Au Marché

The sun has yet to clear the horizon when Baptiste picks me up in the refrigerated truck full of vegetables we packed yesterday. When we arrive at the market, we’re one of the first vendors, so the cobblestone streets of the tiny town of Gaillon are still empty. But within an hour, an enchanting market will emerge: breads, seafood, summer stone fruits, clothing and jewelry, jams and honey, eggs, cheese, and live, squealing and squawking animals. Just as I’m wondering how somebody who buys a live pigeon gets their purchase home, I see the maraîcher shove one in a takeout-style box and gleefully hand it to his customer. My next question, Why would anybody buy a pigeon?

We set up three large tables and begin to unload the rainbow-colored vegetables. Baptiste has a game plan, and I am at his service. The heirloom tomatoes, his prized product, are to be artfully displayed up front. Any tomatoes with blemishes get flipped on another side to reveal the pretty yellow and red gradients. I get a quick lesson on how to use the cash register (Baptiste makes up yet another jingle to remind me of the correct buttons to press), then I practice with him playing a customer asking to buy some lettuce. So far, so good.

When we’re set up, Baptiste and I walk through the marché to grab a quick espresso. En route, he stops to give two bisous to the apricot woman, and high five Eric the charcutier. A local restaurant owner and a few loyal customers sit down to join us for coffee before the market hustle begins. This is a market ritual for Baptiste, and he always picks up the tab.

We get back to our stand and there’s already a line waiting for us. Whoa. This is way harder than I expected. I’m dropping zucchini, I’ve forgotten how to count, and I can’t keep the prices straight despite the little cheat sheet I made for myself on the back of a crumpled receipt. And the tomatoes. Oh, the tomatoes are the absolute worst. I have a little heart attack every time a customer says, “Et des tomates, s’il-vous plait.”

There are three varieties of tomatoes, they’re all different prices, and the prices change based on the volume the customer purchases. Then, the customers have very specific questions about the tomatoes they’re purchasing. They want a tomato to eat tomorrow. They want a tomato to eat today. They want a tomato to eat at 2 p.m., and they want a tomato that their brother will like. And then they want me to choose their tomato. I am no tomato whisperer, but I pensively eye each one, give it a light squeeze and with an approving nod drop it in their bag. Surely I just reserved a seat in hell.

When there’s a brief lull in activity I try to explain to Baptiste that I was actually pretty good at my last job and can also run a small business, but he’s not entirely convinced. “Est-ce que l'ascenseur vers le haut-de-chaussée?” he asks. (“Does the elevator go to the top floor?”) Touché. He explains that the French are not trusting people, so they’re already a bit wary of me. They’re afraid I won’t choose the best produce, I’ll key in the price incorrectly, or I’ll give out the wrong amount of change. All of which I’ve accomplished before 11am.

Most of our customers are older women, and Baptiste greets each with a pet name, “Bonjour mon lapin!” “Salut mon chou!” They’re all equally charmed and don’t seem to mind that the woman in front of them was just greeted with a similar moniker.

My maraîcher skills are improving exponentially but I hear a little giggle each time I announce the price to a customer, “Deux euro dix” (2€10). That’s when they ask if I’m Spanish. Apparently I cannot pronounce “euro” correctly, which is a dead giveaway that I’m…uhh...Spanish. Either way, most of the customers are excited to learn I am American and become quite curious how I got to this little village to sell them eggplant.

Working at the market is the fastest six hours of my life. We sell all six hundred kilos (1,323 pounds) of tomatoes, and almost all of the other vegetables. Baptiste is thrilled, and I hope now convinced that the elevator makes a quick stop at the penthouse. At the end of the afternoon, we pack up the tables and umbrellas and hop into the truck to head back to the farm to pick and prepare the vegetables for tomorrow’s market.

On the way back, we practice my pronunciation of euro, “uh-roh” “uh-roh” “uh-roh.” Halfway home, Baptiste and I smell something burning, then notice smoke oozing from the dashboard air vents. We immediately pull over on the small village road, jump out, and see sparks shooting out from under the truck. Baptiste runs to a nearby farmhouse and returns with a small clay vase filled with water. It barely taunts the flame. He races back for a refill, before we discover a hose, which completely extinguishes the fire. Then Baptiste calls Bruno, his partner on the farm, to come tow us.

Bruno arrives a while later with a small flatbed truck. We connect the two with a metal rod, and Baptiste and I jump in the flatbed, while Bruno steers the truck brûlée. We get another quarter of the way home, before the flatbed overheats. Three hot, tired, dirty farmers, two broken trucks, on one backcountry road. Parfait.

We let the truck cool for about thirty minutes, then drive the rest of the way home. Baptiste and I have just enough time to gather his papers and head into town for a meeting with his comté, or accountant. It’s taboo for the French to openly discuss finances, but Baptiste allows me to tag along for his quarterly financial meeting.

He’s brought a notebook and a stack of original, hard copy receipts. Each page of his notebook represents a different month, and he records his revenue after each marché on a different line. And that’s it. The comté copies the appropriate pages, takes the expense receipts (phone bills, equipment etc.), and the meeting is adjourned.

 I’ve got about a million questions for Baptiste on the way home. What if you lose your notebook? What if it just flies out the window when you’re driving home? How do you calculate your profit? Do you just guess at your production costs? Don’t you want to know exact figures? Should your entire phone bill be written off your taxes, or just a portion of it?

But before I ask these questions, I realize how American I am. Baptiste estimates he makes about thirty cents for every euro in revenue. Aside from that -- he points to his nose and says, “I just nose” -- He just knows. And after he’s sold over a thousand pounds of tomatoes in an afternoon maybe he’s onto something with the simple life.