All the stuff you never knew you needed to know about life in rural France.....and all the stuff the books and magazines won't tell you.

Tuesday, 12 June 2012

Shopping in the back of beyond....

Rural FranceRural France (Photo credit: Woolythebear)
Moving from rural France to within striking distance of San Jose in Costa Rica I have rediscovered the pleasure of looking in shop windows and occasionally entering in search of clothes or handbags.
Were I a shoe fanatic, I should be well catered for...I have never seen so many shoe shops to the block in all my life...all displaying shoes with heels higher than the Shard and just about as glittery.

Rural France was never like this.

For clothes shopping there were the supermarkets, there were cheap clothing outlets like 'Vet'affaires' - with the odd Brit roaming the aisles of sweatshirts looking anxiously for the Frontline - and there were the boutiques, offering vastly expensive underwear guaranteed to give rise to a fatal chill if worn in the rural French bedroom or neat little suits for the wives of notaires in colours judged compatible with the obligatory red hair dye used in the local hairdresser's salon.

I had been used to shopping in London...quickly whittled down to Waitrose, John Lewis and Monsoon...or in a provincial city where there were second hand book shops, charity shops and firms making affordable hand made shoes, apart from wine merchants, delicatessen and good butchers so the shopping desert that was rural France came as quite a surprise.

It's not something you notice as a tourist, using restaurants or buying your picnic supplies.....
It's not something you notice as a holidaymaker in your gite, decompressing in a deckchair with a glass of wine to hand...
But you sure as hell notice it when you live there.

Luckily clothes were not my first priority. I needed furniture.
I wanted to buy a bed and found a furniture store in the local town.
The furniture store.
Fair enough, it specialised in foam sofas covered in psychedelic patterns, formica kitchen tables with spindly metal chairs and plastic seat pads...but it did have beds.
Not exactly Design Centre stuff, but beds.
At reasonable prices.

Except when I came to buy one I discovered that the price covered only the bed frame itself.
The mattress? Extra.
The headboard? Extra.
The guessed it...extra.

There had to be other solutions.

I tried the small ads...and as a rule of thumb I reckon that once you learn to read the small adds in a foreign language you are on the path to fluency in understanding, if not in speaking.

Overwhelmed by the antiques on offer - Henri III bedroom set....Lous XV bed and night tables...Louis Philippe wardrobe - it was as well that Mr. Untel took a hand before I set off to purchase any of these items.

He regarded the ads solemnly and then  said

You do know it's all plywood and veneers, don't you?

But they didn't have plywood in the time of Henri III....

And these weren't made in the time of Henri III....they're copies, the lot of them...come from factories....and they won't be cheap either. Why do you think there're no prices?

He introduced me to the depot vente, where people put their stuff up for sale and the owner took a percentage.
The answer to prayer.
You could see everything in one place without traveling miles to be faced with a piece of expensive junk and...a miracle for France...the prices were clearly marked.
It was an Ali Baba's cave....

This was a period when people were 'modernising'.
Moving from their stone houses to the breezeblock bungalows sprouting like unlovely growths on the edge of the villages.
Getting rid of the furniture they had inherited, turning out the accumulations of generations - and buying formica kitchen tables with spindly metal chairs with plastic seat pads.

The depot ventes were full to bursting point with farm tables, benches, sideboards, wardrobes and everything from racks of  hand blown bottles to ornaments and hand tools.
A rummager's dream.

I bought a bateau style bed, rather like the one in the photograph.
You will note that it is just a carcasse....but at least the head and foot came with it! I then discovered that old French beds are not of the same dimensions as modern French mattresses...but that's another tale.

I was tempted by the farmhouse tables, but they were all too narrow to lay out central serving dishes and two rows of places....after all, when they were in use the women would be serving from pots at the hearth...none of your chi chi tureens and vegetable dishes in those households!

There were the plain depot vente establishments and the ones a bit more upmarket, who were picky and tended - even in that period - to be collecting stuff to sell to regular dealers from England and America, but if your taste didn't coincide with that of the dealers there were some nice things to be had, especially lamps and chandeliers.

Emmaus - the foundation set up by Abbe Pierre to help the homeless help themselves - had depots too, though here the goods had been donated and were often from some rather grand houses.
I used to haunt the local ones for things like the floor to ceiling curtains I needed and picked up some beauties..not to speak of the linen and cotton embroidered sheets that people were disposing of because they were a nuisance to dry.

