How much of this do you actually need? How much of it would you quite like to have (if you had the space)?

There are many reasons why vide-greniers exist. I can think of at least ten. Actually I keep thinking of new ones, but I had to stop somewhere. Going to two vide-greniers today (Sunday 28th August 2016, at Loudun and Berthegon) brought them into sharper focus. Here are the ten, but I'll save the best to last. 

The first is simple consumerism: buying stuff we don't necessarily need, and may not even want. It is however readily available, and usually affordable; for a given value of "affordable". Like several of the other headings below, consumerism can quite quickly and easily can easily shade into collecting. 

Getting her consumerism in early. Look that those shoes: clearly dressing-up material. Then look at the size of the bag.

The second is that it's ecologically sound: a form of recycling. Better to pass something on, even for a few centimes, than to throw it away. Less goes into landfill, and the buyer can recycle something used instead of buying something new.

Third, there's looking for stuff we actually need. For example, bread sticks (grissini, in Italian) are quite fragile. It makes sense to buy something to protect them and stop them breaking.

Fourth, there's stuff that's nice to have, even if we don't need it. I have lots of drinking glasses, but I'm perfectly happy to retire one glass (usually bought at a vide-grenier anyway) in favour of another, if the new one is prettier. Again, this shades into collecting.

Fifth, there are spares. Sticking with glasses, they break. You can't always find the sort of glass you want, at least not reasonably quickly, when you break one of the glasses you use all the time. It therefore makes sense to buy stuff you might need, when you see it, rather than waiting until you've broken the one you already have.

Foie gras cutter. I've propped it open with a cork so you can see the wire. The wires always break eventually, and unless you live near a good kitchen shop, spare wires are ridiculously hard to find and surprisingly expensive. It's cheaper to buy a replacement cutter at a vide-grenier. This one cost 3€ in Taizé and came with a spare wire taped to the bottom.

Sixth, there's buying and selling.Some people make a full time living out of buying things at vide-greniers and selling them on, whether on the internet, or via specialist dealers (on line or not) or indeed later at the same vide-grenier or at a more upmarket version of the same thing.

Seventh, there is the completely unexpected. Some are things we didn't even know existed, but which are quite fascinating. In all fairness, this can sometimes be indistinguishable from the fourth category above. Or from collecting.

Eighth, there's food, whether to eat on the spot (like fouées) or to take home and cook. Wherever possible, Frances and I buy garlic at vide-greniers, because it's freshest and best and only slightly more expensive than Chinese, and most of the best saucissons we have had have come from vide-greniers too.

Unless you're very young, shooting galleries are probably more fun to watch than to use: the guns are not always the most accurate, or the best set up. Children are encouraged: in La France Profonde people are not as paranoid about guns as they are in the UK.

Ninth, it is (or can be) an inexpensive day out. If you avoid such attractions as the shooting galleries and the fouée stands and the buvette (drinks stand), you don't have to spend anything at all, except the cost of the fuel to get there. This is especially important if you are out of work, or retired and living on a tiny pension. If it's within walking or cycling distance, or if you can get a lift from a better-off friend, you don't even have to spend that much.

Tenth, there's common humanity. I said I'd save the best 'til last, and here it is. In the words of the Buddha, all sentient beings desire happiness and the causes of happiness. For most of us, happiness and the causes of happiness involve other people. Admittedly Jean-Paul Sartre said that hell is other people, but then again, the Buddha added, ...and to avoid suffering and the causes of suffering. It's all a question of whom you choose to avoid. Bear in mind, too, the relationship between Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir. If you are not already familiar with either, you may do well to avoid both. Now let's go back to those ten points in turn. 

1:   Consumerism

Many people are unable to afford the latest fashions as soon as they appear. On the other hand, many people who can afford the latest fashions (or who can't quite afford them, but buy them anyway) buy on impulse, then later sell their impulse buys when they realize that they never use them. There are many things like this, but a very good example can be seen among the more esoteric or fashionable implements of the batterie de cuisine (kitchen equipment) such as fondue sets; or more recently so-called raclette sets. Buying such things qualifies as meta-consumerism: consumption of the consumerist ethic. 

