Around and About in Paris: The Saint-Ouen Flea Market

There are certain places that lie on the other side of Paris, so unless there is a specific reason for me to go there, I tend to bypass them, even for a couple of years, and even if I like them very much. One such place is the main flea market, the Saint Ouen Marché aux Puces, which is also the largest in the world and covers a huge area on and beyond the northern boundary of Paris, exactly at the opposite side of the city from where I live. The last time I visited it was several years ago, when I was helping the BBC with a travel show. It was an exciting experience, especially as we also made it to the best antiques stalls, which are by no means a bargain, by the way: Don’t let the “fleas” mislead you. The goods at the Puces can be as expensive as, or even more expensive than what you might find in town. What nudged me to go this time was a combination of sunshine over ‘my’ Parc Montsouris – all flame and fire and a stunning backdrop to my computer screen – and an affiche on a gallery window on rue de Seine, advertising an exhibition of erotic photos of Parisian women between the 1870s and the 1960s. The girl in the photo was as pulpous, velvety and enticing as Kiki of Montparnasse in her younger days, and the Belle Epoque, which was emphasized on the poster, is certainly an exciting time to explore as far as eroticism goes, which I do in both Around and About Paris and Romantic Paris, because it combines lascivious decadence and Victorian hypocrisy (yes, in Paris too!) unabashed. When I got off the métro at Porte de Clignancourt I almost regretted having come, because the place was as packed as Coney Island. In view of the fact that a couple of my acquaintances have been pick pocketed in the last two weeks or so, I, judiciously, left behind all my credit cards but one, as well as my cash, and carried the bare minimum in a safe, secret pocket. I nonetheless kept my hand on my bag permanently, because even if you are not carrying your valuables, you still don’t want to have a stranger dip into your belongings. In passing, may I warn you to be just as wary within the precincts of the Louvre.  Pickpockets prowl all over the city these days, but obviously, you are even more vulnerable in a crowded place.  I followed the stream of fellow beings patiently, because it was too late to retreat in any case. Occasionally I had to elbow my way, or was elbowed in turn past the kind of cheap commodities that can be seen displayed or dangling in any corner of the world. If you have never visited the Flea Market, don’t feel disappointed, because this is not where you are headed. You are looking for the antiques and brocante markets (in the plural, as there are several of them), and they are located beyond the Boulevard Périphérique, which strictly speaking is no longer Paris. The exhibition itself was fine, but  when one  is privileged to have access to great art on a regular basis- Man Ray, Cartier Bresson, Kapa, Willian Klein, what have you- one becomes spoilt and not so easily astonished.  I liked it up to a point, some of the photos more than others, the 1960s the least, the 1920s the most, but then, I have a bias in favour of the 1920s which combined so gracefully enchanting style and joie de vivre. However, I don’t regret having gone because the market itself was a wonderful outing. I don’t know if business is good or slack, but I spotted very few American tourists, or others for that matter. Consequently, the atmosphere felt genuinely Parisian, because that’s what most people were!     The ‘Puces’ make me think of le Père Lachaise (with Toussaint coming up next week, such chain of thoughts is not untimely). Both are huge, and both sprawl on and on, and both are memorials to Paris past.  When you stroll through the tomb stones of  le Père Lachaise, you stumble on so many of its past residents; when you browse through the ‘Puces’, you stumble on any item under the sun that may have once been part of a Parisian household. It’s like a collective memory of,  the last hundred years plus of the history of Paris.  The furniture is the most conspicuous, voluminous part of the market, but there is all the rest, the knick-knacks, the array of buttons, the piles and piles of beads, the old dresses, furs and hats, the lace, the china, the silverware, the old books and the old prints and posters, the whole paraphernalia of old-fashioned toys and dolls… To each his or her taste, but it was the old wooden skis and sledges that make me feel sentimental, bringing to mind Hitchcock’s The Lady Vanishes and Robert Donat in Good-bye Mr Chips, because both films had memorable scenes in the Alps.   As for eating-places, there are plenty of them, but nothing much to write home about. However, if your flare guides you in the right direction, you will get an average okay meal at a very decent price and, hopefully, in a genuine Parisian atmosphere. This was certainly the case at Carrefour, at Marché Paul Bert, where I had a gignatic dish of moules marinière and a heap of pommes frites for  ¤ 10.  I was glad I didn’t stop at Louisette, which is too hyped and can be a tourist trap, especially because they have a live singer who gives the diners all the French oldies, a bit like in Montmartre.  As I walked past the restaurant, she was singing one of Piaf’s hits, quite well actually, but it sounded touristy, and the prices seemed on the expensive side, accordingly. There was no singer at Carrefour, just a wonderfully friendly staff, a warm family feel (lot’s of kissing between staff and clients), and a bizarre decoration of old underclothes and ties. What on earth for? There was background music every now and then, in an amateurish sort of way, including, at some point, my icon Georges Brassens, who was singing his famous l’Auvergnat. Nobody was listening to him systematically, but, typically, everyone was with him subconsciously, because every now and then someone would sing with him just one phrase, or hum another, then stop.  Truly…
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