Pretty Eyes

Schrijver en essayist Matthew Stadler woont en werkt tijdelijk in Rotterdam. Op scherpzinnige wijze observeert hij tweewekelijks de maasstad. Vandaag deel 7: 'Pretty Eyes'.

Lees ook zijn essay 'Interieurontwerp in oorlogstijd' online (alleen voor abonnees).

I like to shop early on Saturday, before the market at the Binnenrotte becomes too crowded. By nine, most of the vendors have set up shop and by eleven the place is too full of electrical carts to be navigated pleasantly by anyone on foot. I park my bike by the city's central library and begin my route there.

There are numerous cheese vendors, and I am baffled by the popularity of a few. Price is not the issue—the cheapest cheese stalls are not crowded. Nor is it convenience—the most crowded are understaffed by rude people. But I don't share the crowd's wisdom, and my first stop is always a nearly-empty cheese stand where a terse man unloads great rounds of Gouda from his white van and sets them on the table top. He has no attractive display, very little signage, and few, if any, customers. He has the hurried look of a man whose unmarked van carries stolen cheese, which he must chop up and sell on the fly. Each successive Saturday I'm always surprised to find he's back, sprung from jail no doubt. But there he is, and I buy a half-kilo of old cheese and a half-kilo of old cheese with caraway seeds, and then I bid him adieu (for the last time, I always think, wrongly).

A few steps away a charming woman from Indonesia compels me to buy her hastily bagged vegetables. There are no loose ones, only bags stuffed full that she sells for one euro. She also looks criminal to me, but I cannot resist her smile and her flirty ways. She calls me "the man who likes sugar peas." Every Saturday I walk away with three bags of sugar peas and a half-dozen bags of vegetables I don't have names for, and that I don't know how to cook. She smiles and winks when we part. If I possessed citizenship or legal rights of any kind I'm certain I would marry her.

The market is full of vegetables, fish, and prepared foods I do not recognize. Turks sell a kind of crepe laced with spinach that looks delicious, though it is often too dry and doughy for my taste. Fish mongers display beasts that have not yet been named, some resembling jelly, others biological spaceships or undersea vacuum cleaners. A tentacled mound of mucus called a "Sea Devil" stares coldly at me from its dead, protuberant eyes. How does one prepare or eat a "Sea Devil?" Apparently, the sweet meat must be stripped from the vile jelly, and then boiled or quick fried to be served on white rolls. I walk slowly through the fish mongers stalls, learning new things at every turn, but never daring to buy.

The market on the Binnenrotte is vast, the biggest in the Netherlands, I'm told. It is patrolled by a motley battalion of self-appointed marshals who wear orange- and blue-striped jackets that say vrijwillige politie. I didn't realize that police work was a volunteer position here. In the United States, which I have fled, we call such people "vigilantes." In Rotterdam they are given uniforms and a polite greeting. Are they armed? Their uniform is not so tight-fitting as that of the regular police, so it is possible they conceal weapons inside their shirts or tucked into their pant-waists. On what authority do these volunteers act? If detained or bothered by them can I simply self-volunteer and contradict or override their orders? Now that would make an attractive blue and orange jacket: vrijwillige zelf-politie. Who could object to voluntary self-policing?

Near the end of my route is the market's highlight. Peering out from behind artful stacks of unremarkable vegetables I see my favorite, "Pretty Eyes"—the prettiest eyes in all of Rotterdam—swiftly moving graceful hands over the merchandise and making change. How to describe Pretty Eyes? Beautiful, thick lashes, the whites bright around depthless, brown centers, and the silky brow, also brown, that knits together in the middle, furrowing a little to think, to answer my questions, all deserve mention; but these words only get in the way of what I see, of what takes my breath away, Pretty Eyes.

I save this pleasure for last because there is nothing in the world that Pretty Eyes could not sell me. It is only be arriving with my hands full of bursting bags that I can say, "recommend to me the very best vegetable you have, and I will buy one, please." Gradually I'm learning to eat whatever Pretty Eyes recommends. Always it's something large; typically an eggplant or an oversized squash.