There is also a certain category of goods that is essentially bought as a joke. This is the case with most of the things you find at vide-greniers that relate to sex. They may not be very funny, and the joke may soon wear thin. But they're too good to throw away, so we pass them on at vide-greniers. Like the batterie de cuisine, these things are quite often bought as gifts. They may also be passed on from vide-greniers by people who buy them (often for next to nothing) as ironic gifts for their meta-consumerist friends, which is a sort of meta-meta-consumerism.

The biggest vide-greniers are part way to street markets. Usually, the clothes are very cheap. But then, many of the people at vide-greniers are very poor.

2:   Recycling

Is recycling invariably virtuous? How would we judge the person who recycles porn magazines? Not ones that are old enough to have any historical charm or significance, such as 1950s or even 1960s copies of Playboy, but year-old copies at the cheaper end of the market, retrieved from a dustbin? 

On the other hand, is throwing junk away invariably virtuous? What do we mean by "junk"? Consider an old cast-iron frying pan. Is it "junk" next to a new non-stick pan, or (if you know how to season it and use it) is it better in almost every way?

Toys are always prime candidates for recycling, and if they're well made, like this one, they can last for generations, or at least, across many childhoods.

At a vide-grenier, every vendor and buyer can choose exactly how to consider the nature of recycling. Is my Space Outlaw ray-gun junk, or history, or just a good toy? How much does it actually matter? If I can get 3€ worth of enjoyment out of it (and I have already), that's all that matters.

In this sense, yes, recycling is pretty much invariably virtuous. I have yet to use my cast iron galette pan (another 3€ a few weeks ago) to cook galettes from scratch, but I'm looking forward to doing so. I've probably had my 3€ worth already, just from the anticipation and from cooking ready-made galettes. It would have cost me maybe ten times as much to buy a new one, so I wouldn't have. As it stands, I have the possibility of learning how to make from scratch a dish I love, for very little money. What's that worth, even if I don't get around to it? And how much more is it worth if I do? For that matter, my daughter (who can make them) will probably inherit it and enjoy it when I'm gone. 

3:  Things we need

I've already mentioned the grissini container. Actually it's ugly as sin: a spaghetti tin. On the other hand, I paid only 0,50€ for it: call it 40p, $0.60 US. If I find a better one, I'll try to give away the one I've just bought. Even if a child wants it for a toy, that's 50 centimes well spent. 

Likewise, Frances has an hereditary "benign essential tremor". This is medicalese for "shaky hands, but don't worry about it". Heavy bracelets help to damp the tremor. So: we look for heavy bracelets at vide-greniers. Today she spent 13€ (rather under £11, call it $15) on four bracelets. As she says, "I won't buy any more unless I find something really pretty, at a price I can afford."

Today we also bought a ceramic cooking pot with a glass lid for one euro. We used it while cooking dinner a few hours later: cooling a blistered pepper in an enclosed pot before peeling it. How far wrong can you go at one euro?

We also have a sugar bottle, the sort you find at greasy spoon cafés for sugaring tea. It's ideal for sprinkling sugar over strawberries. It cost us 2€ at a vide-grenier a few weeks ago. To help keep the sugar dry, and to keep the fruit flies out, we bought a thimble today to go over the spout. It was fifty centimes again.

