2006July22 Queue Analysis

Approximate Reading Time: 12 minutes

Market day in Aups this morning was not so bad. Enough people to cause long lines at the stalls, but not so many to stall traffic.

There is a whole topic, for long discussion, in the subject of the French and being in line.

Before getting into the subject proper, I’d like to observe that Henry Fountain of the New York Times had interesting things to say on the subject of great athletes, and why some crack and some don’t, the latest of them being the French football great Zinidine Zidane, who did crack, and broke the heart of a nation. Even the petite Nicole, innkeeper across the way, and usually far more interested in fashions and movie star gossip, thinks he’s a rat. Forever.

Anyway, Fountain spoke to, among others, a guy named Sagal, an expert in winning ways (and partner in an outfit called Winning Mind, which gets him in to consult to World Cup soccer teams, if you can believe it—what the hell, business is business), who said, “You’re talking about a situation of absolute intense pressure. And you are talking about a player in particular who is unparalleled in his ability to stay narrowly focused. What you saw was him losing his focus. His strength became his weakness.”

If Zidane had been a little smarter, he would have spoken to Sagal before the game, or even to Vizzini, the rogue played by Wallace Shawn in the movie, The Princess Bride. Vizzini advised that the most famous advice was never to get in a land war in Asia, but slightly less known was “never go up against a Sicilian when death [or, presumably, sudden death] is on the line.” Marco Materazzi, who dissed the mother and the sister of Zidane, thereby provoking him to crack, is from Puglia, but close enough.

However, whatever advice he was given, however focused his concentration, Zidane cracked, thereby proving that when zucchini is on the line, nothing can crack a middle-aged Frenchwoman in the produce stall at marché. They set new standards for stalwart implacability. In the ‘States, we call this behavior obnoxious or rude, but it’s par for the course over here, so get used to it. In France, we call it the narrow focus of world-class champions.

And if you’re in front of the red peppers, don’t leave the slightest gap, or some lithe, and usually pretty peppy, broad (I say this in the fondest way; French women are generally thin, especially here in the country: the rich ones do yoga—another story for another time, but remember the mayor’s wife, and ask me about it, if you forget—and the less well-to-do do gardening and run around a lot in very tiny cars until they get where they’re going, and then it’s foot traffic at high speed) will suddenly be up in your face, oblivious to your presence, and squeezing the fennel bulbs. The vendor, Patrick, and his son, with the pierced eyebrow, which has healed since last January, keep up a running patter, hand out plastic baskets for patrons to collect their fruit and vegetables, and stay focused on the person right in front of them. But that’s the extent of their focus. These guys know they are not even made of the stuff of Zidane, and long before market is over they will crack in the face of the onslaught of French balabustas [this is yiddish, not French, and it means head of household, and when in reference to the female head, it means, kind of, housewife on steroids]. And they know it, and so they keep it light and always ease off.

As it’s market day, and it’s mid-summer, and it’s the Saturday market, not the off-day market on Wednesday, there are a lot of people buying, and they queue indiscriminately to their place in any logical pecking order or right by time of arrival. Each place in line represents not a priority in age, or etiquette. People bull their way in because they need that thing goddamnit right in front of where you, or somebody, else is standing, and they won’t wait. And the scales and vendors work the crowd from the middle of the stall behind the majority of the produce. The rest is in bins inaccessible from the front, and most people have to ask the vendors for a weight of onions or potatoes, which sit in several varieties in plain view, but out of reach, unless you actually wander into the stall behind the vendors, who neither invite you nor shoo you away once you realize that nobody gives a damn if you do wander back there to pinch and poke the root vegetables.

Then there are people raised in the venerable tradition of having the vendor select the fruit and vegetables according to the running advice one gives as to need: ripe, almost ripe, for next Tuesday, or a dinner for eight, and never do the patron’s hands touch the food. If you have the reticence mixed with suspicion I do, or, if some people are correct, the level of control that I myself apparently make manifest I absolutely must exercise (moi? a control freak? pardon, monsieur, ‘dame), this tactic never works. There’s a catch 22 in there somewhere, because if I never trust the guy to get what I ask for, as I suspect, or maybe expect, he will substitute some wormy, mealy, overripe, or god knows what defective, as I fear he will, I’ll never learn if he can be trusted.

