My clients often ask me, where do you find all your stock?
Whilst I'm frequently to be found rootling around in a dusty attic. or poking into dark corners of a cobwebby barn, my main source of treasure is the vide grenier, literally translated as 'empty attic', a sort of yard sale or car boot sale on an epic scale. It often involves a whole town barricading the streets for the day or weekend, and private sellers & dealers alike stand shoulder to shoulder behind trestle tables loaded with piles of unwanted and unloved items.
Most of these events take place from late Spring to Autumn, and during the peak of the season I can often plan a route to take in three or four in a day, although if the first on the list is a good one it can commandeer both the time and the budget!
These fairs are a real community get-together, they often give some proceeds to a local charity, neighbours share duty on the stalls and lunch will be served in the street, taken as seriously as usual with a two hour timeslot, napkins and wine despite the haphazard location.
There's a certain etiquette to buying at these events, it's customary to greet the vendor with a bonjour, as is the case at all encounters in shops and in the streets here in France. This bonhomie takes a little getting used to for visitors from more reserved cultures like England!
In most cases, items will not be priced, and you can ask 'combien?' (pronounced Com bee anne) or 'quelle prix' (Kell Pree) but please, always add s'il vous plait (sill voo play) on the end of your sentence, so you are asking 'how much please'. If the price is a little high for you, you can ask if they would accept a bit less, a 'petit prix' (petty pree) but don't be surprised if they decline, just thank them, a simple 'non merci' is sufficient, and walk on. Items which are only a few euros are well priced and you shouldn't really expect to haggle too much. More expensive items might be rounded down - from 55 to 50 euros, for example, but don't try to brow beat the vendor as he or she is trying to earn a little cash and it isn't the done thing. And ALWAYS pay by cash, or 'en especes', make a note of your purchases if you need to make customs declarations etc, but it's not normal to be given a receipt.
For pieces of china or glass, often the vendor will offer 'journal' or 'papier' to wrap, and a 'petit sac' or bag to carry it away. It's helpful if you go prepared though, with a couple of large supermarket carriers and a bit of newspaper or bubble wrap.
As you leave a stall, say goodbye, in French, merci et bon journee.
The better vide greniers are often quite large, spread out in streets or fields, so comfortable footwear, weather-appropriate clothing and a bottle of water are essential parts of my kit. Often several trips back to the car or van are needed, to offload purchases throughout the day. A sausisse sandwich or chichis (long snakes of deep fried dough like doughnuts, freshly made in front of you and tossed in sugar) are grabbed along the way. If you are vegetarian, you'll usually need to cater for yourself, as the French are not yet accustomed to servicing dietary restrictions.
Above all, it's the thrill of the hunt that makes these events so enticing. Finding a little gem among boxes of broken china, a beautiful antique textile in a pile of old clothes, that perfect light fitting for your home.. it's a rare day that some treasure is not uncovered although there may be many stalls with baby clothes and toys to bypass before you encounter that more interesting pitch. Serious treasure-hunters might start the day in the dark, rooting around by torchlight as the vendors unpack their wares, but my preferred time of day is just after lunch, when the stallholders are contemplating having to pack up the unbought items and might be more willing to negotiate on prices!
When you next visit France during summer, be sure to look out for the posters on the outskirts of towns and villages advertising their vide greniers and brocantes, or check out the website brocabrac.fr where you can put in the town or department you're located in to see what's on. It's a phenomenon not to be missed!