The Brocante in France Means Spring Cannot be Far Behind

"Deux euros — un bon prix!"

By Jean and Peter Richards

The village brocante is a signal of winterʼs waning in the Charente Maritime. It is a festive affair.

Only the French could turn cleaning out the attic into an opportunity to eat and drink before dawn outside in temperatures close to freezing.

The first event is often the best. For us it is in the little town of Gemozac, south of Saintes where the flat winding streets are lined with sellers well before sun-up. Vending is not limited to the 2,300 inhabitants. People who buy and sell old things for a living come too.

They raise their tables, stack their boxes and spread out their mats. Buyers arrive even before the bottles of pastis, wine and knives for the sausage are set out.

The chase entices. In France, it is called a chine from the verb, chiner, to look for. It also means tease. Tease is what itʼs all about. Hundreds come in hopes of finding that treasure. We hope itʼs an antique. But, sometimes, finding the replacement part for the old coffeepot is even more fun.

A wide variety of items is on display

Brocante is second hand goods as distinguished from antiques and troc (real junk).

Thereʼs a bit of all, not to mention the food. The crepe seller warms up early. Hers are thin and sugary as they should be.

By sun-up the streets throb with locals and visitors poking through boxes, examining linens and hoisting chairs. “Combien?” rings as a Sunday morning chant. No one pushes. No one grabs. This is France.

Thereʼs no way of telling where the next find will be. Eighteenth century candlesticks may sit on tables piled with junk and CDs. Long sought cookbooks may lie in boxes under French novels. Antiques dealers come to sell off some stock, make a find of their own and pass a pleasant morning sharing a baguette and a bottle.

Everyone enjoys the day

Everyone visits. There are handshakes and cheek kisses galore, some not easily accomplished. One morning, I saw a man with arms wrapped around an overstuffed chair, perform the three bob kiss without shifting his weight.

Everyone chats: about the weather, about the day, about the purchases and last nightʼs meal, all the while scanning the goods and, perhaps, thinking of lunch, encouraged by the scent of chickens beginning to roast in front of a boucherie. One does not have to go far or even think French. There will be paella up at the corner and North African sausage grilling in one of the squares.

There is always plenty of food around

Itʼs a family event. Children search the toy boxes, riffle through books and play. Grandparents roll babies in strollers proudly showing their progeny and sometimes tucking their own finds into its folds.

A book fair draws buyers to the 12th century church of St. Pierre recognized for its Gothic spire in a region of Romanesque eglises.

Some objects never find another home and appear year after year, but nothing is too old, too broken, too ratty to be offered at a village brocante. There have been piles of enamel plates marked U.S. Army and never used; lamps so ugly that they had possibilities and furniture only a talented upholsterer could love. Women pour over boxes of costume jewelry looking for a gem. Men stroke old tools.

"Je pense que j'ai un euro là dedans"

Paying is sometimes a problem. Few sellers ever have change. Neighbors are asked. She has none either. “Attendez,” commands the seller as he hastens away. One learns to be patient. Such matters take time. Eventually he returns counting out euros while still thinking in francs.

We walk kilometers back and forth amongst the streets and the squares shifting purchases from one to the other, reciprocating greetings, surprised by how many we have come to know. By ten in the morning the antique pros disappear. Any real treasure is likely long gone.

The pace slows; the crowd thickens. Real people now fill the streets: residents, visitors from neighboring towns. Parking is further afield. Accommodation is made. A cart is lent to the young couple carrying a table. A barrow is drafted to ferry the collection of old flower pots past the town florist arranging primavera outside his shop.

The tone changes.The rush is over. Sellers break out the hampers and corkscrews. Spaces on tables are cleared. Baguettes appear. The party begins and goes on through the day.

(The photographs accompanying this article are illustrative and were taken at nearby events.)

Copyright © 2012 Jean and Peter Richards


About oldmainetravelers

The Old Maine Travelers are Peter and Jean Richards, who met more than a half century ago covering President John F. Kennedy on what would become his last trip to Boston.  They worked for many years as wire service and newspaper reporters and editors.  Peter did a nightly television show on WGBH, Boston, before he went into government in the administration of John V. Lindsay, mayor of New York City. After they moved to their brownstone in Cobble Hill, Brooklyn, Jean did a spell on Madison Avenue in the real “Mad Men” days and later became public relations officer at Chase Manhattan Bank.  Since 1973 they have worked together first as owners and publishers of a group of award-winning newspapers in Dutchess County, N.Y., and then as antiques dealers.  Now they are old and live on the coast of Maine and in the Southwest of France when not traveling further afield. In the red barn by their house in Damariscotta, Maine, they tend an antique shop specializing in 18th and 19th century furniture, metalwork and accessories, buying objects they know about and like and selling them from May to October to delightful people of obvious discernment and taste. In France, they live in an old stone house in the shadows of the remaining towers of an unfinished 17th century church and above Roman drains in a town along a pilgrimage route to Santiago de Compostella. They love it — for its authenticity and abundant boulangeries.  The rest of the time they travel the world together seeing the sights, seeking out museums, stumbling into interesting conversations, savoring local specialties and otherwise bumbling along in their own style. For years they have sent article-length postcards to family, friends, fellow travelers and some media. Many of these will now be posted here.
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