Belleville Revisited

Belleville metro (Photo credit: C. Bertelsen)

The Belleville market — straddling the crossroads of Paris’s 10th, 11th, 19th, and 20th arrondissements — presents the determined photographer with a tremendous dilemma: how to take pictures without being literally swept up in the crowds and jostled like a buoy bobbing in heavy seas?

Although the market runs from the Menilmontant metro stop to Belleville (about 2 km.), the easiest way to tackle it  seems to be to get to the Belleville stop, the beginning (or end, depending your point of view) of this market, the likes of which I’d never seen before. And I’ve seen quite a few. Unlike some markets, there is only one aisle for shoppers to walk through.

Perched precariously on the median of a quite busy road, the width of the median determined just how much space shoppers could co-opt. In two words, not much. After I climbed up about twenty grimy stairs, cluttered with tattered plastic bags and other trash fluttering lightly in the morning breeze. Almost immediately, I slipped into the stream of people – mostly North Africans, although a few people from West Africa braved the surge with the rest of us.

Belleville Market (Photo credit: C. Bertelsen)

And then it happened: I realized I would never be able to lift up my camera to get any pictures because like Cuban cigars packed into  a small wooden box, shoppers completely filled the passageway between the vendors. My arms remained pinned to my sides. Cradling the camera, fearing the accidental smack of a sack filled with potatoes or the odd melon, I stumbled by mounds of fruit: apples, grapes, nectarines, all the usual fruits found in France. A few vendors, and only a few, sold the spices I expected of a market catering to North Africans. A fish monger here, a charcuterie there selling beef- and lamb-based meats, a poultry man, the market consisted mostly of produce.

As I spotted the egg man, the center aisle of the market widened for some reason. I popped out of the crowd like a cork out of a champagne bottle. I grabbed my little recyclable 6-egg carton and held it out to the vendor as I muttered “Bonjour, monsieur.” You have to remember that he sold more types of eggs than we’ll ever see in a supermarket, so the next obvious step was to choose which eggs would  go into my cloth bag and suffer through the crush of bodies still behind me.

Photo credit: C. Bertelsen

Brown eggs, I like those, though I know the color makes no difference, so I decided that six large ones would do nicely. Into the carton they went. I flipped out my euros and paid.  He said a few words in English to me. And I asked him how he knew I spoke English (like it wasn’t obvious … ). He pointed to my camera and sunglasses. (Nobody seems to wear sunglasses in Paris and only tourists carry cameras, which get looks verging on the evil eye sometimes.) I ended up giving him my business card and he passed it to the vendors next to him.  “No pictures of me,” he said sternly, “but you can take pictures of the eggs and his onions.”

Vendor of onions and potatoes, Belleville Market

And so I finally found an opportunity to take a few pictures. Eggs and onions, mostly.

Fast flicks of the shutter, smiles all around, and off I went into the madding crowd. When I saw an opening out to the street between two trucks, I took the easy way out.

The shops lining the market street offered more picture-taking opportunities. The breads displayed in the windows especially caught my attention.

As I walked around the trucks to get back to the metro stop, an injured woman sat lolling like a Raggedy Ann doll in the road, her market bag torn and produce of every kind lay squashed on the asphalt, women milling around her, onlookers staring. Someone brought a caned bottomed cafe chair for her to lean against as she held her jaw in one hand. Given the location of the market, it wasn’t surprising that accidents happen. Helplessly, I stood for a moment, knowing I couldn’t help her, but hoping she would be alright, I started down the stairs to the train and into another world.

Bread in Shop Window, Belleville (Photo credit: C. Bertelsen)
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