Over the years, Emmaus too went the way of the dealers until it was rare to find anything but junk, but I'd had the good years and was well stocked!

Needless to say, the eye was caught by non essential, what am I talking about, non essential...
No French household is complete without its corkscrew...
Or its wine glasses.....

What would I have done without the guidance of Mr. Untel!

The various depot vente outlets were a continual pleasure, and made it possible to set up home if not on a shoestring, then at least on a ribbon and with some attempt at style.

Clothes would be a different matter.....
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  1. Ooooh....Troc de l'isle, Emmaus....No week is complete without a visit. I've bought lots of bits and "projects" from there over the years. Currently, I'm buying old magazines for various projects and ideas, only I often can't bring myself to cut them up! And, since Mr O'Leary condemns me to an almost luggageless trip, I've discovered the joy of popping down to Emmaus and buying some (actually very nice, good quality and serviceable) spare clothes for the KILO!! I got 3 sweaters and a thick shirt for under €7!!

    1. The local Emmaus did the kilo thing too but our area seemed to specialise in synthetic fabrics which I can't wear!
      As for Mr. O'Leary, I gather things have changed from the days when one would board his planes in coats furnished with poacher's pockets filled to overflowing....

    2. There's a fairly large synthetic fabric content in ours, too...but skilful rummaging can unearth some gems. And, like you, I've seen some beautiful table linens. My best buy was a half-destroyed but huge ornate gilded mirror, which I took casts from and re-cast the missing plasterwork, and re-gilded the lot. €10!

    3. Attagirl!
      It's amazing what you can find...and so much more fun restoring something like that than paying a fortune for junk in an arty farty interior decoration shop...

  2. This is brilliant... I am only just discovering all that you describe here about shopping in rural France. This is a really great piece of writing Fly, you have had me in pleats of laughter. In my attempt to avoid Ikea I have become so aware of the local furniture store's monstrous furniture and monstrous prices. I am just so pleased that the lovely Mdme Marquier, who sold us the house, also sold us some lovely furniture, as she downsized to her modern apartment. Great stuff, and I cant wait to read about the clothes expreiences.J.

    1. Oh the horrors of the furniture stores!
      I was always grateful for the training at jumble sales which enabled one, by sharp work with the elbows, to surge through the door at Emmaus at opening time borne on a wave of Arab immigrants and head for the furniture area. I bagged a few good items that way.

  3. It's still better than Ikea in my opinion.

    1. Whisper it not in Gath but I have never visited an Ikea store....

  4. Very difficult to do that now. Everyone's an expert and even junk is over-priced.

    I'm always amazed at the prices people charge in flea markets. Gone are the days when you can pick up something for a song. They even as for a euro for broken toys from MacDo that they got for free.

    1. How true!
      Vide greniers used to be just they seem to be a rip off, while Emmaus just sells the good stuff straight to dealers.

  5. Oh, the lure of the 'depot vente'....we are sure that we should be lost for hours on end in one. And, you certainly seem to have snapped up some wonderful items. The chandelier in particular is really pretty, definitely more chic than shabby!

    In Hungary, everyone is still in the process of 'modernisation' after the 'change of regime' as the move from Communism is referred. So, at present, there are wonders to be had from skips, pavements or second hand stores the length and breadth of the land. In England, they would be architectural antiques, but here they are just old stuff which needs to make way for the shiny and the new.

    But, absolutely as you say, clothes are a different matter........oh for Hobbs!

    1. I used to think there was a market for depot vente tourism...with a large van for all the finds....
      I wish now that I had snapped up more of the goods on offer during the 'modernisation'.
      Have you considered hiring a building to store your finds?

  6. Ah Emmaus, yes loads of junk but somtimes, just sometimes, there's still a small gem to be found. However, we're still looking for that all important reading chair for N's study.... one day.
    As for clothes...well thank god for LLBean and online shopping!!

    1. You just have to keep looking, but I think it's a lot more difficult than when I was first prowling their aisles...

  7. I so agree. 'Stuff' whether clothes or furniture is very difficult and expensive. We took some carless friends to buy a mattress at the local Literie and although it wasn't cheap they leant us their van for free for an hour to take it back home!

  8. I like them too, but I have to admit I don't buy a lot there...

    1. Mooching through the goods on offer is fun in itself though...

  9. Great post...and charming photos!

    1. Thank you...I wish I were better with illustrations....

  10. I wonder when the "good years" were in France? Later than here, I suspect. In England I think the years of picking up bargains must have been the sixties and seventies. Now there are so many TV programmes about antiques that people have gone to the opposite extreme and believe that any old thing is worth a fortune, so long as it is fraying and tarnished.

