Metros and Markets with Musty Memories
Saturday mornings find me riding the Line 13 metro to the very south of Paris with some fellow early risers and a few familiar characters. Many of the other passengers have suitcases and are heading to one of the two major train stations that our metro line passes through. There are more often than not a couple of familiar characters as well along for the ride including an older woman always wearing the same faded and torn jeans, with long matted hair and a wide toothless grin who sings and smiles with such joy and energy even before most of the city is awake. Perhaps she was flower child many years ago, as she seems to still embrace the spirit of that era. There is a man in a grey ribbed sweater who always announces at the back of the car his plight of lack of work ending with a request for a small donation after which he quickly passes down the aisle then out the door at the next stop leaving behind him the scent of the many Saturday mornings his sweater has seen.
There are 18 stops on the metro from my apartment in the north of the city to my destination and the reason for my being up at such an early hour on a Saturday. Stepping off the now very familiar train and heading past the stairs through the glass doors to the escalator, turning right and down a corridor, always looking at the new posters that have changed since the previous week announcing concerts, discounts at local groceries and cell phone offers, my fellow passengers and I flow like a herd of sheep through the underground tunnel. A steep climb up the narrow steps leading to the waiting sunlight, or sometimes misty rain, a sharp right and I am on the street just inside the ring road the surrounds the whole of Paris.
The first shop to greet me is a florist who is often just pushing out her carts of seasonal beauties onto the sidewalk, her little dog watching. Next door is the old timeworn café’ and bakery where in the warmer months patrons fill the sidewalks as they do in virtually every café in the city, smoking and drinking coffee from tiny almost child sized ceramic cups. The newsstand is next and then you cross the street to the beginning of blocks and blocks of antique treasures awaiting. Each Saturday, for as long as I can remember I have come to this Marche Aux Puces, usually spending several wonderful hours and an equal amount of euros combing through the remnants of Paris past.
The merchants and dealers, by in large, remain the same from week to week and year to year with occasional new faces coming and going. Some are cheerful and smiling while others look as tired and worn as their wares and yet others as serious and reverent as the antique vestments and crucifix’s that cover their tables. Every week there are, among my fellow shoppers, a fairly large amount of young Japanese who pour endlessly over boxes of vintage plastic key chains, old cards of buttons and sewing items, bits and pieces of antique lace and anything else that is very small. I always wonder why their focus is on these tiny treasures and can only imagine in their crowded lives back in Japan that there is not much room for anything of a larger size. Also among us are the Americans of course, which you can’t miss by their voices, most always rising above the rest of the crowd and hovering in the air as an echo. The rest of the crowd is rounded out by the French of course and other travelers from all over the world. Very often you will hear familiar things being said repeatedly by both dealer and buyer. The excellent condition of the item is noted as bon etat, and there is the always constant comment on the very fair price which is ne pas cher. There are always quite a few elderly men looking through the mountains of old books and peering with squinty eyes at the bottoms of china or silver urns and trays.
The flea market goes for blocks and there are hundreds of different stands usually covered by a large folding umbrellas. The umbrellas have long metal feet that splay out beneath and beyond the tables holding the wares and almost always cause someone, usually me, to trip in a very ungracious fashion. Most of the dealers put their items out on long narrow tables or display them in small, often antique glass cases. Some however, put out rows of plastic milk crates full of musty, moldy and mildewing tidbits which people throng to with great anticipation. Seeing the behinds of my fellow shoppers up in the air, heads down and elbows flying always makes me grin as in France most people would never assume such an unflattering position in public otherwise. I too have participated in this ritual but have found that most often it is not worth the backache involved. Sticking to the tabletop treasures has always worked out best in the end.
Among all of the business at hand there is a sense of community, which is evident by the laughter and familiar greetings. Dogs join both the dealers and shoppers in the market and are well behaved and gentle for the most part. They pad along behind their people, patiently waiting as the owner mulls over the item and often has lengthy conversations about with the merchant. The dogs that belong to the merchants sit curled up under the tables, or in the winter often on blankets with small heaters aimed at them. Sometimes they are sitting in the backs of the vans and cars parked just behind the tables and only rarely bark as they have seen many, many such Saturdays and realize there is nothing new to bark at. These are true old hands at the flea market.
One of the best things about the market is, being French of course, the food and its consumption. It is common practice for the dealers and merchants to set up small tables complete with tablecloths, china and silver and serve a lovely lunch right in the midst of what most would find a rather chaotic setting. Meals appear almost from nowhere and it is hard to understand how such a lovely cuisine could come from the back of an old rusty van, but it does. It is not uncommon for the wine to be uncorked very early in the morning, though most recently boxes of wine have begun to make an appearance, of course served in a proper glass, no plastic cups please! Cheeses, sausages and other yummy delicacies are passed around from dealer to dealer with several sometimes joining together for the meal. Those who are too far to keep an eye on their tables just cover them with tarps or cloths and enjoy the meal and companionship without concern for the business they may be losing. It is obvious we are not in America!
By the time I get to the end of the flea market and to the end of my baguette with butter, jambon pays and cheese, I am ready to sit down and think about the treasures I bought, where I will place them in my little Parisian apartment or how much money they may bring at the online auctions that I often run. I walk back out through the main row of venders, taking once last look to see if something new had found its way out of an almost forgotten box or corner of the van. Turning around for a last look at the long row of activity, I cross the street and sit under the plastic shelter of the 95 bus stop. When the bus arrives, which is usually does quite quickly, I climb aboard and gratefully sit by the window feeling the ache in my lower back. Bags of treasures at my feet I prepare for the final ritual of this weekly event as the bus lurches forward and we begin the long journey back to the heart of Paris.
We travel for what seems like several miles passing through some faded but charming residential sections of the city with people pulling their shopping caddies home from the market, then past the one large and hideous sky scraper that somehow snuck it’s way into the city some years ago and then past the ancient left bank historic quays and through the courtyard of the Louvre up to the doorstep of the Opera. It is here that I get off, rested and ready too walk the rest of the way home reminding myself all the way that I am blessed to live in such a place as Paris.