Sunday, November 14, 2010

Jean and the Chicken

The bells are ringing because today is Sunday.  And I’m happy.  Because Sunday is Market Day. 
We go to the Marché Alibert.  It’s a tradition we began long before it got so bobo chic that the prices made you come home and rummage through your wallet after and think – but.  Hang on.  How?  Where… did it-?
We still go there because it’s good. 
And it’s tradition.
The Marché Alibert is a cute street market just off the Canal St Martin on the Rue Alibert.  Friends will meet us with puffy eyes and fluffy scarves for a café crème at the Carillon, the little café across the road from the market, where we will set ourselves up and will leave our stuff as we do little dashes to the stalls when the queues are short.  The Carillon was once known as a coupe-gorge (throat cutter – ie, dangerous), but now, like the rest of the 10th, especially the more coupe-gorgy bits – it’s ultra bobo-chicBobo means Bourgeois Bohemians.  The 10th arrondissement is full of them.  I guess we’re probably ones too, though we still like to talk about them dismissively.
At the market there are about twelve stalls selling all sorts of things, including: 
A big, jolly organic grocer who talks so much that we stopped going to him because it’s hard to talk so much on Sundays. 
A round, shy older lady with awful pastries that you sometimes buy because the boulangerie on the Rue de Marseille is shut on Sundays and you’re aching for a pain-au-chocolat.  You feel violated afterwards because they are just truly terrible.  But you’re glad you gave her some business as she looks frightfully lonely.  Her eyes are sad.  She has two little dogs that sit under her trestle table looking doubtful. 
A merry, ruddy-faced chicken man who sells divine, tasty chickens on a rotisserie whose fat drips down over potatoes.  They taste amazing for Sunday lunch with a good cider. 
A sleazy young dried-fruit-and-nuts man who calls me La Plus Belle and Ma Princesse and other flowery names.  I like his dried apricots.  But it’s not always worth it. 
A sweet-faced man and his sweet-faced wife who sell painfully good cheeses and they’re butchers too, hacking heads off chickens and legs off lambs before your eyes with big Sunday smiles.  They have a display case full of tongue and trotters and weird stuff like head cheese, which are intense to behold, especially on Sunday morning.
A lovely Asian man and his family who sell lovely, sparkling fruit and vegetables.
But we never went to him. 
We went to Jean.
Right down the other end of the market opposite the Carillon, used to be Jean. 
But Jean is gone.  Replaced by a fancy fruit-man and his fancy staff. 
They’re clean.  Not like Jean.
Jean was an older gent with blackened teeth and dirt all over his hands.  His produce had dirt all over it too like it had just been ripped from the ground.  He would roll in to the Marché Alibert very early on Sunday (I imagine) from goodness-knows-where, with his van and three daughters and a few of their loose boyfriends.  The boyfriends changed weekly.  The Jean family were all pretty rough.  We watched the youngest daughter sprout from a weedy 12-year old to a buxom 16-year-old with dyed hair, nose-ring and sloppy cleavage.  She was spirited and feisty that young one.  The Love and I would muse upon what she’d been up to the night before as we waited in the queue.  The term ‘fingered behind the cow shed’ was bandied around, which hurt it was so funny, though it was always too early in the morning for such talk. 
Barns and cows and grass and country air wafted from Jean and his family.  They reeked of a different France to anything I’d known.  You didn’t see rural people much around these bobo parts.
It took me about four years to earn Jean’s respect.  At first, I touched the fruit, which was a very bad start.  I slowly learned to ask for each item, using colourful descriptions when I didn’t know the name.  ‘Seven of those little orange cute things’.  ‘Des Mirabel,’ Jean would grumble, stuffing the fruit into a paper bag.  It irritated him to count, so I learnt how to say ‘handful’.  ‘Big handful, small handful.’  That worked better. 
Eventually I could say all the fruits and vegetables and ask for handfuls and bunches and ‘one to eat today and one for tomorrow and one for the day after’, etc.  After several years I just had to point and Jean would know what I wanted.  He even started to smile and say hello to me in the queue.  And then one day he told me his name.  He didn’t remember mine, but that was cool.
And then another, wonderful day I earned the greatest honour. 
It was summertime and the produce was extraordinary and I bought a lot of those heavenly gariguette strawberries and all sorts of fruits with pretty names and was about to say ‘Ce sera tout merci Jean’ when he leant over towards me and said,
“You want an animal?”
“Excuse me?” I said.
“You want an animal next week?  Hare?  Chicken?  Duck?”
I was stunned.  I looked at The Love.  “Chicken,” he whispered into my ear.
“Poulet,” I said to Jean and the corner of his mouth crinkled into a shadow of a smile and he put his finger to his cracked lips and tapped on his nose.
The Love whispered something in my ear again.
“Will you take the feathers off, Jean?” I whispered.
“Ouaisouais,” he grumbled and went on to the next customer.
The Love and I waited anxiously for the next Sunday to come around.  What would it be like?  How much would he charge us?  What would we do with it?  Would it be dead?
Sunday came and sure enough, once we’d bought all our luscious fruit and vegetables, Jean bent down in front of the counter to pull out an old crushed plastic Franprix bag.  He looked around as though we were conducting a drug deal, then handed it to me. 
The bag was heavy.  I handed it to The Love, whose eyebrows were high.
“Five euros,” said Jean.
The love and I looked at each other.  Only five euros?  We gave him the money and stole across to the Carillon like burglars.  Perhaps if Chicken man or Butcher Man saw Jean selling us meat there would be trouble.
We didn’t stay long at the Carillon - too intrigued to get home and examine what was in The Bag.  We invited our friends around for a chicken lunch and hurried up the canal.
At home, The Love took out the chicken.
There was no head, but everything else remained intact.  It looked different to any chicken I’d ever seen.  Like, an actual chicken.  Jean must have killed it that morning, and drained it.
“The heart is still here – everything,” said The Love from the sink.  “It’s been gutted and then all the organs put back inside.  Weird.”
“Of course,” I thought.  “Respect.”
But we didn’t know what to do with the bits so The Love took them all out and put them in the bin, though we knew any French person would kill us.  They would make something delicious with all those bits.  He stuffed what was left with garlic and lemon and thyme and rubbed salt and pepper and olive oil lovingly over the skin.  Then he put the chicken in the oven and we ate it with six friends in the pretty courtyard at The Récollets with roast potatoes and salad and a crisp Sancerre and it was the most delicious thing we had ever tasted.  As though we’d never eaten chicken before. 
And the best thing about it was that it tasted of success.  We were In.  Inside France.  Real France.  Jean had taken our hand and brought us to the Other Side.
It was an excellent feeling.
We went back to the market the next week and Jean smiled and we smiled back at him very very wide.  We waited for the offer of Animal, but it didn’t come.  Not the next week either.  Nor the next.
Then we went away for the summer.  And when we came back Jean and his carnival were gone; packed up and replaced by a clean man selling bright, shiny fruits and pimped-up vegetables.    
And Jean never came back.
I miss him.  It’s not the same without him. 

Robert Doisneau

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