FRENCH EXCHANGE

The market fills the street between the trees –
on sale, a cornucopia of terror. Terroir, that is:
it is so easy for the ambling tourist to
mistake an i amongst the offered goods
that breathe their Frenchness in the summer air.

An active visit to the schoolrooms of the past.
Monsieur le professeur stands there, upon the board
in swirling chalks the words to learn, to speak
with accents, comme il faut. Vocabulaire.
And here they are, in deeply flavoured heaps,
on baskets, stalls and benches; beneath
canopies of cotton, rainbow plastics, drily
favoured leaves that shake on branches, labelled
from a classroom life everyday has made.
Pommes, artichaux, percil, les fashions a la mode.
I reach for euros, handle fruits, exchange.
Translate coins to action, and, so soon, to taste.

A woman shouting. It is an interruption, demonstration
or unwanted agit prop. Startled people
part as down our lines she goes, anger
from beyond her wall of words. I turn to face
a rustic chicken, thin, strangled in its
shrink-wrapped sac. And she returns, repeating
urgency that penetrates. Maxwell! Petit garcon
a tres ans! At last, I understand. Not anger,
desperation. We watching people look, avoid
each others’ eyes. A puzzled pity turns, shrugs
through our faces as she fades into the crowd,
and Maxwell calling. An awful thing, to lose
a child between the stalls, the busy roads,
the scruffy secret alleys of a stranger’s town.
There are no words, in any tongue, for that.

All to do is back to bags – filled vegetables,
meats and cheeses, and all their hidden names.
But suddenly she’s there – thin, calm and smiling,
chatting to some folk, and there, safe, is Maxwell –
revealed as blond, hair never cut, unknowing,
and English middle class. She had summoned up
her own school French to voice her rising panic,
and consuming fear. And I suppose that’s why we’ve come
abroad, to buy, and save for ours what’s dear.

Rabestans, August 2021

One thought on “FRENCH EXCHANGE

  1. Brilliantly dramatic piece, John. Each detailed conjured vividly. Each change of pace and tone managed imperceptibly. A haunting poem. Thank you.

    Like

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