Today I spent 14,40 euros (the comma is not a mistake; in addition to the other strange metric things they do over here, they use commas, where we use decimal points, and vice versa, though to them a period is a period is a decimal point, or point [a kind of nasal pwehn, with a very soft “n” almost non-existent at the end there, for you non Francophones]), which is not a great deal though it weighed down our shopping basket, or 16,40, if you include the medium sized Cavaillon melon I got from another stall just selling melons across the way, making it even heavier—and bought yellow peaches, courgettes [zucchini] grown right there in Aups, a huge red pepper, also Aupsoise, two beautiful Italian eggplants, six apricots, ready to eat or bake into a clafoutis, sort of a cross between a pudding and a cake, studded with the fruit, and usually made with cherries, but actually an appropriate recipe for any small stone fruit, or even figs or, if you’re stoned yourself, just about anything sweet and not so thick if you cut it in half, plus salade, which is how we refer to all and any sorts of lettuce, in a one huge head, and two fresh ugly old-fashioned beefsteak tomatoes, probably grown right here, in one of the tiny farms in Fox-Amphoux. They’re tiny, that is, compared to the bigger farms, which mainly grow grapes, or wheat, or sunflowers—we’re surrounded by sunflowers down on the plain, just about in the middle stages of growth—or merely sheep fodder, which seems to get left lying in the fields, or winter fodder, which is grown later, and gets rolled into bales by big reaper/balers. The latter are always a surprise, like indoor plumbing and town water and sewer, which is what we have in our village of 50 houses, the final stage water treatment building disguised as yet another medieval-looking stone mas (antique farmhouse). There’s also now ADSL connectivity, and a rumor of cable, but it’s very expensive. I always think I will see farmers in WWI vintage Ford tractors, but they’re actually fairly modern, and why not? They’re subsidized to the hilt to perpetuate the myth that this is a nation of small farmers (remember the tomatoes?) to attract the tourists and rich northern Europeans, Brits, and crazy Americans like us, so we’ll buy up the ancient real estate at inflated prices. Where was I? Tomatoes.

Also strawberries in a little wooden basket, grown somewhere in the north, because it’s way past strawberry season, but these are nonetheless real strawberries, as opposed to the red-on-the-outside-white-on-the-inside semi-hardened foam monstrosities that they insist on selling at Whole Foods Market emblazoned with the word “Organic,” as if that means anything any more, and which traveled further to get to River Street in Cambridge than we did to get to the Old Village here in Fox from River Street.

Anyway, it was quite a bit of produce per the aggregate price per pound, and especially considering it was mostly grown about 30 minutes from where I’m sitting at the moment in our cool ground-floor sitting room. I picked it out all myself. I’ve been doing this for what will be 20 years soon enough and I’ve never asked Patrick, from whom I’ve been buying this stuff—and he lives in Fox, though I’ve only seen him once on the highways and byways of the village—for half that time. I still don’t know if he knows me. The bemused fellow at the pizzeria we like, whom we’ve seen far fewer times and at greater intervals, obviously knows me. Life goes on without pizza, but you always need fresh produce. And it’s hard to tell if Patrick recognizes me or anyone else, ‘cause he’s not letting on, which may be the champions-who-lack-focus and crack factor, or it may be simply that, in public, like any good psychiatrist, he’d prefer not to acknowledge his clients. I mean, he knows how well I choose produce. Probably gives him a good chuckle.

There’s a lesson here, as I say, practical only on market days in France, but edifying nonetheless, I think, if not merely entertaining. I have prepared this simple photo/diagram to illustrate my point. So mouse-click on the small photo and you will see some items for discussion and elucidation in the larger version.

March_aups_produce_mg_1458
Shown is the left hand side of Patrick’s produce stall. The troops, uh, the patrons have massed on this side (we are facing the center, with the scale, barely visible, and pile of plastic baskets). Starting from the right, see the green arrow, is Patrick, blurred, conveying the constant motion he stays in, usually whistling and offering many a bon mot. No doubt he considers that a moving target is a safe target. To his right a female clerk, possibly a relative (only his close friends would know for sure), and a minor player. She’s there to relieve some of the pressure, lest the queue build too much strength in numbers. All the way on the left, helping the customer in the light blue pinafore dress and the huge barrette choose some fruit—always deployed on the left side of the stand—is the son, under the red arrow; you can’t see the pierced eyebrow too well. The greens, that is leeks, fennel, zukes, cukes, etc. are always on the right, not visible in this photo, and not a busy part of the stand, not in the summer, not during the canicule when it’s too hot to cook. Fruit can be eaten raw, which explains the particular battle array, um, queueing of this crowd. The woman in the pink bow, with a floral print skirt and red sash (this all is camouflage) it looks like is getting her money out to pay the girl. Why have it out ahead of time, which might lessen the waiting time for others?

The big guy on the right in shades, and without socks I suspect is there either under duress, or has wandered in innocently, wishing to buy one potato, say, or a banana. Another photo shows him holding hands with the woman with a back pack in a khaki colored sleeveless dress, so it’s possible they are on a reconnaissance mission for a larger party, including children and a nanny—anything to add critical mass, or merely inert bodies that do not move at all. I suspect the guy being hunched over is just a feint, and he is really buying nothing at the moment, and only pretending to get out his change purse.

