Arose with gratitude to a Parisian
pink sky early Saturday morning and ordered a strong coffee and croissant to
the room. In an effort to avoid the
stroller set and midday tire kickers, I had only the briefest of breakfasts,
strapped on my most comfortable of shoes, and caught a cab for Porte Clignancourt,
an enormous flea market on the outskirts of Paris.
Properly known as Les Puces de Saint-Ouen, but
commonly known as Les Puces (The Fleas), the market has its roots in
the late 1700s, when rag-and-bone men roamed the neighborhoods of Paris,
scouring garbage piles and back alleys to unearth rags, bones, metals and other
junk to clean and resell. Also referred to as pêcheurs
de lune or moonlight
fishermen, these men would hunt and pick at night and set up temporary stalls
in sketchy neighborhoods to sell their finds during the day. After the outbreak of cholera in the 1830s, markets
were banned in Paris, which was followed by a period of aggressive urban
planning, driving the crocheteurs or
pickers to the outskirts of the city.
They found refuge near the city gates of Kremlin Bicêtre,
Montreuil, Vanves, and Porte de Clignancourt.
within the corridor separating Paris from the town of St.-Ouen that the
Cligancourt flea market began, the authorities there taking measures in 1885 to
make it safer and cleaner. While
streets were paved and walkways created, the
traders created groups of stalls to attract customers, and by the turn-of-the-century,
Parisian collectors and antique dealers were picking from the pickers. The area provided the additional
benefit of being a duty-free zone, exempt from Paris taxes as it was outside
the city limits.
Men such as Monsieur Romain Vernaison, who owned acreage in
Cliganacourt in the 1920s, transformed the rag-and-bone shantytowns into
covered marketplaces with hundreds of stalls.
Next arrived an Albanian prince, who opened Malik’s Marketplace, specializing
in second-hand clothes, old uniforms, helmets, and cameras. Off the main drag of rue de Rosiers lie dozen
of other markets: Marché
Malassis, (toys, vintage cameras and furniture), Marché Dauphine (furniture,
ceramics), Marché Biron (quality furniture, glass and giltwood), and Marché
Vernaison (fashion, books, prints and kitchenware). Rents increased dramatically as antique
dealers moved in next door to the bric-a-brac salesmen, eliminating the
dumpster-dive vibe almost entirely. After the French Liberation, the
opening days were set in stone: Saturday, Sunday and Monday.
I had only Saturday to shop, the worst
day to negotiate and the biggest surge of crowds. The market gets
trampled by 120,000-150,000 people
from around the world each weekend; some dealers, some shoppers, some
thrill seekers. But there’s no thrill in elbowing past thousands
and thousands of people, no matter how special the piece or inexpensive
price. As it’s the largest antique
market in the world, with more than 2,500 dealers spread across more
than 17 acres,
I had to strategize my day.
First stop was to visit Isabel, an older,
elfin French woman who specializes in tools from the 18th and 19th
century. She has pickers scouring the
French countryside to source her pieces.
She explained she’d like to shop for her own finds, but the old men with
the goodies won’t sell to her, not because she is a woman, but because she’s
Parisian. Her walls bowed under the
weight of ancient leather-making and woodworking tools, butchering equipment,
cooking utensils, and winemaking apparatus.
Iron and wood are her stock in trade, which appeals to my East Coast
primitive aesthetic. After warm
greetings, I quickly made decisions: a cheese cutter’s double-handled knife, a
butcher’s saw with an unusual oak handle, several heavy meat cleavers, a glass
wine thief, a carbon steel fileting knife, wood boards and bowls, a meat scale,
and an apiarian’s knife with a lovely patina, owing to its years being
conditioned by honey.
Isabel had the day to write my invoice and
wrap my treasures for travel, as I dashed off to my next stop with a promise to
return later. Hurriedly, I walked
several blocks past shops displaying heavy art deco furniture, leather club
chairs, and gaudy gilded mirrors.
Waiters in black and red jackets, smoking cigarettes with the mild
annoyance perfected by the French, were setting tables on sidewalks for the
midday lunch break, still a blessedly sacrosanct Gallic tradition.
The open-air Marché Paul Bert, one of the two
markets owned by the Duke of Westminster, is a favorite roam. Once I passed through its gates, I hit my
breaks, took a deep breath to get into the zone, and put on my foraging
A porcelain rabbit terrine with glass eyes
dating to the early 1900s was hard to refuse, and I negotiated hard for a moody
oil painting of hanging game birds that I’ll keep for myself. Into my market bag, now bulging with booty,
went weighty deco soup spoons, forged iron meat hooks, unusual glass plates for serving
mussels, and copper canelé molds for baking the
special cakes of Bordeaux. A pair of
chairs piqued my fetish for Finnish furniture, and I couldn’t resist a French
industrial table lamp with a swinging pendulum, which will grace my desk. Suspecting the large advertising sign for
vermouth was a reproduction, it remained on the shop wall, but the candlesticks
made from wild boar hooves trotted home with me.
Come lunchtime, the dealers set up tables in
their shops and stalls with spreads worthy of a Cote Sud cover: crudité and
charcouterie, cheese and fruit, baguettes and shared bottles of inexpensive
French wine poured into chipped ceramic cups.
Old linens were pressed into service and the aroma of strong Gaulouises’
cigarettes laced the warm, late summer air.
Sartre’s spirit was alive and well at these quintessentially French
tables: the notion of authenticity and
being true to one’s internal flame despite outside influences; of being wholly
responsible for giving one’s life meaning and living it fully; of coming to
terms with the material world.
My wallet was empty of euros and my credit cards scratched
from use. With
more than 11 million bargain-hunters combing through the market annually, the
dealers are accustomed to the intricacies of doing business with Americans,
Brits, Indians, Russians, Chinese, and Japanese alike. Struggling with both the exchange rate
and the costs of shipping, the pencil with which I negotiated was sharpened to
a razor’s edge. And even though most
shopkeepers spoke English, my lack of fluency in their language did little to
But none of us were here to make friends.
My head was swimming with numbers and unfamiliar words and haunting
images of pieces not purchased, and my shoulders ached from hauling loaded
bags. I collapsed onto a rattan chair at
an empty table at Paul Bert, a bustling restaurant at the gate of the market. The same surly waitress who always treats me
with great disdain didn’t disappoint, managing to completely ignore me even as
she brought me lunch.
Understanding the inevitability of my return to Isabel’s shop
to settle my substantial tab, I ignored my usual edict of no wine midday and
ordered a carafe of rustic Bandol to accompany my lunch, the house
special. A very large cast iron tureen
of steaming onion soup was set before me.
Served with a bowl and ladle, it was thick with knots of cipollini rings,
silken beef stock, hunks of chewy, day-old bread, and handfuls of grated
Gruyere, gooey and browned. The whole
mélange was topped with a raw egg, which cooked in the bubbling liquid, binding
the flavors together.
As the French consider it rude to drop a check on a dining
table before it’s requested, I lingered over an espresso, a chocolate pot de crème,
the secondhand smoke blown in my direction by the young girl sitting behind
me. It’s easy to understand why
Clignancourt’s flea market, Les Puces de Saint-Ouen, which celebrated its 100th
birthday in 1985, was declared a protected architectural heritage site. Both aesthetically and spiritually, the
French are adamant about protecting their inimitable way of life.
#france #parisfleamarket #clignancourt #paris #culinary #inthespiritofsartre