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The ‘forbidden’ French market

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While at a conference in Paris recently, I got an early start one morning to check out a French market I had heard about but not visited. The Marché Barbès (or North African market) in the 18th arrondissement is nestled securely under the railway tracks of the Metro.

Upon arrival I was met by a cacophony of noise, and masses of people. In fact, it was the most crowded French market I had ever visited, despite the fact that it was very early.

Amongst the noise I pick out French, Arabic and loud ululating voices – calls of “taste Madame” and “buy one, get one free” ring out above the din. Imams collect money for charity and European and Arab shoppers alike pile their shopping bags full of goodies.

As I start to get my bearings and find my way through the throng I realise a strange thing – I seem to be the only tourist here…

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I press on through the market, past stalls of fruit, plump glossy eggplants, tomatoes and bunches of herbs. Olives, spices and dried fruits are piled high at one stall and the only bread stall sells an eclectic mix of baguettes, pains au chocolat, Middle Eastern flat breads and other delicacies.

The numerous fish and meat stalls look just like in any other French market. Clothing stalls with ornate children’s clothes are joined by fabric stalls, with riotously colourful sequinned and bejewelled fabrics strung high.

It is fabulous and I want to take photos of it all, but I had heard rumours that the clientele and stall holders at this market could be a little shy.  As I move from stall to stall I buy a few things here and there. Each time I buy I ask if I could take a photo of the produce/goods in my best, most polite and respectful French. Each time I am met with a stony response: «Non Madame, il est interdit» – it is forbidden. My attempts to ascertain why are met with a brisk change of subject.

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I manage one quick, not very good shot of the back of a stall (above), and head off to the conference.

At the conference I take my purchases to the cloak check to be looked after. When I tell the young attendant where I had been, she looks at me in horror. “Why on earth did you go there?  Tourists don’t go to that market!” she scolds. She quickly follows with, “I love that market! It’s the cheapest market in Paris, you know. People come from all over Paris to go to that market.”

The Marché Barbès is obviously meant to be a well kept secret, and I’ve come across it.  But when I ask, even she doesn’t know why photography is «interdit».

Image Credits:
1. Paris morning, by chascow on Flickr
2. Métro Aérien, by 2. on Flickr
3. Jo Karnaghan


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