August is the month when France goes on vacation. “La Fermeture Annuelle” is a tradition which originated in the early 1900s to provide paid time-off for factory workers. By 1982, laws were passed giving five weeks of paid vacation to all salaried workers.
From late July to the end of August, the city of Paris is quieter, the streets emptier, parking–not a problem. There are still tourists and some businesses remain open. But most small shops and restaurants are closed and shuttered as Parisians head for sunny beaches, country homes, and relaxation elsewhere.
Then comes September and “La Bonne Rentrée”. Schools reopen and sleepy summertime is over. By the end of the first week, streets and cafés are full once again. Curbside parking disappears for another year.
La Rentrée is a time to reconnect with friends, re-establish routines and reacquaint to life in Paris.
One of my favorite returning rituals is to spend a morning at the “Marché aux Puces” at Porte de Vanves. This isn’t the biggest flea market in Paris or even the most famous. The gigantic market at Clignancourt, on the northern edge of the city, is where Woody Allen filmed scenes for his movie “Midnight in Paris”.
I much prefer the smaller venue in the southern 14th Arrondissement. It lines only two streets, for half a day on Saturdays and Sundays, year round. There are professional merchants with covered tables and reserved spots. There are others who sell from a blanket spread on the ground. It’s both treasure hunting and people watching fun–crowded with locals and tourists.
When looking for something special, like an antique enamel coffeepot for a story about Swedish egg coffee [An Egg in the Coffeepot, Oct. 4, 2014], I headed to the flea market. At other times, without a particular goal, I have stumbled upon useable finds such as porcelain towel bars or heavy glass candleholders or Japanese-occupation pottery plates which we began collecting in Taiwanese street markets twenty years ago.
Sometimes an excursion is rewarded with a beautiful signed vase or a framed picture for the wall. Or nothing at all.
Flea markets are recycled decorating ideas or collecting at its’ best. The sheer volume and range of objects astounds. Even keeping in mind the adage, “One man’s trash is another’s treasure”, it’s impossible not to be judgemental. Odd, quirky, eccentric, useful, cheap, expensive, collectible, colorful, playful, beautiful, strange, or simply weird. It’s all there, for a price. Bargaining is essential, bien sûr.
Most of the time I go to the Marché aux Puces for entertainment, to see what’s there, to eavesdrop on interactions between shoppers and vendors, to stroll along and muse over oddities with coffee in hand or, in winter, a cup of vin chaud [hot wine] sold at the corner kiosk. On a perfect day, the corner café features a temptable lunch offering.
The adventure never disappoints. It’s simply a rentrée ritual to remind me that I’m back in my favorite city in the world.