There were many reasons we chose to live in St. Albans, but one important to me was the weekly produce market. Since deciding I needed to live closer to a Zero Waste lifestyle, a farmer's market would be a way for me to avoid too much plastic and to justify my purchase of reusable draw-string bags. St. Albans has a Saturday AND Wednesday market - meaning I'm not torn between staying in town to stock up on fresh food and taking off for the weekend. Perfect.
When C and I lived briefly on the 18th floor of a condominium in downtown Seattle, walking to the Pike Market was my only way to get close to a fresh vegetable. I was pretty shy back then and even though I frequented the same vendor most weeks, I never asked his name or chatted him up about the origins of his tomatoes. It was my awkward 30-something time of life when I could still be considered flirting with someone if I asked, say, "Wow, such big bananas!" or "My, what gorgeous peaches!" It's very liberating moving to another country because you get to reinvent yourself. It's even better doing it after you're well into your 40's and have better things to do than worry about innuendo. I started breaking the ice at the market by turning my cultural ignorance into a topic of conversation. "What do you call this?" I'd ask holding out an eggplant. Listening to a British native say "Aubergine" is delightful; saying it myself is painful. Same thing with bell peppers: "Capsicum" just does not roll off an American tongue.
Over time, I've come to know who has the best berries or the most onions (or biggest bananas), who heaps the cherry tomatoes the highest and who sells the cilantro bunches as big as a feather dusters. The math is easy because much of the produce is placed into individual plastic bowls and sold for one Pound. There's no asking "How much is this?" There's no weighing, there's just deciding which bowl has the smoothest skinned lemons.
I've become friends with several of the vendors. Martin is Dutch and sells English and European cheeses from a van that opens up on one side. He's living a quiet life in the countryside after selling a successful business and turning his passion for cheese into a pleasant part-time job while his kids finish school. He tells great stories; like the time he was working on a cruise ship in his 20's and got a shore leave in Florida. They were paid for six months in cash (over $20K) and he and his friends rented a Mazzarati and drove to California in 2 days. They stayed in a hotel penthouse, partied, shopped, then drove back to the boat for another six months, totally broke and ready to do it all again.
Patrick sells bulk natural foods; spices, nuts and seeds, legumes and grains and the all-important ingredients for my granola - flaked coconut and candied ginger. He's going to be a new dad very soon and the excitement shows in his springy step. We've gone together on an order of tempe because you simply can't buy it in the groceries here. He's also told me to always buy organic peanut butter because, believe it or not, peanuts and cotton are uaually transported together and cotton is pesticide dense. The organic peanuts can only be transported with organic cotton.
The guy who will open up pomegranates for my inspection, and gave me two bags of bruised bananas for free won't tell me his name because he says he's wanted by the police. And the mother/daughter team who wins my most consistent quality and value vote paid me a huge compliment the other day: I raised my half-dozen cloth bags to show her how many bowls worth of produce I was buying. The mom just tilted her chin up briefly and said in her gravelly voice, "I trust ya."
My only regret is that I don't get on with The Egg Man. The Egg Man has a stand cascading with hundreds of brown and speckled eggs: Hen eggs, duck eggs, even giant goose eggs and tiny quail eggs. They're so fresh you can see little bits of down still waving from the shells. How wonderful, I thought, that I could just refill an egg carton every week with fresh eggs! I approached with my carton in hand and started placing eggs carefully inside. "Don't touch the eggs!" he screeched. I scanned the table for a sign that said, "Don't touch the eggs!" soon realizing that this was an unwritten rule if you knew anything about English eggs. "So sorry!" I gasped, sure that he would hear my accent and take pity on me. "Could you please fill this up for me?" I said with a smile, handing him my perfectly good carton. He turned his nose up, very literally, and retrieved one of his own, not recycled, egg cartons. "Sorry," I said, "but could you please fill the one I brought?" He slammed his own carton back on the stack and harrumphed, as though the idea of reusing something was anathema to him. I felt myself getting all red inside and out. "Ay not gonna do es for ya gain. Ya bring es to meh gain, I's jus gonna trow it way!" Seriously. And that was the last time I visited The Egg Man. Now every time I stomp on one of the many egg cartons we go through each month, readying it for our minuscule recycle bins, I think of him.