    We furnished our living room with 1970s units about 5 years ago just before they started becoming fashionable.

    Loved the photos you posted and look forward to hearing what you have bought in Costa Rica.

    1. I was still finding stuff at U.K. country auctions in the eighties...but it was getting to be few and far between.

      I always regretted not living in the sort of areas where each new owner had a skip installed for removing everything from the house they had just bought.

      I thought Costa Rica must be a no go area for finds....but have just discovered an ecclesiastical recovery place...two streets from my house in San Jose.
      I'll do something about that house and area soon on the CR blog.

  11. Don't talk to me about French beds and mattresses, Fly! I've never seen such poor and expensive mattresses in my life.

    On the other hand our local depot vente has been a treasure house, especially for the bigger furniture we luckily have room for. OK, we didn't get things for pennies by the time we were buying 5 years ago, but they were still vastly cheaper than we could have found in the UK. Things like a huge, carved armoire and a vast buffet with shelves and drawers and cupboards and a drop-down desk. So much storage and all very French. :-)

    1. Yes, it struck me that only in the depot ventes would you find the sort of furniture you thought of as 'French'!

  12. Oh I would have loved rummaging in amongst all that old discarded furniture! New furniture shops here are pretty awful too. Bright garish colours and patterns requiring sunglasses to be worn at all times.

    In a couple of areas where we have lived in the past we did manage to find secondhand shops and occasionally something that really took my fancy, which would be dirt cheap because it had been replaced by bright sofas or formica tables (yes here too).

    Sadly there don't seem to be many of these shops about these days and the ones you find are now stocking rusty fridges and washing machines, along with used "modern furniture" a delapidated state of course because they weren't built to last like the old stuff.

    1. Plenty of shops like that in Costa Rica too - and stuff in the same condition.

  13. Until you mentioned the lack of furniture stores in France I had not noticed that it was the case. Now that you have pointed it out I do not recall seeing any. I have noticed that I have found myself drawn to the wares outside second hand/antique shops but have not bought anything as there is the small matter of fitting it/them into the car with the wine which has to take priority.

    1. Oh yes...priorities...!
      There are some upmarket shops in the cities, but the prices make your eyes water and their idea of style generally isn't mine.
      Out in the sticks though...

  14. Hello Fly, I don't know what we would do without the depot vente. On my last visit to Pau town centre I noticed three new depot vents specialising in clothes which seems to be the latest thing...well in this part of France anyway. Our local Emmaus is pretty junky but I pop in on the off chance, I have acquired a few gems from there in the past, I went to the Emmaus in Aix-en-Provence last week, I know it's a much wealthier area but my God...the difference! Fortunately I went by train but next time I am taking the pick up!

    1. You are so Emmaus in a wealthy area is worth taking a van!
      My area was not of that description!

      I keep wondering about shipping a container of depot vente items to Costa Rica.....

  15. There are Emmaus centres in Germany; I gave most of my parents stuff to them and took only a very few items for myself.

    Headboards, etc. also come 'extra' in the UK, although you do get the mattress. But that is usually because the divan bed IS the mattress plus its base ,' the under carriage'.

    As for Waitrose, Monsoon, and John Lewis; which town did you have in mind? Shrewsbury would fit the bill for the other tradespeople you mention, but sadly, we still lack a large Waitrose and John Lewis.

    1. A bed was a bed in my day....though at Heals the mattress was extra.

      Waitrose, John Lewis and Monsoon were on my London shopping round - fairly accessible from work - and I was pleased to see on my last trip that John Lewis were as good as ever.

      Their branch in my mother's town was super too. Their staff took endless trouble in helping her outfit herself after the ops which made her more mobile - not just in suggesting and fetching clothes, but in making a 96 year old woman feel good about herself.

  16. Love it!! been there and done it. I am now offered paint to create, from old French (or English) furniture (repro?) the typical French farmhouse look, so exactly what is that I ask. So much tat is available for those not in the know, and yes, I do know what your mean about shoe shops in San Jose - and nary a one did fit - maybe I am Cinderella after all!

  17. Oh yes...another variant on 'buy this glavanised wine bottle carrier for a sum to make your eyes water and put it in your kitchen to show people who clued up you are about French country decor'....make you spit.

    Ah, but she got to the ball, though....