La Brocante

In my previous post, a reader commented on the picture of a restaurant that I used, which obviously wasn’t the restaurant that I visited (which would be both cool, but very Twilight Zone.) Still, you can’t argue with a depiction of a restaurant where every table has a bottle of red wine on it and the parents are blowing cigarette smoke in their kids faces. The picture is called a carte scolaire and they’re used in French classrooms to teach les enfants about life in France. The red wine I guess is there to get ’em started early and the kids seem oblivious to their parents puffing away.

How could I resist.

When I was on vacation in August, the weather was decidedly not too fabulous. You know that expression, “Everyone complains about the weather, but no one does anything about it.”…well, we all complained about the heat wave, so something was done about it–August was cold and wet. And to top it off, I was on vacation along with the rest of Paris. So what do you do when the weather stinks and you’re out in the countryside?


You visit the flea markets.
There’s lots of brocantes in France, but the best bargains are when you find a vide grenier, which literally means ’empty attic’, and that’s what people do. While they hold them in Paris, the ones in the distant countryside, far from the scavenging Parisian antiquaires, are where you can get some good finds.


I like the pick through boxes of things, since they can yield unexpected treasures like old gratin dishes and terrines, but unfortunately, I’ve yet to come across any old Charo or Barry Manilow records. Have these people no taste?


Fotunately there are reassuring signs of the invasion of American pop culture, and this home-version of The Price Is Right caught my eye, but I eventually passed since “David Lebovitz…Come on down!” somehow sounds more fun than “Allez-y, Monsieur Lebovitz!”

Les brocanteurs (and brocanteuses?) here drive a very hard bargain and it’s tough negotiating…especially when they get a whiff of my American accent. So I try to be discreet and just hold up an object nonchalantly, trying not to smile. My rack of gleaming-white American teeth and upbeat enthusiasm are always a dead give-away. Sometimes I try to get my French dude to ask the price, but he always winds up talking to the seller for 20 minutes, and I just want to cut my losses and run, thinking I’m missing out on the elusive Saarinen table basse at the next stand that I’ve been searching for, or some really cool antique chocolate molds that I’ll buy in anticipation of using, but which will eventually get rusty sitting on the shelf, and I’ll eventually sell myself at a future vide grenier.

Curiously if you decide you don’t want something, each and every time you put it back down, the vendor will respond 100% of the time with, “C’est pas cher!”, or “It’s not expensive!” For some reason, it’s difficult for them to fathom the connection between the fact you’re not buying it with the fact that, yes, it is indeed trop cher.

Whenever I vacation in Brittany, I always end up eating way too many buckwheat galettes and crêpes, drinking too many bowls of cider, and eating way, way too many of those buttery Breton pastries (which I plan a round-up of in the near future.) Luckily there was only one sunny day that I had to don the ‘ol Speed-o (thank God…) for a dip in the Atlantic, but I did find a diet book to help me shed those unwanted kilos.


Aside from all the plastic children’s toys (a hazard of any vide grenier or tag sale), the most appealing things I found were these cartes scolaires, with depictions of of everyday scenarios in French life…


Here you can see the salt marshes where fleur de sel is harvested from the nearby Guérande…



..while this one shows the cooking tools used in the French kitchen…
…and if you need to know what a beauty salon is like…
…or a public pool.

You can find a comprehesive list of all brocantes across France in the monthly magazine Aladin, available at well-stocked newstands across France. The best way to find out when vide greniersand braderies are is to ask the locals or check for signs, which tend to get plastered everywhere about a week before.
And If you see a Knoll coffee table, or say, a Barry Manilow record, would you mind leaving them for me?

Especially if they’re “pas trop cher”.

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  • September 21, 2006 10:12am

    that´s a lovely set of illustrations! great post. Btw, I saw your comment on Chubby Hubby, and I just have to say, buy the Thermomix, do. It´s a winner

  • September 21, 2006 10:19am

    I do want one, but I’m hoping to find one at a brocante!
    (and pas trop cher)

  • September 21, 2006 11:35am

    I love the cartes scolaires. I got a few anatomical ones (la circulation, la coeur) when I was in the Lot. It looks like mine come from the same set as the “Ustensiles d’une cuisine.” Same yummy font.

    So true about the “c’est pas cher!”

  • Judith in Umbria
    September 21, 2006 11:49am

    I regret to this day leaving behind a great piece of singerie– excellent ape with palm tree, holding up a candle. Oui, je regrette.

  • Alphonse the Noble
    September 21, 2006 3:16pm

    Forgive me, but just WHAT is that “thing” which is above the diet booklet – it looks a little like a sort of ceramic plug thingy and knowing the French partiality to suppositories….one just wondered?? Can you enlighten us, please?

  • September 21, 2006 8:08pm

    Your “French dude?”

  • gladys
    September 22, 2006 12:53am

    yeah, I want to hear more about the dude too! :)

  • September 22, 2006 4:22am

    Yes, I its very convenient to have a French person along.

  • Alisa
    September 22, 2006 8:19am

    David you are so cute!
    I found the best stuff at a vide grenier in La Perche, an out of the way area, about 2 hours outside Paris.
    I have been wondering where to find out about all these events, before they occur, and now I know. Merci beaucoup!

  • Taina
    September 22, 2006 9:13am

    Meg and I visited the Foire a la Brocante et au Jambon today in Chatou (yes, you read that right!). As Meg said, “antiques and ham, a natural match!”
    It’s more brocante than jambon, but we did eat some good andouillette on rolls & sampled some serrano before we fled the rain.

  • September 22, 2006 11:48am

    We drove up to visit the stones at Carnac and have lunch yesterday (visiting friends. As usual I was torn between the Moules and the Galettes, as usual, had the buckwheat galette followed by a chocolate crepe. I like it up there. Oh yes, bought some salt…

  • hag
    September 25, 2006 11:39pm

    It took me awhile to first figure out what Brocante meant when I was in Provence 3 years ago, but once I did….wow!
    I LOVE the images that you found…they are absolutley priceless!