Natalie Wojinski teaches cultural geography and advises the journalism programs at Hercules High School in Hercules, CA. She has been an MWW Public Engagement Coordinator for two years, and coordinates the newsletter for the California Geographic Alliance. Prior to teaching, she worked as a broadcast journalist. This is the first in a series of three posts in which Natalie describes how a trip to France inspired a personal and professional interest in local economic geography.
The olives and strawberries made me do it. The sheer beauty of the vast arrangement of different types and flavors of cured olives in the market, and the baskets of strawberries garnished with delicate yellow blooms, took my breath away. Something clicked and I realized that I needed to have my own market close to home.
It was February 2007 when my husband and I took a group of 12 students to France. Until about a month before the trip, we were planning to travel to northern France. With economies the way they are, our travel company informed us in early January that we would have to change our trip to Paris and the South of France. A trip to a French market was not on the itinerary, but the chaperone from the school we traveled with suggested it. As she had been to France before, I agreed. By the time we reached Saint-Rémy-de-Provence on a cool and overcast morning, we were all ready to explore.
The bus dropped us off in an area of the market that looked like an
outdoor boutique. Vendors plied their trades and sold everything from
shoes to shirts to soap to kitchen towels. It was the other side of
the road, however, that held the real treasure. There were fresh
fruits and vegetables, meats (including rabbit, which was shocking to
our American sensibilities), pastries, candies, and, of course, the
olives. A mind-boggling variety of cured olives in sacks and barrels
splashed across the table at the booth. There were black and green
olives, stuffed olives, olives with garlic or herbes de Provence and
olives in plain brine. My husband and I purchased a tart, a bit of
crusty, dense bread, olives, some excellent cheese and a bit of
lavender divinity for dessert. We lunched at the top of Les
Baux-de-Provence, a fortified early medieval town. We pondered why we
didn’t eat like this all the time. The food was fresh and delicious.
Certainly the portions were smaller that what we’re accustomed to here
in the US, but the food was so mouth-wateringly good that we were
completely satisfied with our meal. We talked about it for days.
Then, three days later, on our last full day in Nice, we walked to a
market there. The sun was just coming over the hill behind the city and
the streets that encompassed the market area were washed clean and
glistening in the late winter morning light. The students were off to
make a final check of the souvenir shops, but I was mesmerized by the
fruits and vegetables. The strawberries glowed as if they had been
blessed by angels. I could smell their sweet aroma way before I got to
them. They beckoned to me. I snapped photo after photo trying to
capture their perfection, knowing that I could never explain to someone
how amazing this simple display of fruit was. Clearly, they had been
grown nearby and trucked to the market early that morning. In their
delicate state, I decided not to buy any, as I had no way to protect
them from the harshness of travel.
In the end, these brief trips to two markets thousands of miles away
from my own home made me think about how lucky the people are in Saint-Rémy-de-Provence, and in the hundreds of other French towns with weekly
markets. They have access to the freshest of fruits, vegetables, and
meats, while I was used to shopping in a grocery store that routinely
flew in produce from thousands of miles away in South America. Why did
I tolerate that? Why didn’t I go to the weekly farmer’s market in my
town? Why didn’t I have my own garden?!
My transformation from typical American shopper to one who buys locally
has not changed overnight. In fact, it is still evolving. Slowly, my
habits are changing as I educate myself and my students and begin
experimenting with gardening in a postage stamp-sized back yard. As I
look back, though, I know the olives and the strawberries made me
All images courtesy Natalie Wojinski; come back next week for parts two and three!