounds he produces during our brief interaction.

He’s having a conversation with a few older old men in Occitan, the ancestral language of southern France, which sounds like a mishmash of strangely-pronounced French, Spanish, and Harry Potter spells. He sees me waiting, continues his conversation for a few more minutes as I examine his caged rabbits (they too need me, but they’re better off in a stew than in the clutches of our cat Oliver, who tried to breed with the last rabbit we “rescued”), and then looks up at me as if seeing me for the first time. His friends continue on among themselves, and he comes over to see what I need. I make a polite remark about the weather. He responds “eh behn, za fay du byeng, ung peh d’zolay.” I don’t always know exactly what he’s staying, but I recognize friendliness when I see it. So I smile and reply with something noncommittal as I pick over the half dozen little heads of lettuce on his table to find the one with the least mud plastered to it. I get a few onions. Sometimes he has butternut squash, but not today. What he pulls out of that little van is whatever he pulled out of the ground that morning, no more, no less. Two euros exactly, he informs me. The prices, I’ve noticed, he pronounces with startling clarity.

Feeling smug at having had a genuine olde worlde moment, I move on the other fruit-and-veg guy who has a larger repertoire than my friendly veg-and-rabbit man, and then I’m off to the bakery. I always feel a little guilty there, as if I’m betraying Catherine and Gerard at the Montcabrier bakery, but they make great croissants, and I kind of enjoy smiling at the haunted-looking girl behind the counter, presumably the baker’s daughter, and having her respond with a dark, complex Fellini film sort of expression.

From there I go to the rock shop, and here’s where Villefranche becomes just a little strange. It’s not just a rock shop. It’s a jewelry shop, but much of it is taken up by fossils and minerals. It wouldn’t be at all out of place in a big city – it seems aimed at catering to everyone, from polished tiger’s eye pebbles to custom made necklaces to enormous fossils that any museum would be proud to display.

Fossils are my thing, so I love the place, but I have to ask myself: how many people around here are really looking to fork over several thousand euros for the lower mandible of an Allosaurus? Even the prospect of selling the €500 dinosaur egg seems a little dicey to me. What must friendly veg-and-rabbit man think of this place – is he saving up his euros to acquire a glittering watermelon-sized cluster of amethyst to put on his mantelpiece? “Zay byeng, za.”

I suppose it’s just something that happens in underdeveloped areas beautiful enough to become holiday destinations. This is one of the poorest parts of France, a region of small family farms, where even the better-off locals can remember childhoods hoeing fields or force-feeding ducks. But they now live side by side with retired English and Dutch and urban French couples, with bankers and lawyers who buy second homes here, with foreign families starting holiday cottage businesses and enrolling their children in village schools. Different economies, different priorities, are forced to live side by side.

And the results are mixed. It means that young people have a hard time affording housing here. It means their local cafes and bars, their markets, their churches are invaded by outsiders many of whom hardly speak French much less Occitan. Perhaps it means the loss of a certain sense of authenticity. And yet, it’s not the rock shop or the upmarket café that threatens the local way of life here. They tend not to displace previously existing businesses, and they are locally-owned. It’s the supermarkets in Montayral, so quick and easy and available to everyone, that risk slowly putting an end to the livelihoods of people like friendly veg-and-rabbit man. The outsiders, seeking local color, often are the ones most inclined to shop at the farmers’ markets. The foreign influx, despite its downsides, means income. It means jobs, it means enough people buying produce to keep the markets viable, it means more variety of goods and services.

And it means I can listen to a little Occitan, endure the brooding gaze of the baker’s daughter, examine the lower mandible of an Allosaurus and then go have an Ethiopian Moka Sidamo coffee in the quirky little café up the road, all on a Saturday morning 15 minutes from home. Zay byeng, za.

1 comment:

Craig McGinty said...

Thanks so much for this piece, you took me back to Villefranche and its Saturday market, especially at this time of the year.