Magic Under the Tracks

1454Our sleepy eyed group of eight gathered in the crisp morning air on the sidewalk across from our hotel. We had a big day ahead and seeing the Eiffel tower was at the top of the list.  Wanting a quick breakfast, we agreed to try what looked like a popular walk-up Panini stand. The two young men running it were quite energetic. One looked like Larry Bird (with the 1979 hairstyle) and the other could have been Paul McCartney’s 30-something brother. They acted as if on stage, joking with the crowd and exaggerating every move they made in preparing and distributing the flat cheesy sandwiches. Dozens of varieties were posted on the marquee. The kids knew exactly what they wanted – jambon (ham) and fromage (cheese). Marit and Donna preferred la tomate (tomatoes) and les epinards (spinach). I became intrigued with one called Le Cinq Fromages (five cheeses), and felt confident enough to order in French. The kids unwrapped their steaming sandwiches and ate them right there on the sidewalk. Bird was engaged in a conversation with Paul when he haphazardly handed me a sandwich. Paul stopped him and pointed to the man standing next to me –the due recipient, who took the sandwich then nudged my arm to share something with me. He rolled his eyes, pointed at Bird, then cradled his hands against his ear to imitate sleeping. We shared a laugh and I thought it was cool to bond with a stranger.

The yellow subway line took us in the direction of Boulogne Pont de Saint Cloude  (Baloney Pudding in a Cloud) and we’d get off at La Motte Picquet Grenelle (Jake La Motta’s Picante Grill) toward the la Tour Eiffel (no nickname needed). We climbed a set of metal stairs leading to an elevated train track. We found an empty train and a crowd standing on the platform. A woman wearing a fluorescent orange vest stood guard in its doorway.

“The train has been temporarily halted for security check.” She said.

Through the windows, we could see the uniformed men walked through the train searching every square inch. Those disturbing images of the Madrid bombing returned to my mind, ones I’d managed to forget about during the past week or so. Now here they were, back in my face again.

The guard told me we were close enough to the EiffelTower to walk – we only had to follow the train tracks. We filed back down the stairs to the street and all my troubles disappeared at what I saw there. Stretched out below the tracks was a lively open air market. It extended as far as we could see. We joined the parade of shoppers crowding around the vast assortment of covered kiosks. Unlike open markets at home, these booths were like designer gourmet stores with boutique lighting and colorful arrangements. Vendors offered everything from fresh flowers to pastry art. They promoted their wares by speaking to the crowd like a street performer, except in a lower, softer tone of voice. A bread vendor lulled me in with his hypnotic banter. He tore off a piece and handed it to me. The dry golden crust and soft interior inspired me to buy one. “Un  s’il vous plait ” I asked, but he’d already bagged a loaf for me (so much for trying to keep a poker face). I handed him a five-euro bill and hoped it was enough money. I was delighted to get four euros back. I came upon a boucherie beheading a duck. “Photo?” I asked, pointing to my camera. He stopped his cleaver in mid-air and posed for me. As I focused him in my viewfinder, I remembered one of those nay-sayers telling me how the French won’t pose for pictures. Hah! This guy was a real ham. After the flash went off, I showed my appreciation by purchasing a hunk of spicy saucisson (sausage).

I caught up with Marit and Donna who’d lost themselves in an elaborate display of colorful flowers. Next door I saw dozens of buckets filled to the brim with shiny olives – green, red, and black. Carefully placed lighting brought out their rich colors. The vendor reached into a bucket and handed me a green olive stuffed with garlic. It exploded with flavor. I felt a twinge of sadness for the canned olives back home that I’d never enjoy again.

Jill and Caitlin waved me over. “Dad, you have to try this!” I bit into the small yellow apple. It was crisp and sweet.

“Tastes like candy, huh”

“Let’s get a dozen.”

Alex got my attention next, he’d found a crowded fish stand where piles of ice covered every creature from the sea. I heard clams being scooped into a scale and cleavers chopping fish steaks. A tall man donning a white chef’s jacket stood before a mammoth fillet of salmon, working his long thin knife through the shiny meat with mesmerizing finesse. He slice off a small sample for us. It was silky and had the texture that only fresh lox should have – somewhere between the delicate dryness of smoked salmon and gentle firmness of raw fish. Two Euros bought us two more slices, which we promised to share later. I tucked the package into my jacket pocket.

“Are you in heaven?” Donna grabbed my arm. Her eyes were joyful.

“Yes. But now I wish we had an apartment here – and a kitchen.”

*See pictures of the Farmers Market on our Pinterest page:

NEXT: Climbing Iron with my Son


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