4.29.2017

French market tote bags

metro shelving display with tulips and hanging French market bag

Next door to Pomarius in Northwest Portland is Versailles Gardens, owned by a Frenchman, where you can buy traditional French garden statuary, plant pots, and woven market bags in various sizes, the latter friendlier to the budget (around $40 for the bags, compared to $20,000 for a large fountain).

Funny thing is, my American friend in London, who lived for years in Paris, has a half-French child, and has frequently traveled through the south of France, had never heard of "French market bags" till I mentioned how much I loved mine—the natural straw, the herringbone weave, the plump leather handles, the light weight, the carrying capacity!

Even in Greece, market bags, to my dismay—since you would think Europeans would know better—were simply the ubiquitous, standard, single-use plastic grocery bags carried around the world, just as in London, just as in any American suburb or small town, pushed upon us decades ago by the petroleum industry. France only last year banned plastic grocery bags, as a growing number of progressive U.S. cities like San Francisco and Portland have already done.


woven French market tote bag, detail

However, Tilda Swinton's character in A Bigger Splash, shopping while vacationing in Pantelleria, a volcanic island near Sicily, carries on her long alabaster arm one of the woven bags that Americans call "French market totes". So the bags do exist in the Mediterranean, at least on film. Such bags in the hands of Western elites, yuppies, hipsters, and environmentalists become a status symbol, the natural materials and ancient craft both a reclamation of heritage and a rejection of the cheap plastic bags of the poor and of conservative suburbia. (For why spend a good chunk of a meager grocery budget on a handmade heritage shopping bag when stores give plastic ones away for free?)

Maybe "French market bags" are called something else in France (just as they don't call their pommes frites "French fries"), especially since the bags are typically made in Morocco or other parts of North Africa. If anyone knows what the French themselves call woven "French market bags" or "French market totes" with leather carrying handles, and where (or whether) they were traditionally used, let me know.

In any case, soon it will be farmers market season and the end of Portland's incessant rain. Time to pull out and dust off the straw totes and canvas bags and fill them with fresh vegetables.


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