Ode to Aligre

I was so fortunate to live most of my year in Paris around the corner from the Marché d’Aligre, one of Paris’ many outdoor produce markets but one of the (by my estimates) cheapest and most diverse, as well as one of the few that still runs everyday (except Monday). To get there from Bastille, walk East on the Rue du Faubourg St-Antoine for about ten minutes, and then turn right onto Rue de Cotte (my old street, incidentally). An immediate left, and you can’t miss it.

I knew it would be virtually impossible to capture the spirit of this market that I frequented so often with a camera but I finally decided to try anyway. I had that familiar experience that comes with suddenly feeling like a stranger in one’s own home–the way people treat you when you have a camera around your neck is utterly different than when you don’t. Some vendors recognized me as I’d been there many times, but one who was yelling “bienvenu!” to passersby yelled “les TOURISTES, bienvenu!” with an edge of sarcasm as he saw me. I turned and yelled sheepishly, “I live here!” but felt a bit stupid. So much for small victories.

I had been disappointed that the weather looked so gloomy on the day I took pictures, but at the same time I know that’s a more accurate reflection of Paris. (Whenever Paris has sunny clear skies, something just doesn’t feel quite right.) It didn’t reflect the mood of the people, though. Parisians get the stereotype of being unfriendly–not so here. The mostly North African vendors laugh and joke with each other in between cries of “Yellah yellah yellah! Toute la table un euro!” The cheese shop vendors also have quite the sense of humor. Groups of friends congregate out in the Place and chat animatedly. The cafés in the area (especially Le Penty) are generally void of stereotypical snarky waiters. Smiles are not rare around here.

The marché might be my favorite Parisian institution–knowing where my food comes from and having a wide range of local or at least nearby options (like when I “settle” for Spanish avocados), and buying directly from farmers and producers without the supermarket-conglomerate middle man. And the Place d’Aligre represents much of what I loved about my neighborhood–namely, the sense of community. Besides a number of local shops and businesses (from Algerian to Portuguese to Chinese) on top of the daily market, toward the end of the Rue d’Aligre is the Commune d’Aligre–a community organization that organizes communal meals, hosts lectures and film screenings, and oversees the functioning of a nearby community garden. On one warm night, a visiting friend and I stumbled upon some kind of Russian dance party taking place after an outdoor dinner. It was around 11pm but young people, families, and children alike were dancing around on the Place d’Aligre. Of course, we joined in for a joyous ten minutes or so. Paris a cold, impersonal, big city? Nah, not if you know where to look.

A chaque jour, son marché – Paris markets by arrondissement: http://marches.equipements.paris.fr/
(Other favorites include Marché de Belleville and Marché Barbès)

Small towns, slow food

Because I clearly needed a vacation from my already vacation-like life, I took a train to Italy last month to visit Maria, an old friend from Oakland and Berkeley who is currently studying gastronomy in Pollenzo (the birthplace of the “Slow Food” movement).

Maria and most of her other culinarily-inclined friends live in a nearby town called Bra. I’ve visited the large urban tourist destinations in the rest of Italy (e.g. Rome, Venice, Florence) but I was looking forward to spending time in a more anonymous small town. I was not disappointed—the uniqueness of its location (in the Northern Italian region of Piemonte) was evident from the start. I arrived at the surprisingly run-down station of Torino Porta Susa, which included hole-in-the-floor “restrooms,” and somehow figured out how to purchase a second train ticket to Bra from a machine that was yelling at me in heavily-accented English while a gypsy asked me for money. I didn’t know you had to punch your ticket before getting on the train (what is this, the 1950s??) and there was no sign telling me to do so, but luckily I was never asked for my ticket on this particular ride. The train itself was nice, but where was the detailed map indicating the route of the train and all the serviced stops? Clearly, I was not in Paris anymore. Luckily Bra was the terminus of the train, otherwise I would never have known where to get off—almost none of the deserted-looking stations we passed had any signs on them whatsoever. But after about 45 minutes of staring at the regal, awe-inspiring Alps in the distance with only a vague uneasiness as to where on Earth I was, I arrived at my destination. And it was well worth the effort. Bra is beautiful, quiet, charming…adorned with gorgeous buildings, cobblestone streets, and a few central stylish cafés.

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