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Sketches of France: Market Day

The sounds of loud, fastly-spoken French swarmed through the air. Calloused, sunkissed hands blurred with automatic precision movements. They sliced, folded, twisted and bunched in great flourishes, their owner’s eyes rarely overseeing what they do. Crowds gathered at temporary tables under popup tents and patrons filled the canvas bags and woven baskets that hung from their bent forearms. I was surprised to discover that it was market day in Beaune, and I had yet again forgotten to check my itinerary.

Four hours earlier, as I stood in silence peering out our front window, I was preoccupied with less ambitious interests than formulating a daily schedule. I was watching an elderly gentleman, dressed in all blue with a gray woolen flat cap, slowly shuffle down the street. One hand gripped the leash of his small, muddy dog and the other leaned on a tall, bright-red umbrella like a cane. Though the sky looked clear of threats of rain, I gathered he was a man who likes to be prepared. I had joined in the enjoyment of the morning walk procession, first from the front window with French-press coffee in hand, then first-hand from the street with a signature saunter all my own.

The morning of the fifth day started indistinguishable from the fourth. The children played games of pretend in between bites of cereal. I ate yogurt and wrote in my journal. Amanda labored over some laundry that began to form a pile relatively early in our still young vacation. The capability to wash our clothes at will would be the single greatest resource of the whole of the trip. By mid morning we found ourselves driving along the snaking creek and through sandy villages on our way back to Beaune. We stopped off at a bike shop we found in Rick Steves’ guidebook. There were no bikes available for a family of our size and the extremely apologetic shop owner offered us a number of alternative activity ideas. We wandered back into the realm of the medieval city that persists inside the old protective walls and I was just as happy to be exploring it on two feet as I would on two wheels.

The happy accident of stumbling on the market may have been missed if we had bikes to rent or even taken a different street, and I nearly blushed with the sense of unanticipated relief. We drew the good-fortune side of the coin-flip this time. We drew the other side at La Rochepot a day ago. It was nearly noon and a picnic lunch would be the perfect addition to our day.

The buzz and symphony of organized chaos was warming and very familiar as I had seen many just like it on cable travel shows. It gave a satisfying validation to their authenticity. The cheesemonger joined in the chorus, announcing his star cheeses while simultaneously slicing and wrapping hunks for customers. He had only survival English but his salesmanship didn’t rely on it. While his pitch was the same for us as with any of the locals he had additional methods of persuasion to deploy. As he spoke to me he simultaneously cut succulent hunks of cheese from a brick sitting on a wood cutting board and shaved thin slices from smaller wheels like a surgeon. One-by-one, he handed them to each of the children. Unlike Bobby, who happily snatched the slices from his fingers and gobbled them down, the girls were a bit reluctant. The clever strategy made me smile, and I gave words of encouragement to the girls. The seduction of my vulnerable children with fungal delicacies was unnecessary, however, as I was absolutely going to purchase his products . . . after I tried as many samples as I could reasonably milk for myself of course.

With two large slices of a hard cheese securely in hand we moved to the next table. It was layered edge to edge with about a dozen rustic yet elegantly shaped wooden bowls cradling the most beautiful array of unctuous tempanades I had come face to face with. I proceeded to try four or five of them. I had lost count. The kids had already spent any courage they possessed with the cheese and weren’t willing to entertain even the idea of a taste. When I felt I had overplayed my welcome of the game I purchased a sizable portion of the kalamata and fig tapenade, gave our sincere thanks and made room for more shoppers.

We performed the same routine at the charcuterie stand using the term picnic to help determine quantity. This time we munched on a variety of hams and beef and Lydia enthusiastically joined in the sampling this time around. She has always been a connoisseur of mystery meats. We walked away with equal parts thinly-sliced ham and a cured ultra-lean beef tenderloin with a texture closer to jerky and a very rich beefy flavor.

A line longer than all the others combined, formed on three sides of a very long table. Its surface was blanketed with red and white cartons of bright, swollen cherries, plump, fuzzy raspberries and bright orange nectarines. The options were three and the decision was no-brainer. We grabbed two cartons of our own and handed the gentleman what amounted to pocket change. The fast moving customers were happy and the fruit was vanishing.

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