Monday, June 16, 2008

from somewhere in Paris, by the river Marne: a week goes by

Sunday again. So, it’s been a week. But now I’m on the countdown. Three more days. I should work, shouldn’t I? But I’m so close to places that offer so much! Three hours and I’m on the Mediterranean, or Bordeaux or Brittany!

No, the deal (with myself) was that I should work. And not eat in restaurants. And not look for distractions. I’ve done reasonably well. My days are local. My shopping is for foods to eat at home.

Sunday. I came last week just as the markets were closing in La Varenne. From my coach house apartment, it's a twenty minute walk to La Varenne (it’s the next stop on the RER), longer if you take the river path. La Varenne – the commercial heart of this cluster of “Parisian villages.” And not surprisingly, the Sunday market at la Varenne is big. So big, that it draws people from up and down east Paris. Crowded. Packed with serious shoppers, so that it is nearly impossible to photograph. Let me throw down just a few shots (some, like the thin green beans, have made an Ocean appearance earlier in the week, but note how differently arranged they are in each place! Food matters. It matters at the Bon Marche or Galleries Lafayette, it matters at the markets of la Varenne and Champignol, it matters in Lannelis in Brittany).

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La Varenne, the neighborhood, is a mix of light affluence and a more ordinary life style. The market has as many stalls of cheap clothing as of food and I find myself fingering the linens and cottons along with the rest of the crowd. Some vendors guarantee “French made” (in the alternative, it may be Italian, one told me, but not from anywhere else!), but this crowd doesn’t seem to care. Cheap is attractive.

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At the café, I sip a very late café crème. It must be late, because the men are already moving on to the morning glass of wine.

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Or, a straight shot of espresso. The woman next to me – an African-French woman, so stunningly made up that I almost have to stare – sips a hot chocolate. We are the two from elsewhere. Our drinks say it all. She munches on a tartine (slice of baguette with butter) and comments to me that it’s too loud here. I nod, but really, I don’t mind. I hide in the noise of café bars. I exhale.

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My camera is conspicuous. This isn’t a place you’d seek out as a tourist. La Varenne is a good 30 minute commuter train ride from L’Etoile in Paris. There are plenty of closer markets for someone who wants to photograph produce. But if, like me, you do migrate here, you’ll find the feeling of neighborhood to be so strong, that your presence as an outsider will be noted. Madame at my breakfast café asks if I am living here now and Monsieur and Madame the cheesesellers hail my camera (and, by extension, me) at each encounter. There you are! Go ahead, take a photo. And how are you today?

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In the afternoon, I take a walk along the River Marne, away from La Varenne, along the Champignol (my “Parisian village”) bank.

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I am looking for a guinguette. You’ve heard of them maybe? Riverside restaurants, with music and dancing, all very unfussy, traditionally for the working people to enjoy on a Sunday afternoon. Renoir’s version in Luncheon of the Boating Party is what sticks in my mind.

It’s not a bad comparison. People eat, have a coffee or a dessert, dance. At least, the older couples dance. It’s no disco floor. The melodies are French cha cha and waltzes and who knows what else, except that they sound at least two generations old.

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The younger set? They talk, they eat, they drink wine and look into each others' eyes.

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I head back home. My hosts are about to return from a visit with les grandparents up north. The skies are going to unload rain. Time to settle in and work.