Charente Maritime

Charente Maritime

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The village brocante is a signal of winterʼs waning in the Charente Maritime. It is a festive affair. 

Only the French could turn cleaning out the attic into an opportunity to eat and drink before dawn outside in temperatures close to freezing. 

The first event is often the best. For us it is in the little town of Gemozac, south of Saintes where the flat winding streets are lined with sellers well before sunup.  

Vending is not limited o the 2,300 inhabitants. People who buy and sell old things for a living come too. 

They raise their tables, stack their boxes and spread out their mats. Buyers arrive even before the bottles of pastis, wine and knives for the sausage are set out. 

The chase entices. In France, it is called a chine from the verb, chiner, to look for. It also means tease. 

Tease is what itʼs all about. Hundreds come in hopes of finding that treasure. We hope itʼs antique. But, sometimes, finding the replacement part for the old coffeepot is even more fun. 

Brocante is second hand goods as distinguished from antiques and troc — real junk. 

Thereʼs a bit of all, not to mention the food. The crepe seller warms up early. Hers are thin and sugary as they should be. 

By sunup the streets throb with locals and visitors poking through boxes, examining linens and hoisting chairs. 

“Combien?” rings as a Sunday morning chant. No one pushes. No one grabs. This is a France. 

Thereʼs no way of telling where the next find will be. Eighteenth century candlesticks may sit on tables piled with junk and CDs. Long sought cookbooks may lie in boxes under French novels. Antiques dealers come to sell off some stock, make a find of their own and pass a pleasant morning sharing a bottle and a baguette. 

Everyone visits. There are handshakes and cheek kisses galore, some not easily accomplished. One morning I saw a man with arms wrapped around an overstuffed chair, perform the three bob kiss without shifting his weight.

Everyone chats: about the weather, about the day, about the purchases and last nightʼs meal, all the while scanning the goods and, perhaps, thinking of lunch. The latter is encouraged by the scent of chickens beginning to roast in front of a boucherie. One doesnʼt have to go far or even think French. There will be paella up at the corner and North African sausage grilling in one of the squares. 

Itʼs a family event. Children search the toy boxes, riffle through books and play. Grandparents roll babies in strollers proudly showing their progeny and sometimes tucking their own finds into its folds. 

A book fair draws buyers to the hall of the 12th century church of St. Pierre recognized for its Gothic spire in a region of Romanesque eglises. 

When the day turns sunny and warm, the colorful shutters of the creamy stone houses open and residents join in from their windows.

Vide grenier is another French category of seller — one who empties an attic. While one family member is at a table outside, another may be upstairs doing just that. 

Some objects never find another home and appear year after year, but nothing is too old, too broken, too ratty to be offered at a village brocante. There have been piles of enamel plates marked U.S. Army and never used; lamps so ugly they had possibilities and furniture only a talented upholsterer could love. Women pour over boxes of costume jewelry looking for a gem. Men stroke old tools. 

Paying is sometimes a problem. Few sellers ever have change. Neighbors are asked. She has none either. “Attendez,” commands the seller as he hastens away. One learns to be patient. Such matters take time. Eventually he returns counting out euros while still thinking in francs. 

We walk kilometers back and forth amongst the streets and the squares shifting purchases from one to the other, reciprocating greetings, surprised by how many we have come to know. By ten in the morning the antique pros disappear. Any real treasure is likely long gone. The pace slows; the crowd thickens. Real people now fill the streets: residents, visitors from neighboring towns. 

Parking is further afield. Accommodation is made. A cart is lent to the young couple carrying a table. A barrow is drafted to ferry the collection of old flower pots past the town florist arranging primavera outside his shop.  

The tone changes. The rush is over. Sellers break out the hampers and corkscrews. Spaces on tables are cleared. Baguettes appear. The party begins and goes on through the day.

This year, the Village Brocante at Gemozac is on Sunday, March 1.

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Jean and Peter Richards are long time antiques dealers in Maine who live part of each year in their little house in one of the less touristed areas of France — the Charente Maritime.

They met as young reporters covering President John Kennedy during his last trip to New England and later owned and published a group of newspapers in the Hudson River Valley of New York State.

They travel widely and independently when not antiquing in New England or searching for good things to eat in France.

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