When we first got to Paris, I thought, at the very least, that saying bonjour and merci, au revoir! each day, on each and every human interaction, would have me saying them much more like a native than I could ever get with deux betteraves or une bouteille de l'eau. At the very least, I thought, I know how to be polite.
A few weeks without going to the market though, and things can go down hill quickly for me.
Today I walked past a stand I hadn't been to yet - the potatoes, carrots, sandy spinach, heaps of mache and wrinkled butternut squash sent the message that these people most likely were the producers, and that they were producing what was in season (unlike the Bay Area, you will find multiple tropical fruit stands here). Having had some notorious run-ins with middle men who most likely pick up their produce at the Rungis and bring it to sell, I was determined today to buy from producers.
20 minutes I waited in line, learning that the colanders were, in fact, full of mache and that petitmarron are no longer in season, just butternut and this other enormous squash whose name I don't know. There were two kind young women and a kind older man but clearly, the man was in charge and clearly, I thought, the women would be the ones to get (kindness from food purveyors is not necessarily related to gender, but I was hoping for the best here). For 20 minutes, I practiced ordering cent gram epinard and un petite courge de butternut. I practiced acting French (aloof? carnivorous? not worried about raw meat touching vegetables?) when the man in front of me ordered a duck that was pulled out of a cooler, and then a small plastic bag that barely covered the base of the basket was laid in to measure the weight, and then the knife that cuts tops off of leeks seems to also do a fine job with the head of the duck (the woman said some last words to the head before putting it in a plastic bag of garbage). Plastic bag out, duck stuffed in, plastic container ready for turnips or carrots or slices of squash.
I get the man, of course, so when I order 100 grams of spinach he is skeptical and does not allow this, after clarifying how many I am feeding, he laughs, and comes back with closer to a pound. My demi-kilo pomme de terre are next and I hear him ask blanc or rouge so I say blanc, twice, and he's asking me something else and the man next to me says in English, "how are you cooking them?" so I say, "baking" and the woman two away says cuisson, which, as French would have it, also can mean to cook which then extends the questioning to 'cooking how?" (laughing, of course, because who doesn't cook their potatoes) so I say in English, "roast" and the man next to me translates, rotir and I am left with a worried smile and the memory of my recipe for lentils with potatoes and curry where, if I'm remembering correctly, I might even boil the potatoes. Rouge! the man laughs, and goes to weigh me out the red potatoes. He returns to ask what else, I am able to say des oeufs, and he asks how many, and I reply six and he turns to the man to laugh that now I speak French.
[Side note on the eggs: I have written previously about my love for fresh eggs, and since the week where we thought we were getting fresh eggs (they were in a big ol' basket! the basket had hay!) and came home with a 1/2 dozen eggs that had a double-yolk in each one, we have felt a sense of deception from certain dairy stands at the market. That and impending cancer. Thus, I've been scoping out another stand where the eggs actually are fresh. I don't know if you can see in the picture above, but these eggs had hay, not hay for show, but real live hay that just came from the hen's nest (or at least that's what I tell myself).]
No, I didn't bring a container for the eggs - I am asserting this while my translator friend helps me out as well - so as the man fills up the six eggs into a recycled container I am practicing my final order of une petite courge de butternut, which is why I'm surprised when he doesn't understand me. (For the record, I practically have my hand on the dark woven basket full of the squash as I'm saying this). He then gets me, laughs, and says, butternut? At which point I laugh that it's a word en anglais and pull out my change to count out the .63 centimes that I owe in addition to nine euros. (incroyable! he exclaims when I hand exact change, although, there is confusion about the 20.63 that I've handed him and I try to explain I gave him a 20 and he starts handing me back a 20).
And so I walk away, my cheeks bright red from not only the 0C temp but also him asking me in English where I'm from, and I say my obligatory merci and feel confident that the 'r' sound that started out at the tip of my tongue just a few months ago has finally made its way from the sweet tip to the umami back.