The woman in a bobbed mannish hairdo, with clogs and a white top may appear to have done her shopping (in the green poly sack hanging from her right hand), but she is only looking thus far. Patrick gives your produce to you in a poly sack, but it is distinctively purple (please note the absence of purple sacks), or in thin brown kraft paper bags, marked “does not allow humidity” [this is a rough translation, produced under battlefield conditions]. Please note the absence of thin brown kraft paper sacks. The woman with vaguely reddish-blonde hair, pulled up for the heat is only in the preliminary stages of shopping at the stall, and is clearly absorbed in thoughts, for the first time that day, about what to serve for dinner. When she finally gets to the front of the line, which is a bit bunched up here, strategically so, she will take another five minutes, pondering what is actually offered that day, and with turtle-like rapidity alter the menu in her head.

Some people, the real veterans, pick things up, put them back, mumble to themselves, and chat with Patrick or his son. All stalling tactics to frustrate the enemy, I mean, me.

By the way, to illustrate that Patrick is complicit in all this, purely by virtue of the layout of the stall—unique to summer, when there are plenty of recruits to refresh the lines of combatants, please note the cluster tomatoes in the foreground, only part of an island display (absent in the Fall and Winter), which also includes that other hot item, lettuce, or as I said, salade, as the french call it. Another hot weather favorite. Just wash and serve.

Think about the cleverness of this placement tactic. At the stall one sees only (the better) varieties of locally grown tomatoes—your vine tomatoes, beefsteaks, Romano or plum, etc. These are more expensive. So people queuing will note the tomatoes, and get interested, poke them and prod them, maybe a surreptitious squeeze or two, and then note the price, and say, screw this, and immediately begin looking for cheaper tomatoes. Hence the cluster tomatoes—handsome and robust in their own way, sort of stereotypical in appearance, the way you’d expect a tomato to look and, this being Provence, not half bad tasting, but, unlike the local breeds, not really quite ready for eating. If you’re in a queue in the front of the stall near the scales, you have to turn around, and brave at least one layer of other shoppers to get at the cheaper tomatoes, thereby creating a gap as soon as you move, which is quickly, in fact immediately, filled in. In fact, the moves are so fast, you can guarantee yourself to be jostled, and whatever is hanging on your shoulder: expensive digital camera, shopping bag, purse, will get tugged or poked in such a way that you have to check for either damage or attempted theft. This distracts you, losing momentum, and forcing you to have to push through to the tomatoes in clusters and the lettuce, which, having seen the tomatoes, causes you to recall that you also need some salade, because what goes together like lettuce and tomato better than the very self same materials?

What you cannot realize, viewing this photo in a casual way, is that this simple seeming queue… you may call it a crowd, but it is a queue, take my word for it. Just try to get in front of someone. They’ll let you know what they think of you and remind you that there is a line after all, Monsieur!… This queue seemingly two-deep, is actually three deep. Note, please, the turquoise arrow, which points to a woman’s flats of approximately the same color.

This embedded queue participant is further insurance against any flanking motions around either side of the cluster-tomato/salade island that was in front of me as I shot this photo. To the left of the hidden woman in azure flats is the jetty of Cavaillon melons (you can see the wooden slats of the crate holding them just above the turquoise arrowhead). This prevents penetration from the left because you can’t possibly squeeze between the melons and, well, here’s a coincidence, the… the large-breasted woman with her hair up in the vaguely yellow sun dress with spaghetti straps. Go around to the right—about two meters, it’s a BIG island of lettuce and tomatoes—and you’ll have to squeeze in behind the woman with the backpack, in case you were wondering why she’s standing just there, and doesn’t have anything hanging from her shoulder. You don’t want to do that because you’ll have to contend, maybe, with her burly escort who is feigning getting money out to pay for the produce they’ve had for quite a while (and how do I know? Because hanging from backpack lady’s right wrist is a purple poly sack, not very laden, as I suggested (see above), maybe one, maybe two potatoes). And with two of them groping and digging for change, they can take twice as long occupying that space, at least as long as it would take to get around the lettuce island…

And you thought the Japanese and British were pains in the ass when they queue up. They just shove and stuff. Here, it’s more insidious and appears to be polite, but it’s like the shochet (kosher butcher) said to the cow hanging upside down in front of him, “this won’t hurt a bit.” Zip zap. You turn around to ask your wife if she’d prefer squash to zucchini, and some little thing in espadrilles is next to you and somehow in front of you, and she’s already got her hands on two bunches of ciboulettes (chives) like she’s been standing there all day.

Later, I’ll analyze another kind of queue. The ATM queue. It’s an experience especially fraught because the cash machines mainly spew out fifties, which the vendors love. They love it in particular if you are spending like, six euros forty-seven cents, they will take the fifty and always ask if you have a euro-fifty, and that means getting out your change purse with the coins, because the smallest paper denomination is a fiver. And of course your hands are already full of paper and poly sacks, and a very heavy shopping basket. And you’ve got a five-thousand dollar digital camera perched on the very edge of your sweaty shoulder, and you’ve got to get your hand in the pocket of your shorts to get at the zippered change purse they handed out as a gift at the bakery up the street back in January, when there are hardly any customers, and there’s never a queue. No intense pressure. Nothing to make a man, never mind a champion, crack.

But that’s another story.

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