My Life in Paris: Causing a Scene at the Marché aux Puces

My Life in Paris: Causing a Scene at the Marché aux Puces

Whenever I get a hankering for a strongly Proustian dose of solidarity with both past and present, I pedal push it down to the Porte de Vanves flea market. There’s where I reclaim my moxie and find lost love among the ruins. With their triumphs and their glories, and the rest!

Truth be told, well-loved is best, especially at the flea market. Yesteryear’s wear-n-tear adds value, is what I always pray, as I plunder through the boxes of treasures with the tenacity of a rag-and-bone-picking warrior, or perhaps, just perhaps, a stage actress looking for her next great show-stopper. Early on Sunday mornings at the Porte de Vanves, the world isn’t only my stage, but also my prop closet. I’ve got to be just me? I don’t think so! Not with so many costume changes at the reach of my arm and pocketbook…

“Everything has a history!” as chef Julia Child put it. In fact, it was at one of the Parisian flea markets just like Vanves that Julia bought her first antique mortar and pestle after she moved to France. “The mortar was made of dark-grey marble, and was about the size and weight of a baptismal font,” she wrote. “One look at it, and I knew there was no question: I just had to have that set!” Now who hasn’t been there before?

Rain or shine, the puces of Paris still seduce. This collectionneuse’s hands never fail to shake at the Porte de Vanves, as I hobnob it from stall to stall, gazing at old maps, mounted birds, black beaded gowns, tiaras, handbags, bevelled mirrors, whisky glasses, cigarette cases, hankies and empty perfume bottles.

Temptations abound! It’s not always easy to keep one’s head. For instance, on one recent foray I suddenly spotted a pair of gants de peau. Like a cat, I pounced, making my move. Without hesitation, I tried on one of the kid gloves. Straight away, I felt as “thin as Sarah Bernhardt,” as the Belle Époque simile put it. As she was credited with launching the first worldwide love affair with long opera gloves, I believe that the “divine Sarah” would have approved. After all, the great tragedienne travelled with no fewer than 350 pairs, many of them three feet long.

I pressed my nose against the glove’s soft leather, which still possessed a heady floral scent, no doubt left over from some forgotten rendezvous. Completely intoxicated, I closed my eyes and imagined a life spent treading the boards as the likes of Joan d’Arc, Cléopatra or Théodora. On the spot, I decided to buy them… then a small, unexpected hiccup snapped me out of my reverie. The elegant glove seemed to be thoroughly stuck on my not-so-little hand!

Pourquoi? Pourquoi?” the dealer started shouting. Under the noonday sun, an audience gathered as he tugged and pulled at the glove, first with his bare hands and then using a pair of pliers. What would Sarah have done? Most likely cried or died, I’m sure. As appealing as my impending death scene may sound to opera buff or frustrated dealer alike, I picked the one plot twist left that would let me play it safe. Instead of singing my swan song, I made my purchase, slipping on the other glove and loudly humming a few bars from Edith Piaf’s Non, Je ne Regrette Rien.

A cheer erupted from the crowd. I waved, and was then off to the next booth, as if elbow-length gloves were the next hot trend and I was in on it at the outset. After all, as Julia Child said, “Drama is very important in life: You have to come on with a bang. You never want to go out with a whimper. Everything can have drama if it’s done right. Even a pancake!” Or a pair of gloves…

Flea Market Details:

Marché aux puces de la Porte de Vanves, Avenue Marc Sangnier / Avenue Georges Lafenstre, Paris 14th. Métro: Porte de Vanves, Open Saturdays & Sundays until 1pm

From France Today magazine

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