4:   Nice to Have

There are at least two separate kinds of things that are nice to have. Today, we bought a perfect example of the first kind. More accurately, Frances bought it as a present for me. It's a beer glass, for a beer called Rince-Cochon. The best literal translation is "Hogwash": rincer, to rinse, cochon, a pig. Colloquially, a rince-cochon is a hangover cure: you can probably see the logic. It was 2€. I've collected toy pigs, model pigs, etc, for maybe 50 years, so it immediately became one of my favourite glasses: see also Capitalist Pig


On second thoughts, pig collecting is pretty much like any other form of collecting, which was going to be my second sub-heading. I've already mentioned Frances looking for heavy bracelets, but over the last few years I've also been collecting ancient and unusual kitchen implements, and crucifixes. If I ever get around to it, I'll do a book about kitchen tools such as the 5/- knife and garlic presses, but the crucifixes, of which I now have more than 70, are a reminder of an era when most French women would have had at least one crucifix in their houses and quite possibly several. French men tended to be less overtly devout. I began to explore this in La Religion Recyclée. Now, you find such religious symbols mainly at vide-greniers, I buy fewer and fewer crucifixes nowadays, but I still buy at least a couple a month in the summer. 

There are more than six dozen crucifixes, if you include a few plain crosses, in my entry hall. One wall is pretty much covered with them.

This, of course, ties in with nostalgia: things we remember from our childhood: I lived in (deeply Catholic) Malta in the 1950s. Returning to kitchen implements, surprisingly many are still useful: at least as good as their modern equivalents, and sometimes better. In all fairness, there are also things that serve mainly as a reminder of how awful the "good old days" sometimes were. 

Johnny Hallyday, born in 1943 and christened Jean-Philippe Smet, is still a much-loved French pop star to this day. He's sometimes regarded as the French Elvis, though you probably need to be French to appreciate him fully.

5:   Spares

We normally drink our sparking wines (mostly Cava and Saumur, because we can't afford real Champagne) out of small tulip glasses. It makes the wine go further, because we drink small glasses only slightly faster than big ones. When we drink Weizenbier, we like to use Weizenbier glasses. Does it make the beer taste better? Dunno, but we think it does. Besides, it looks good and is historically satisfying. What else matters? 

Frances's benign essential tremor (see also above) inevitably leads to breaking glasses sometimes, especially thin, delicate glasses when washing up, so when we find pretty glasses of the sort we often need, we buy them.

6:   Buying and Selling

At the bigger vide-greniers, there are professional stall holders. They're usually easy to spot because their stalls are carefully laid out, and their prices are high. For example, brass kitchen weights for old-fashioned scales typically cost 5-10€ each from dealers; or you might find a complete set of a dozen or more weights for 20-30€ the lot from a private seller.

There are also, of course, those who profit from the price differentials at vide-greniers versus other places to sell things. Quite a few people reputedly earn a good living by buying things at vide-greniers in France; loading up a white van; and flogging its contents on in the UK, especially London. Two examples of things that are common at vide greniers but "valuable antiques" in the UK are wooden block planes (especially moulding planes) and adjustable pot-hooks for suspending pans over a fire. Then there are things that are pure luck, like our solid silver fruit juicer for 4€. 

Block planes and even moulding planes are common at vide greniers, a reminder of a very recent time when most furniture was made by hand, usually by a local craftsman because it was difficult and expensive to move it far.

Either the money-making aspects of vide-greniers will appeal to you, or they will not. They don't, to us, though I sometimes wonder about selling things like my Space Outlaw ray-gun. Unless you own a shop, though, you need to sell these things on line. Although the Space Outlaw sells for as much as forty times the 3€ I paid for it, or maybe more, if I offered it to a dealer I'd see a much more modest profit.

7: The Unexpected

This was what prompted my collecting kitchen implements.  Even such simple things as can-openers and garlic presses exist in bewildering variety, and who could resist an electric oyster opener? I advise that you should, if you have any sense, along with other patented oyster openers. Then there are hand-tools like the multi-speed drill. These are things you don't know you want, until you see them. 

The music at vide-greniers is pretty unexpected too, at least at first, because it often includes a lot of incredibly old pop music: Donovan, Hermann's Hermits, and lots more. The entire village is normally wired for sound, with speakers temporarily mounted on walls and trees and lamp posts.

