For us, the day that we bumped into Giselle at the Friday market in Carpentras France was a shopaholic’s dream-come-true. There she was, this chic young Frenchwoman, haggling over the price of a stunning olive wood bowl. We pretended to look for potential souvenirs while being far more intrigued with the volley of rapid fire exchanges between vendor and potential buyer.
When she won the round and realizing we were drinking it all in, she turned and said, in triumphantly perfect English, “It pays to bargain.”
Thinking, “What have we got to lose?” I asked if we could follow her around the market. “Mais oui,” she said, obligingly delighted to play a Pied Piper role.
We lucked onto a pro. Giselle had been the concierge and hostess at an elegant inn and now was a freelance consultant helping visitors discover her Provence. Her not-so-little black book bulged with details on this and other markets, wineries, cheese shops, clothing boutiques and artisans’ workshops. “The purse-size three-ring binder makes it easy to add or remove pages,” she said. “I file stores by category locally or by country when I travel.”
“You must try Banon. It’s the chestnut-wrapped cheese of the region,” she urged us as she trotted us off to the “best” cheese man. Next we stopped at a stand selling “the best” hand crafted soap. Without her, we would never have known which cheese or soap vendor to choose. Then it was on to check out unique hand-made jewellery, then decadent pastries, then full circle back to the splendid olive wood man.
Copper pots? She produced an address in Avignon. Wine tasting? She suggested a trip to Chateuneuf du Pape to taste in an old Roman cellar.
“This is a safe market,” she said when asked I asked about such matters. . “But wherever I go, I stay alert. Pick pockets can be anywhere.”
Giselle also had suggestions and caveats for shipping in third world markets and bazaars.
• Make sure it’s legal. You don’t want to endanger the flora or fauna of the country you are visiting or arrive at customs to discover the pretty scrimshawed bracelet is actually ivory.
• Make sure you’re not removing precious artifacts and antiques form where they belong. Opt for replicas and reproductions.
• Approach bargaining with a sense of humour. It should be fun. Halve the first asking price and start from there. Walking away usually brings the price down quickly. Pay what you think an item is worth and don’t worry if you see it for less later.
To say thank you we suggested she join us for lunch at her favourite restaurant. We might have guessed. It was small, charming and ”the best” food around.
As they say, nothing beats chatting up the locals.