Thursday, August 12, 2010

Centuries ago in the University city of Oxford in England, the farmers and townsfolk bought and sold their produce on the city’s cobbled streets and in its alleyways. Market days were chaotic. The pungent smell of unrefrigerated meat and over-ripe food mixed with animal and human odors, floated like an evil-smelling cloud over grand and ancient college buildings.

Today in Oxford's historic market now housed in a sprawling 18th century building, the plum contract for butchers is to supply the University with meat. The dons (professors) and their often illustrious guests; kings and presidents, oil sheiks and authors, wine and dine in a style unfamiliar to the ordinary man. The custom of these grand colleges cannot help but improve the cash flow.

With its eccentric ambience the market is an artist’s paradise. Students hone their sketching skills as they sit on rough cardboard in front of butcher’s shops deftly wielding pencils and pastels to produce startling likenesses to their sometimes macabre models.

The market’s sheltered passages attract buskers, drawn to the warmth and bustle like bees to honey. Over the hum created by busy shoppers one can hear the sounds of the sun-washed Mediterranean as a swarthy youth, probably an Italian language student plucks delicately at the strings of a mandolin.

Muted but persistent in the background is the bizarre music of that weird Australian wind instrument, the didgeridoo, blown with much huffing and puffing by a boy squatting Aborigine-style on a blanket.

The salty tang of seaweed and fishing vessels waft across your path as you draw level with the fishmonger’s stall. Lying on a bed of crushed ice a glassy-eyed shark peers malevolently at the shoppers. For sale too are soft pink squid, salmon fresh from the rivers of Scotland and prawns and crayfish from the coastal waters of Britain.

There are flower shops, cheese stalls, Belgian chocolatiers, French croissanteries, English bakeries, speciality tea shops, knitwear shops selling traditional Guernseys and Aran sweaters, secondhand bookshops and an Italian pasta shop where an untiring pasta machine churns out miles of delicious spaghetti.

The variety of products in the market reflect not only the cosmopolitan tastes of the British, but those of the constantly changing European tourist population that passes through the city year-round.

Oxford’s market has all the elements of an unforgettable experience. It is ‘Olde England’ at its most charming.  To Canadians and Americans used to pristine grocery outlets it may appear slightly unhygienic.  Congested, ancient and vulgar it may be, but it is truly fascinating and a stimulation to all one’s senses; sight, taste, sound and smell.

With its sawdust-covered floors and its cheery butchers wearing striped aprons and straw boaters, who would not be charmed by a warm “What catches your fancy today luv?” as you pass.

From Anne, "World Travel with Anne"


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