I’ve discovered a new hobby. It’s one I can practice from about early May to the end of October across France and in fact, it’s a hobby best enjoyed somewhere well away from Paris. It’s called the “vide grenier”. The closest Canadian equivalent would be the “garage sale” but here in France, the vide grenier and its big brothers, the “brocante” and the “foire”, are so much more than simply garage sales or flea markets…they’re events not to be missed where ancient treasures lie in wait to be discovered and bargained for by hordes of hunters!
The term “vide grenier” literally means to “empty the attic” and that’s indeed what entire villages do throughout the countryside as well as in some of the arrondissements of Paris. Once a year all kinds of items that have been hiding in the attics of houses that may date back hundreds of years are dusted off, priced and set out on tables until every street, laneway, small square, nook and cranny of a village is filled to the brim. Everything you can imagine, and some things you would never imagine, can turn up at a vide grenier.
In preparation for the big day village organizers hang giant banners announcing their event along the fences on well-traveled routes, notices are published on popular websites such as: https://vide-greniers.org/ and advertised locally on posters and in newspapers. On the appointed day, the inhabitants of the village including husbands and wives, neighbours, friends and children sit with their treasures and wait for the treasure hunters to arrive. And, indeed, if you build it – they will come, by the carload.
Walking the narrow cobblestoned streets of these ancient villages is an amazing experience on a “normal” day, when there is nothing for sale or on display. With their ancient houses, narrow streets, towering church spires and small central squares these are the beautiful villages you picture when you think of rural France. However, visiting a village on a vide grenier day takes your visit to a whole new level. It’s like attending a huge festival. The population of the village may double and parking can be almost impossible to find. The atmosphere is lively, fair-like and there may even be music. Everyone you meet is almost certain to be friendly and happy to explain how “old” or “rare” or “amazing” are the items they’re selling. They’ll explain it’s history to you – where they got it, who it belonged to in their family and perhaps even why they feel the need to sell it today. Most of the time they’ll be sincere and are happy just to talk with you, even if you don’t feel like making a purchase.
And of course, this being France, at the centre of all this activity there will be food. While, admittedly, some of the vide greniers I’ve visited have had rather basic offerings in this department, just as many have offered up wonderful options. The food is always local, fresh, and, bien sûr, the food stand will likely offer a few wine options as well. Lots of tables and chairs will be set up for visitors to sit and relax in between sessions of hunting for treasures. Meanwhile, behind their tables of wares the sellers will set up and enjoy their own home-cooked picnics while tending shop – or perhaps they’ll take a break and you’ll have to wait until after lunch to bargain for that set of dishes or mannequin you spied. Not to worry, the vide grenier is an all-day affair so there’s no need to rush.
A good friend of mine and a seasoned veteran of the treasure hunting scene in France, has been my mentor with respect to the art of the “vide grenier”. She plots our route through the countryside and keeps a large stash of 50 centime, 1 and 2 euro coins on hand to shop with. Indeed, never show the seller a large bill is one of the first lessons she taught me. According to her, although the “vide grenier” may be at the lowest rung on the treasure hunt ladder – that just means there will be a wide variation in the quality of offerings. The prices will also generally be lower than at the more professional “brocante” or “foire” because the majority of the sellers are amateurs, locals, who really are trying to “empty their attics” and are therefore willing to bargain – especially in the smaller villages far from Paris.
As this season of the vide greniers begins to wind down I feel as though I’m starting to get the hang of them, although admittedly I’m still very much a beginner. For example, at on a recent outing to a vide grenier I purchased a lovely metal container to hold all my kitchen utensils. I loved the white and blue colour and, at 3 euros (which I had proudly bargained the seller down to from 8), I couldn’t resist the purchase. I paid the seller and rushed to show my friend my great find. “Do you know what that is?”, she asked with a sly grin, “it’s an old enema pot”. As my face fell she consoled me, “don’t worry, I bought the same thing when I first started coming to these things”.
My husband doesn’t seem to understand or appreciate the difference between a Canadian garage sale and a French vide grenier. He calls my new hobby “routing through other people’s junk ” which he utters with a shake of his head and more than a hint of disapproval. I’ve tried to explain to him that the things I can find at a vide grenier are often older than Canada itself and that I’m actually, therefore, saving him hundreds of dollars on antiques, but he continues to have little interest in sharing my new hobby. He does however, put up with it and, I might add, is quite happy to use some of the items I purchase, like a set of 6 old beer glasses or a giant map of Paris.
For my part I’m enjoying visiting the small villages around France and practicing my French as much as I’m enjoying the hunt for treasures and the photo opportunities these adventures provide. I’ve also discovered that, at most of the vide greniers I visit I can find something decidedly Canadiana for sale which always give me a chuckle. It’s become my new passion to find the “Canadian” at the vide greniers. Once, on a large table full of small dolls and other things I found a tiny Mountie on a stand, while on another day I found a license plate from Quebec.
As for the enema pot? After my initial shock and slight embarrassment I laughed it off and rationalized that it hadn’t been used in that way for many, many years now and, after a thorough washing it does indeed make a fine vessel for holding my kitchen utensils. Besides, none of my friends back in Canada are likely to know what it is anyway.