8:   Food

This was pretty much covered in the introduction to this piece, but you also find cheese stalls (often horrifyingly expensive); goose, duck and chicken eggs; huge loaves, from which you buy slices sold by weight; fresh fruit and vegetables, often sold directly by the grower; sweets; biscuits; nougat (at least one stall sells only nougat); peanuts roasted with a 120-year-old roasting machine on a trailer; honey; saffron; and more. The trouble is that you can never tell who is going to be selling what, where, so you can't exactly plan menus in advance. 

A very Gallic looking pig advertises sausages, dried tomatoes, and more. All right, it's not very legible but it's difficult holding a piece of chalk in a trotter.

9:   Cheap day out

On average, we reckon to spend about 25€, call it £20 or $30. Some days it's a lot less; occasionally, it's quite a bit more, as (for example) when Frances bought a pair of gold lorgnettes.The more expensive days often include a glass each of wine (50 centimes to one euro a glass) and may include fouées or groceries, as in "food" above. 

Do this in remembrance of me... I've always thought that the Last Supper referred to all bread and wine, not just the consecrated stuff.

10: Common humanity

Being among other people is the basic definition of "society". Maggie Thatcher famously said "there is no such thing as society", but she was horribly, viciously  wrong. What is "society", after all? The alternative is the kind of individualism in which ever man's hand is turned again every other. At its most basic it means meeting and dealing with people you don't know or hardly know, and perhaps exchanging a smile or a pleasantry. It reminds you that we are all interdependent; that even miserable old grouches have to be accommodated, because we're not allowed to shoot them; and that most of us want the same things from life, namely, comfort, security and the hope that we may leave the world a better place than we found it (even if we don't always succeed). It is also a potent reminder that children are our future. 

It's a simple enough game, a form of table football. White discs, cut from MDF coated with plastic laminate, slide on a "playing field" of the same material. There's a goal at each end. A hand-held wooden pad is used to launch the disks: you lift it off when you think the disc is going in the right direction at the right speed.

The last point, about children, was especially clear at Berthegon. Every year, there's a wonderful range of very low-tech toys, made mostly of wood, which are fun for adults to play with, never mind for children. The big difference is that the adults usually get bored quicker. One of the many delights of living in La France Profonde is that watching (and even photographing) children at play is not regarded as a suspect activity. Watch them for a few minutes, and you can almost remember what it was like to be a child yourself, when a game could absorb all your attention and the summer holidays (vacation) seemed as if they would go on forever.

The five parallel bars move in unison. Each has a groove along its length and a small trough at one end. The aim is to roll a ball along to the end of the top bar and then drop it into the trough at the end of the second bar: here, you can see the ball in mid air. Then you roll it to the end of the second bar, and drop it into the third, and so on, until you drop it in the small wooden bowl just under the last bar. It can be done, though the last drop, into the bowl, is the most difficult of all.

Watching children play is especially poignant for Frances, because as a little girl she grew up on an isolated farm. For a few bittersweet moments, they can be the playmates she so seldom had. The sheer joy of children playing together is immense, and when their elders see it, they can share it. French children are praeturnaturally well behaved by UK and US standards, but at play they are even more of a delight. No-one worries very much about them, because there's not much to worry about; and besides, often, there will be a grandmother or an aunt of an older sister or... well, almost anyone, really, to keep an eye on them. 

It's not often you see one of these parked in a field: it's more likely to be a rich man's toy than everyday transport. In the same field, the car park for the Taizé vide-grenier in August 2016, there was a new French-registered Bentley though in all fairness it's the only one I've ever seen at a vide-grenier.

All ages and conditions are there at the vide-greniers, rich and poor, from the impossibly aged in wheel-chairs to babes in arms. Teenage couples kiss and cuddle. Middle-aged and indeed elderly couples walk by hand in hand, and smile at the teenagers in love; and the teenagers smile back. This is how the universe is meant to be. It is common humanity. 

...and everyone's a critic.

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Words and pictures copyright (c) Roger Hicks 2016