Illustration by Sabrina Fernandez

The organised chaos that is a French market is the closest thing man has to a living time capsule. Amongst the stall awnings, the sellers’ energetic cries, and the metallic jingle of coins changing hands, any semblance to 21st Century life (or the neatly-stacked shelves of OX1’s Tesco) becomes remarkably hard to encounter. 

The best description I can afford those readers yet to experience this setup first-hand is one of a sensory overload. Packed into the confines of a congested square or inner-city street, the arrival of even a humbly-proportioned marché comes accompanied by powerful aromas of freshly-roasted chicken, ripening cheese, soil-covered potatoes, frying onions, brewing coffee, and (this is France after all) garlic.

Actually making a purchase can be an equally haphazard affair. A ‘first-come, first-served’ rules applies to sellers so market stalls exchange places from one week to the next just to add to the disorientating effect. I myself have on several occasions spent a quarter of an hour milling in circles whilst on a quest for leeks, only to discover that the grocers had left long ago.

You’ve dealt with the pungent smell and located the correct stall: now for the carefully-tuned art of queuing. Multiple lines form at oblique angles to the stalls, and in the swelling plunge pit of parked vans, impatient shoppers, and wooden baskets full of produce, skill and diplomacy are required to guard one’s place. Should someone butt in, chances are a polite but stern « excusez-moi » will suffice to right the wrong. Do try to refine your best Gallic scowl of disdain and displeasure in the mirror at home, just in case.

Finally time to pay? Presenting a debit card (let alone Apple Pay) will probably warrant a bemused stare rather than the handing over of your preciously-won foodstuffs. Mentally prepare yourself to interpret the seller’s half-unintelligible French cry so as to produce the corresponding sum of Euros and centimes, for only then will the ordeal be over. Repeat multiple times (each stall sells one type of product, so multiple runs are almost a must), and I promise that it all quickly becomes second nature.

Of course, many of these snapshots will not come as a surprise at all. As Blue readers know from the brilliant, independent boutiques of Oxford’s own Covered Market or the likes of Camden, Borough, and Portobello down the M40, le marché is definitely not a continental phenomenon. But if for us Brits heading off to the market remains a bit of a novelty compared to the local Tesco, some of our French neighbours still use these medievalesque remnants for their weekly sustenance.

Good for them, too. In the current climate emergency, perhaps this side of the Channel has a thing or two to learn about locally-grown produce and supporting small businesses.

Who knew that grocery shopping could be so philosophical?

Ben Owen

A contributor to The Oxford Blue since its inception, Ben’s pieces explore topics as diverse as travel, literature, politics, and wine. His translation work has also helped foreign journalists share their ideas in the English language.