A love of flea markets in France brings a dose of culture and community that makes a humble browse through unwanted items far more than it appears…
As addicts of Antiques Roadshow, and with a husband nicknamed Lovejoy, it was inevitable that when we started coming to the Languedoc region in France, we would discover flea markets. At first the slightly tattered, often out of date signs reading “vide grenier”, hanging on posts and trees and propped on roadsides, meant little to us. We translated the words and ‘attic empty’ is pretty self-explanatory; after a few visits, our love for vide greniers began.
We love the flea markets that are held in the little streets and lanes of towns. To wander through villages, built in the medieval ‘escargot’ design, is a great joy and we have discovered some wonderful places as a result, like Saint Papoul with its 8th century abbey and medieval walls and Esperaza with its fabulous Sunday market. Along the tiny winding streets residents of the villages bring out old trestle tables and boxes from their garages and, yes, attics too, and display their goods for sale; sometimes the items are thick with dust, rusty or broken and show signs of having been displayed many times before.
Villages often use the vide grenier as chance to hold a fete with town bands playing and a carousel or games for children, and always the local committees cater for lunch and refreshments. These are usually simple affairs, a sausage barbecued over vine wood lit in an old oil barrel, for example, served in a baguette with a plastic cup of rough wine.
These vide greniers held in the open streets in small villages are noisy, jolly, busy, colourful and good humoured affairs. Antique dealers do have stalls as well, it isn’t all private people selling goods, but they too enter into the spirit of the occasion and chat with all and sundry. Like the other stall holders, they take offers – never agree to the first amount asked – where is the fun in that?
So what can you buy? The simple answer is ‘anything & everything’ from old to modern, from useful to decorative, from tasteful to just plain awful (a plastic dancing banana comes to mind). Our purchases are eclectic, if we like something and the price is right we buy it, we can always find a place for it. The gite we have just completed has absorbed so many of our finds and they have transformed it from a little village house into a holiday home with style and character and ambience. Of course most people have particular favourites that they like to collect, for me it’s antique, white cotton crocheted bedspreads. They are beautiful and a testament to the skills of a multitude of women, perhaps the only way they could express their artistic talents. I also cannot resist antique and vintage hats, decadent, beautiful creations each of which tells its own story.
Although we have been coming to the Languedoc for a long time, we still go to vide greniers regularly, but it has now developed into much more than bargain hunting. When we first came to France most of our friends were not French. Because we don’t have the language skills to hold very lengthy, or very interesting, conversations it sometimes makes us feel like outsiders. Vide greniers, however, have begun to change this. We take the opportunity to talk to the French stall holders about the unusual items of interest they have for sale, and to find out their use. Often the explanations they give about the objects are complicated or difficult to follow, but we are motivated by our interest and eventually understand. It has helped us to interact, whilst also learning about the local culture and history. Our search for deals has found us many bargains, but the best one, without a doubt, is that, at last, we are starting to understand the culture and to feel a part of the community. I recommend it.
Diane Martin lives between the UK and France where she has a home in Corbieres.