Monday, March 16, 2009

La vieille gloire

The local collège had its annual vide grenier this weekend, and Sunday morning C and I walked through it. It means an empty attic: a vide grenier is when you try to sell the stuff that wound up in your attic to someone else, for their attic. In other words, a garage sale. I have never been a garage-sale goer in the States--and I distinguish, here, between a flea market, which features people who deal in particular types of salt and pepper shakers and so forth, and a garage sale, which features card tables on a suburban lawn.

Here, vides greniers are never individual concerns but rather community productions, held on the village boules court or in the school yard or the communal parking. There's usually a mix of stands set up by local folks selling their no longer needed baby gear and children's books and then those set up by professional grenieristes, to coin a term. The grenieristes seem to travel from village to village with their wares, the poor and somewhat shady cousins of the brocantistes who set up in the marchés d'antiquités and brocantes that make the tour books.

Business was brisk at the collège when we got there Sunday morning. Cars were parked on the main road and a steady stream of people were walking up the hill to the school parking lot where the tables were set up. We were--I was, really--in the market for a ceramic water jug manufactured by a pastis company. Which is not as arcane or uncommon as it sounds: every bar in the south of France sells liters and liters of pastis. There are various brands: Ricard, Pernod, Pastis 51 are the most common. Pastis drinkers have favorite brands; you'll drink your pastis out of a glass with that brand's name on it. And you'll cut it with water, unless you have solid steel insides. You'll pour the water from a pitcher that is sitting on the bar, and that pitcher will, just like your glass, have the name of a pastis maker on it. And that's what I'm looking for. Not because I like pastis--can't stand the stuff--but because I like the idea of filling that jug with water and setting it on our table.

We didn't find it today. We did find a handful of fèves. One dealer there was a specialist in fèves, the favor that is hidden inside of the galette des rois that everyone shares during Epiphany. She had baskets and bowls of the tiny porcelain figures, 50 centimes each. The fèves used to be characters from the nativity story but, in this last days, they're more likely to be characters from kid movies. As of Sunday, we own six Harry Potter fèves: Harry, Hermione, Ron, Hagrid, Hedwig the owl, and--I was really tickled about this one--a very small, very purple Night Bus.

While I was trading three euros for six fèves, C walked away to reconsider his marriage vows. I caught up and we made the circuit of the vide grenier looking for my water pitcher. There was a second-hand shoe stand; a specialist in perfume bottles; someone selling the 1993 questions de l'année edition of Trivial Pursuit; and Madame Marie, from Pizza Pierre, looking for buyers for baby clothes. Also a table lamp whose base was a model of a passenger liner in the act of splitting apart on an iceberg. I said it was the Titanic; C said the scale was all wrong. He demands verisimilitude in his shipwreck lamps.

We were coming down the last aisle of odds and ends when a familiar pattern caught our eye. At the edge of a table crowded with old clocks and mysterious kitchen tools was a folded up bit of fabric. All we could see was white stars on a navy ground. I picked it up and turned it over: red and white stripes. I set it down again and turned away.

An American flag, here, in the village? What a strange thing, we thought.

It was all cotton, I said. Usually they're nylon.

We walked past another stand. This one had books. Maigret, Tintin, a couple of guides to good health through herbs, and Les Rèves de mon père in hardcover.

If we were going to fly the flag, I said, that would be a flag with a story.

We stopped.

How much do you think?
said C. Five euros?

Ten, I said.

He went back. I hovered.

In a minute he was back. Five, he said.

I slipped it into my purse, next to the Harry Potter figurines.


  1. I would have bought it too. As well as the Harry Potter figurines.

  2. Very nice. Very suspenseful post.

    I loved the reference to the French title of the Obama memoir and I too would have sprung for the flag!