Round Yellow Mops


On October 5th, a sunny Monday morning, Peggy and I walked from our apartment to the Parc Chanot and the Palais des Expositions to attend the La Foire Internationale de Marseille 2009, but we should have taken the metro and saved our energy. The fair was a fascinating, thoroughly French, and completely exhausting experience.

This enormous exposition – more than 1,400 inside and outside exhibitors and over 400,000 attendees over a seven day period – is an unlikely mix of entertainment, commercial and retail vendors, international booths, government and non-profit exhibits, and endless food and beverage offerings – all of it impossible to digest together.

I passed by kitchen vendors displaying aggressively contemporary home improvements and stopped to marvel at the sight. (At the same time as the French go to great lengths to preserve the past, they seem to enjoy designing and living in very modern spaces.) The salesman asked me about my interest and when I told him my kitchen was in California, he snubbed me in the best suede shoe tradition.

In the middle of a block-long series of booths selling everything from chocolate to collapsible lightweight bicycles, we came across a fashion show (according to a brochure, une Rue de la Mode) and models making do on a tiny runway.

Each year different countries are featured and huge halls are filled with small vendors selling goods and souvenirs. This year: Russia, Morocco, Viet Nam, and Italy were extremely well represented, among others. Most of the merchandise, while incredibly varied and abundant, was standard tourist offerings. A vast army of Russian nesting dolls! The Italian food booths stood out visually and aromatically: I wanted to guzzle prosciutto, gnocchi, Chianti, and garlic, all at the same time. And the Moroccan furniture exuded romance and exoticism.

We stood and enjoyed a cappuccino at an Italian booth. To start a conversation, I asked the man next to me if he had purchased a new kitchen this year at the fair. He replied no, but he had bought new cars for both him and his wife!

A girl in a Russian peasant dress called out to passers-by, inviting us to lunch in a makeshift Russian restaurant with rental dining tables and chairs inside a tent. We peeked in and saw a small group of traditionally dressed musicians playing traditional music to a few early diners. How charmingly corny!

We entered a large glass exhibit from the city of Marseille, highlighting Marseille as the European Capital of Culture in 2013. There were large models of city neighborhoods undergoing change. We picked up some impressive brochures as the booth representatives ignored us and talked among themselves.

Lunchtime was an impossible challenge and opportunity. A maze of dozens — or maybe hundreds — of stands hawking delectables interspersed with tables full of people enjoying themselves. The cuisine and drink of every region of France (Lyonnais, Alsacienne, Breton, etc.) plus every current territory and former colony (Corsica, the Reunion Islands, Lebanon, Martinique, etc.) was on display, in all of its color and smell. Vendors were happy to explain their offerings as they stirred immense paella dishes.

We chose sandwiches from a Corsican stand and found a table for the price of a beverage. Tasty!

After watching dancers perform Capoera — an Afro-Brazilian art form that combines elements of martial arts, music, and dance — we walked out to the Metro station. Peggy was wearing the colorful necklace she bought from an African booth and I had my brochures. I noticed numerous departing people – many of them men –carrying plastic bags holding a round yellow mop that I had seen earlier being sold by a salesman with a microphone in a hall of home improvement vendors and I wondered about the particular benefits of this particular mop and what it said about French domestic life.


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