Monday, June 20, 2011

Lille Book Market

Young and old people walked about quietly through the courtyard and the passages around it, rummaging through old books and secondhand magazines, old photographs, posters and records. For us, it was a different book landscape than we were used to. The graphics were different, the text was different. Here and there in-between was a text that was familiar, an artist’s work that you had read about before or seen earlier.

This Book Market in the Vieille Bourse (Old Stock Exchange) Courtyard in Lille, France was really so charming a place and it is something that happens every day of the year. It was part of our one-day walking tour through Lille and we were told it had only French books and nothing much else! But then, as we walked into this heritage building with its interesting architectural details, we did want to just be here for a while.

Soon I picked up a black and white poster of a cafĂ© in Brazil. We then talked to the Bookseller who had sold me the poster. I learnt from a Dutch colleague that he was perhaps of Algerian origin, that Algeria was one of France’s longest held overseas territories, with French Algeria lasting from 1830 to 1962. The Bookseller had a lot to tell us and I couldn’t understand a word since I didn’t know French! I did get to hear the translation and wished that there was a universal language for people from all the many different parts of the world!

Here's something else I learnt from my Dutch colleague: "Secondhand book markets in France are quite common, for example from the stalls along the Seine in Paris. In Holland, you won’t find too much secondhand book markets, in shops, yes. The main exception are the secondhand markets at ‘Koninginnedag’, when the Queen's birthday is celebrated. Then, all of a sudden the whole country seems to be mad about secondhand things and everybody is selling all stuff accumulated during the last year."

We saw a plaque at the entrance to the Bourse building that read: “In the year 1651, the Town of Lille obtained from Philippe IV of Spain permission to build on public land ‘a stock exchange’ to be used by merchants and to be enclosed and surrounded by 24 houses. The town of Lille sold to 24 traders the plots located on the marketplace and paid for the construction of the galleries, the paving of the inside yard and the four gates. This building was completed in 1653 and the architect was Julien Destree. The stock exchange is a fine addition to Lille architecture and a credit to the enthusiasm and energy of its citizens”

We had come into the courtyard in the morning soon after we had arrived in Lille and had just rushed through it on our way to the Palais des Beaux Arts. And now, as we returned to it in the evening, it was outside still drizzling sometimes, and sunny sometimes, but in the courtyard, nothing seemed to have changed – the books and the posters amidst the slow footsteps, including our own.

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Wednesday, June 08, 2011

The Witches' Market

GUEST POST by Meena Venkataraman.  We casually stroll into Witches’ market looking for souvenirs to take back home. Aimless tourists with a fancy camera on a hot Bolivian afternoon. In the heart of the hilly city of La Paz, a narrow alley leads us on and we follow, a little buzzed by the hot afternoon sun. On first sight we see an array of shops selling shawls and winter caps, sweaters for those needy of warmth and then an assortment of small souvenirs greets us. But this was just the beginning of the maze.

As we walked along, each step becoming a revelation, we discovered that we were in a veritable labyrinth of little alleyways leading in and out of descript buildings and fanning out into little walkways that disappear over the gentle curves of innocuous looking hills.

A Bolivian flag is spread out in bright colours over a balcony. From where we are standing, the traffic seems to descend over the teeming multitudes. I am watchful having been warned about pickpockets, and forewarned is forearmed. Beyond the multitudinous realms of El Alto stand over us at what looks like a safe distance, a million rooftops gleaming in the morning sun.

Walking into Witches market, what strikes you is the traffic running downhill towards you

El Alto in a distance, its vastness a constant looming high over La Paz.

We take a blind turn and come out into what looks like a dead end. And, there I see it, the dried carcass of a Llama Foetus. For the souvenirs and many trinkets is only a front for what is really sold here in Witches Market. Repulsion and Awe tug at my insides, and I stand transfixed, overcome by the tug of these two evenly matched polar opposites. "It is used for the foundation of houses" a passerby explains in broken English. I nod back acknowledging the receipt of useful information. Irony in language, its information I will never use 

a Llama Foetus, on display, along with other trinkets and charms

Frogs and Snails and Puppy Dog Tails? Not quite. But there are plenty of things on display bordering on the bizarre. This one seemed to be some kind of tooth.

The lair of witches, who mostly foretell what the future has in store, the Witches market is a surreal and fascinating place. They mostly wear dark hats, we are told. We walk around a little longer. With time and in response to the demands of tourists like me, the place seems to have grown and the roads are lined with hotels and restaurants, alongside shops where you find Herbal remedies for all of life’s ills, raw ingredients to appease the spirits of the Aymara world, folk remedies and other strange and interesting things like frogs legs, dried turtles and snakes.

Inspite of its associations with the morbid, the Witches Market is a lively, cheerful place. Every shop with its neatly stacked shawls is a riot of extraordinary colour. The warmth of the red, orange and yellow hues makes a simple task of picking out a keepsake seem like an impossible choice. Every turn took us to something spectacular. We haggled to our heart’s content. Sometimes the stony faces told us we had gone too far with the bargaining game only to beat a hasty retreat and try elsewhere.

One of the many colorful shops selling brightly colored shawls

This is a guest post by Meena Venkataraman. Meena is from Bangalore, India where she lived before moving to London a couple of years ago. An engineer by profession, she is also an artist and a freelance travel writer, both of which bring together creativity and her love for the outdoors. An avid traveller and a wild life enthusiast, Meena has travelled through much of India and the world. She blogs at Travel Tazzels

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