Brocantes (something akin to jumble sales or car-boot sales with stalls) are a way of life here in rural France. How else is one supposed to get rid of all the old junk one has accumulated in the course of one’s life, or more frequently, that one’s parents have accumulated in the course of theirs?
Because, of course, everyone has ‘stuff’ that they don’t need in their homes, and in particular everyone’s parents have. It seems that in many cases the parents have moved away or died and the children are left with the task of clearing the house in order to be able to sell it or move into it. I have seen houses for sale here that are full from floor to ceiling with the detritus of the lives of the people who once inhabited them, and I quail inwardly at the thought of being in the position of having to dispose of it.
But the brocante, which is generally an open-air event, is a fixture of rural life in the summer. It is as pleasant a way as any of spending an hour or two at the weekend, going from one stall to another and inspecting what’s on offer. There is the added thrill of bargain-hunting and even bargaining, just a little, you know, not as if you’re in a market in the Middle East, but just enough, and in just enough of a friendly spirit, to leave everyone feeling content.
One can sometimes see children helping their parents as mountains of old toys are set out for disposal. I personally would not have wanted to join my parents in selling my old toys, or to have imposed such a task on my own children, but the children here seem to be quite at ease with the situation. Stalls laden with what were presumably once-beloved dolls, board games, colourful plastic objects and mechanical toys (some of which still actually work) are set out for inspection, alongside cardboard boxes full of old books, old records, old phones, old (almost antique) irons, old shoes and clothes, and any old anything, in fact.
Some stalls contain objects which were obviously once someone’s prized collection of, for example, cigarette cards, keyholders, keys or miniature china ornaments. Ir’s sometimes heartbreaking to see what was obviously once someone’s entire household, or sports prizes or albums of family photographs. Having read ‘The Hare with the Amber Eyes,’ I was once tempted by a display case full of netsuke, but restricted myself to just two. Perhaps it was foolish of me, but I have no desire to compete with Edmund de Waal, I don’t have room in my house for a display case and don’t want to start collecting things that my children will eventually have to dispose of.
The atmosphere at these events is usually upbeat, even jovial. At some of them the local municipality organizes a food stall, where grilled meat and other delicacies can be bought for a modest sum. At others I have seen beautiful crystal wine glasses going for a song, and have been unable to resist the temptation. The regional authority publishes a booklet containing the dates and venues of all the brocantes in the course of the year (there are over two hundred), and advises stall-owners to come with a companion, a folding seat, something to eat and drink, and a hat to protect against the sun (or rain, as the case may be). No single individual is allowed to participate in more than two brocantes a year, presumably to keep the event in the sphere of the amateur.
Sometimes one sees beautiful china crockery, hand-blown glass, painted vases, sets of silver cutlery and even the occasional lone ornate soup tureen, all of which were once presumably someone’s pride and joy, and are now being flogged at a fraction of their original price. But there are very few takers for these formerely precious possessions.
Prices are usually a few euros per item, so we were stunned when at one brocante an elderly man quoted sixty euros for a tool in which my husband had expressed an interest. Anything above twenty euros is considered a high price at a brocante. We declined and moved on, and left it at that. It later occurred to us that the man must have made good use of the tool during his lifetime and gave it that price in accordance with the value he attached to it. However, when at some point in the future his time comes and his children sell off his things they will probably be happy to get six euros for it.
Sic transit gloria mundi.