Went to the marché, or farmers' market, this morning and got a little carried away on the flowers-- €49 later, I came home with some peonies, Easter lilies (which in France are called arum, but I just read that both names are wrong: this is not a real lily), some yellow freesia, and four bunches of lilies of the valley, which will last only a few days, but are a symbol of May. Children sell them on May Day here on all the street corners. Aren't they pretty?
Today, as usual, the market was full of foreign tourists gawking at the lovely food and product displays. As the vendeuse was cutting the stems and wrapping up the flowers (she gave me some foliage for free), I saw out of the corner of my eye a tall, impatient American man, identifable by his khaki pants and button-down shirt, but also by his attitude. While the florist was taking care of me, he had gotten more and more annoyed. The florist was aware of his annoyance but not of its cause and looked puzzled. Finally he just laid down his money, pointed at the lilies of the valley in his hand and said, "Pour les fleurs," and flounced off. Enfin, he would have if he'd had flounces. The florist made big eyes at me and said, "What's wrong with him?" and then shrugged her shoulders.
What was wrong? He didn't know the rules of the marché. I didn't either when I first came to France. So, for your viewing pleasure, here are a few!
1) Enjoy the market all you want! It's fine to walk through slowly and gawk at the gorgeous fruits, vegetables, flowers, fish, meat, and surprisingly high-quality linens, etc.
2) Don't touch the food! This is not done. Mais non, non, non! The merchant will serve you.
3) If you don't plan to buy anything, photograph discreetly if at all. Understandably, the vendors don't love being the focus, year in, year out, of lots and lots of cameras of people who never buy.
4) At the height of the market, it will be crowded and you will have to wait your turn at popular, high-quality stands. If you are a customer, make a signal if the vendor doesn't realize you're not just a tourist staring. Then wait your turn. There may not seem to be a line, but there is. The French don't love orderly queues. But the vendor notices who's first, second and so on. If they make a mistake, it's not usually out of malice toward tourists but because too many people are waiting. Sometimes there's a long wait, that's just how it is. When it's your turn next, make a little signal with your hand. Whatever you do, don't lose your temper. And remember to begin with Bonjour! and finish with Merci! Au revoir!
While you are waiting for your turn, don't expect the merchant to pay you the least bit of attention. This is the problem my American man, at the beginning of this post, must have had. The vendeuse was completely ignoring him to focus on me-- this is the polite, correct way for a vendor to behave in France. The American was expecting her to acknowledge him and in some way say "Don't worry, you're next," or "I'll be right with you." But to the vendeuse, that would be rude to me.
5) If you don't speak French, no problem! Say Bonjour and then ask if they can speak English. If they can't, there is always someone nearby who can and will come to your aid if you need it.
6) If you are not a regular customer, watch carefully what you are being given! The French way of privilégier-ing their regular customers means that non-regular customers are the ones on whom they try to fob off the less good produce. Feel free to point at an unsatisfactory choice and say, "No, not that one! That one." French customers do this all the time. Smile!
7) If you come at the very end of the market, you can get some good bargains, but a lot of the best stands my be out of produce. Also, the market people have to spend quite a lot of time taking their stands down, and they aren't happy to have a customer show up just as they are putting things into the truck. So try to get to the market before 13h15. (I have no idea what time to show up in the morning. I am not a morning person.)
And voilà, one of the greatest pleasures of France!