Author Jamie Ivey spent a year working in the Provence markets, here he explains what goes on behind the scenes
Early one Sunday morning in July the first whisper of the day’s heat stirs through the narrow streets of L’Isle sur La Sorgue. The backs of vans clatter open, olives are decanted from vast plastic vats into pretty wicker baskets, table legs snap open and parasols are fanned out like peacock’s tails. A trader stabs open a fresh cardboard box full of jars of tapenade and sun dried tomato paste. He wipes each individually with a cloth and mounts them on his stall in a rainbow of Provencal colours. Still the vans keep on coming – honey vendors, lavender sellers, fruit and vegetable men – the space evaporates as the blistering sun levers the weak moon below the horizon.
Hazard lights wink like chains of Christmas illuminations and the smouldering cigarettes of the traders trail expectation and relief into the sky with every prolonged drag. The season of plenty has arrived. For the last year the merchants have been scrambling, fighting, back biting and betraying each other for just this moment. Those of them who have made the cut, can feast on the plenty of the tourist season.
Nobody with a pitch even glances across the square to where the Police Municipal, are leading the dispirited hopefuls away. It’s best not to think about their fate. L’Isle sur La Sorgue market is full and will be until the end of August. Visitors will walk through the plane-tree-dappled shade, and graze from stall to stall, picking up some meltingly soft cheese here and some slices of hand carved ham there, oblivious to the lengthy battle which has been waged between the merchants to earn the right to a pitch.
The year for any aspiring market trader begins at the end of September. Once the tourists have fled back to their packed lives in Paris, London and New York, the established traders dismantle the summer show leaving space for new comers to try and establish themselves.
The atmosphere is relaxed and convivial. The remaining merchants breathe a sigh of relief and count the euros from the season’s exertions. People happily create space for each other, guard each other’s stalls and sip early morning beers, as the remaining tourists window shop around the stalls wearing the congratulatory smiles of those wise enough to visit out of season. But time is already ticking in the race to secure a space in the markets for the following summer.
Visit the Mairie of any Provencal village and enquire about the possibility of a place in the weekly market and the response is always the same. The market is full and has been for years. What’s more the waiting list for a space is over a decade long.
Out of season this is clearly not true, every market in every village has space and on a weekly basis the Police Municipal decide who to award it to. Although they would never admit it every Police Municipal or Placier keeps a hierarchy of traders in his or her head.
At the top are the local traders who’ve been frequenting the market for years but still never found themselves onto the official list at the Mairie. With a nod to the Placier these traders set up where they want. Secondly there are new traders whose faces are known – they are related to a family member, or they’ve grown up in the village or a nearby one. Before they petition the Placier they’re knowledgeable enough to wait around until those above them in the hierarchy have set up. Finally there is a third group, with no local connections, newcomers to the markets.
During the winter all the members of this third group of traders endure the howling mistral and the fierce hail and snow storms. When the fountains are frozen over and their breath visible in each other’s headlights they persevere, because they know that to make any money they needed to secure a place for the summer season. And to stand any chance of doing so they have to be ever present.
As the days lengthen and the first stirrings of the summer creep into the air – a hint of sticky pine and wild thyme – the atmosphere in the markets changes. Anxiety creeps into the traders’ demeanours as week by week the free space is eroded by new arrivals with extensive stalls. These returnees are from generations of market traders whose right to a space is officially recorded at the Mairie. The interlopers, the winter traders, have no choice but to squash together and hope for the best. They turn up earlier and earlier in the forlorn hope of trying to guarantee a spot, but instead are forced to watch as the Placiers allocate pitches to people they’ve never seen before.
Throughout the whole of Provence the whisper among the dispossessed traders is always the same – blame France’s envelope culture. As summer approaches disputes break out between rival merchants as permanent pitches are awarded for the season. People swamp the Placiers in gesticulating huddles. Someone is always disappointed and the explanation always the same – bribery.
Is it true or is it just sour grapes?
In the past Placiers have lost their jobs when it’s been proved they’ve been taking money to guarantee people better spots, but the markets these days seem to be a cleaner place
Once the scramble for spaces has finished and the tourist horde finally descends relationships between the traders improves. Every market is a show and every trader has a role to play to ensure its success. Just one shabbily presented stall shatters the idyll that the visitors carry around in their head. Luring the tourists in the heat of the day from their hotels and villas into the temporarily tented village is a team effort, creating a critical mass of bustling people, a magical environment in which money somehow ceases to matter. Shoppers leave with a smile on their face, a camera full of beautiful photos and no money in their pockets.
Then as the heat fades from the sun and the cars vanish from the roads the traders count their profits. Friends made during the course of the summer’s trading disappear for a much earned rest and new faces squeeze into the recently vacated spaces in the markets. As the leaves on the vines turned a rich auburn the uneducated observer could be forgiven for believing that a slow paced idyll is being lived out in the market squares. In fact the first skirmishes in next year’s pitch wars are beginning.
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