Exotisme, Erotisme, and Finding True Happiness at the Public Market


vassilief.jpg
Artist: Marie Vassilieff: 1884-1957

Sometimes you wake up in the morning and just ask yourself ‘Why?’
Recently an article was spotlighted at Stumbleupon.com by Bill McKibben
entitled “Why Having More No Longer Makes Us Happy”. It’s an excerpt from his book Deep Economy: The Wealth of Communities and the Durable Future

McKibben’s article is chock full of excellent observations but one in particular regards public markets: One is more likely to have conversations at the public markets than if one goes to the supermarket.

Ok, so what? Why do people derive more pleasure from chatting with a fruit vendor about the weather than they would by finding a choice cut of steak ten percent less expensive at supermarkets? Maybe shopping at outdoor markets is built into our genes – and maybe the reason women shop has less to do with the objects we buy than it has to do with pro-creation.

Paris has 65 flourishing outdoor markets. Throughout France, the village market serves not only as a source of fresh local produce, but also provides a major social gathering for residents, particularly those that don’t have access to cars – or use them as seldom as possible. The days of arranged marriages may be long gone in France, but in Mopti, Mali, Alassan, a local merchant, reminded me of the importance of the marketplace.

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We were talking about bargaining and the culture behind bargaining. It started off with a simple question – “What is the right way to bargain?” But the question might just as well have been have been “Why bargain?” Alasson’s answer was this: “Bargaining allows me the chance to get to know someone from a different region, or a different country. He may become a friend. I may even find a wife.”

In Amos Tutuola’s collection of short stories The Palm Wine Drinkard, a young woman spots a handsome stranger at the local market. She follows him into the woods, and as she continues to follow him, he transforms into a skeleton. (This being a version of the story – don’t talk to strangers!).

But nevertheless, the impulse to follow a stranger may be part of our biological survival mechanism. A stranger is less likely to come from the same gene pool – and the offspring will more likely be healthier and mentally stable. In both Africa and aborigine Australia, groups that share the same totems choose wives from other totems.

So, when you’re at Pigalle in Paris, the showgirls hail from California – and when you’re in the US, Coco, Fifi and Babette are from Paris (or Sweden, or eastern Europe). Both the Musee de l’Erotisme in Paris and the World Erotic Museum in South Beach focus on erotica gathered from every corner of the world. Why would anyone bother to go to all the ends of the earth – to find what’s basically the same thing you’d find in Mayberry under the quilt? Just the packaging is different.

If you’re an American woman living overseas, you may have had to struggle with some clichés about how ‘easy’ we can be, and certainly, the same holds true for clichés about Scandinavian women in US and the timeless cliché of the ‘French lover’.

So, then, in a climate of fascination with the exotic and the unknown, how and when does xenophobia come into the picture? My guess is that xenophobia starts when the woman walks into the woods – and doesn’t come back.

If you look toward the science of survival, many issues like xenophobia (which can be so emotionally charged) could well be a struggle for survival. The only way we can all live together peacefully is to insure that there are enough resources to go around for everybody – food, shelter, and warm bodies. Nature may have another plan in mind.