Monday, January 19, 2009

Fleas in France

Okay, I am a flea market person. When the opportunity arose to take a trip to France, I began plotting. My first day in Paris would be spent at the flea markets. It's not that I didn't want to see the Eiffle Tower, the Louve and Notre Dame, but, they had been there forever and could wait another few days. In all of those beloved home decor magazines that I pour over, I had read just one too many times a home owner or designer casually drop "Oh, I found that at a flea market in Paris and had it shipped home".
I was always more the "I'll take it if I can carry it back on the plane" sort (as in Lucy and her wheel of French cheese, for fellow I Love Lucy fans). Not knowing what was in store for me in Europe, I went to France with one small suitcase but returned home lugging four very large and exhaustively heavy bundles. Upon changing trains and planes in various stations and airports and running as best I could to catch the next connection, dragging along all of my loot, I began to take note of where the airports had hung their defibrillators. They were always amazingly at the the points where I was just about to give out. Clever Europeans. But, anyway...
Happily, the French are also flea market people. Paris may have the oldest continuous flea market and also the largest. The French word "Brocante" means "second hand goods". "Marches aux puces" translates into flea market. I may know only ten French words but Brocante and Com Bien (how much?) are among them. When seeking out a flea market for the first time and knowing that I was very close, at least in the right neighborhood, I had the word "Brocante?" written down on a piece of paper that I would flash at sidewalk cafe waiters and they never failed to point me in the right direction. I have no pride when it comes to asking directions leading to a juicy flea market.
In France, the traditional stores are closed on Sundays. however the flea markets come alive and so passing the day browsing in the flea markets can be a typical French Sunday. Here in the USA we may say we are going "junking" or "garage sale-ing", but the French have an actual word that means "strolling around at a relaxed pace, wandering around lazily, poking through old goods", and that word would be "Chiner". I like it.
I found that the Paris flea markets have some things in common with USA flea markets. They too have a mixture of the Good, the Bad and the Ugly, the bargains and the overpriced. There is also the fair share of new goods, including yes, athletic tube socks! Much of the new merchandise was lingerie. Stall after stall of lingerie for $2 euro each. It was on the East side of Paris, at the Montreuil flea market that I found Toddler size 2, red, fishnet tights for a fashion forward two year old back home. I am also an admitted fabric-holic and there is a ton of fabric-by-the roll at the flea markets. There are entire buildings devoted exclusively to fabric, floor after floor after floor. It can be heavenly, if somewhat exhausting. So many fabrics, so little time.
The major difference in the USA flea markets and the French markets is that the majority of goods are FRENCH! So, that makes the vintage clothing, dishes, books, etc...all the more interesting to an Ohio/Georgia/Florida girl.
What is commonly called the "Paris Flea Market" is actually the gigantic flea market (Marches aux puces de) of Saint-Ouen, on the Northern side of Paris. This place is a flea market wonderland; a city within a city. There are seven miles of twisting, turning streets and alleys with about 3000 vendors or stalls and at least 35 different restaurants. This massive place is divided into various smaller, separate markets offering true antiques or used clothing or jewelry, that makes it a little easier to navigate, depending on what goods you want to concentrate on looking through. The history of this flea market is very colorful. The story for the location of this market a bit North of Paris is...back in the late 1800's new construction was forbidden in this area, so this was an open area AND there were no taxes in this outer area AND markets were forbidden inside the city of Paris due to the cholera epidemic of the 1800's AND as inner Paris continued to develop the poor were forced to move further and further out, including into this area. Also, in the late 1800's there was no official garbage collection service in many large cities, including Paris so, many of the poor made a living off of the trash of the wealthy. They transported their found and salvaged rags and "treasures" to this Northern outskirt of Paris and it eventually became known as the market place to buy second hand goods. Even though the area around the Metro Porte de Clignancourt which leads to this flea market is next to a freeway and not quaint like say, Rue Cler, (in the 7th "arrondissement" or district, where I stayed, and highly recommend) I will take a hotel room in the Clignancourt area next time for at least two or three nights, just to be close to the flea market "action" so I can come and go with my purchases and not have to lug them in and out of the various Metro stations. If you want an overview of what I'm talking about here, as in MAJOR flea market there are two different web sites to check out. One is . They have fabulous, early photographs of the alleys and vendors of the early days of the flea market all the way back to 1918 and also an aerial view of the current surroundings. Also, offers flea market maps showing the different shopping areas and also lists Packers and Shippers. Plus, both sites offer maps on how to find the flea market by traveling on the Metro, etc...Since it's not every day that one can make such a treat of an overseas trip, I will check out the packers and shippers the next time around. Then, I too, can be one of those people who casually drop "oh, I picked that up in the Paris Flea Market and had it shipped".


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