Experts say that words make up a mere 7% of the way we communicate – the rest is body language, inflection and so forth. Relocate to a new country, and this ratio changes. There will come a time as you struggle to master the vocabulary of a new language, when your brain says, “Why am I doing this … I just can’t get it right.”
Imagine then, how I felt when I arrived at my neighbour’s, early one Saturday morning, to be greeted with a torrent not only of French, but a string of completely new words thrown into the mix. And just as I was thinking I had the French lingo nailed.
It was early, 7:30am. Oliver greeted me cheerfully, sitting at his kitchen table, amidst the remnants of his breakfast. His enthusiasm was contagious, but I was already regretting the exuberant agreement that I had made the night before over a few glasses of pastis. “Come with me tomorrow,” he’d cajoled. “You never know what we’ll find – it could be the market of the season.”
Now Oliver looked up at me and tapped his watch. “Venez-vite… come on.” I looked at his coffee machine longingly, trying to get my brain to function. He finished up his pain au chocolat by picking out the crumbs from the bristles on his unshaven chin and wiping his sticky fingers down the front of his chequered shirt.
“Today my friend, we are chineurs,” he announced. “There’s a vide-grenier and a brocante that I will take you to.”
It doesn’t take long to learn that there are two essentials for bargain seekers antiquing in Provence: to be able to get up early and to understand the patter.
The lingo of the antique-dealing world is a must. If you want to find something special and enjoy the full experience, it’s well worth learning some of the jargon to ensure you’ll end up with a treasure that you didn’t realise you desperately needed, until it’s sitting right in front of you.
First, a few basics. Chiner means to hunt for antiques and vide-greniers means “empty attics”, referring to the car boot sales that are a weekend institution in almost every Provençal town and village, generally starting around 5:30am.
The locals love emptying their attics, and special attics they must be. You’ll find anything from plates, glass goblets, pottery and postcards to the odd roof tile and if you are really lucky, a squirrel cage made from old wine casks.
The vide-greniers stallholders set up along the main street and remain there, normally till early afternoon and even if you are not in the market for a piece of bric-a-brac (odds and ends) or brocante (from the word brocanteur, someone who buys and then sells second-hand goods), it’s worth watching vendors and bargain hunters discuss – and dispute – the prices of those one-of-a-kind “finds”.
But don’t be misled. Brocanting is not a leisurely activity as the French have a deep regard for ordinary objects that have shaped their everyday lives.
Oliver is part of a network of dealers who comb the localities for hidden treasures, and today he’s looking for shabby-chic. He buys, restores and sells everything and anything from the 1920s to 1950s – but for him it’s essential to find pieces with a good provenance. Distressed furniture, rusty light-fittings, anything that has a story because knowing the history increases the value of the item.
No French person would dream of buying or selling a piece without knowing its origins. Provenance (from the French word provenir, “to come from”), means the chronology of ownership, custody or location of a historical object. The term was originally used in relation to art works but is now used in other fields, including archaeology, printed books, science and computing.
The primary purpose of tracing the provenance of an antique is to provide the context and some circumstantial evidence for its original production or discovery, by establishing, as far as practicable, its later history, especially the sequences of its ownership.
Today, rummaging under some old picture frames, Oliver comes across a small wall mirror. The patina – that thin greenish layer that forms naturally on some metals when exposed over time to air – is just what he has been looking for. He goes off to negotiate.
Many people equate patina with character. So, the greater the change in appearance, often as a result of a build-up of dirt, tarnish, polish, or chemical changes in the finish, the better. For many collectors, that “old look” gives the item a richer, more attractive appearance.
Israel Sack, a well-known New York antiques dealer from the early 20th century, once described the sheen to a senior female patron: “Today you are a lovely woman of 60. However, who you are today is not who you were when you were 20. The difference is patina.”
Perhaps the best-known destination to indulge one’s antique fancies is Isle-sur-la-Sorgue, the third largest brocante in Europe. It boasts more than 300 antique outlets and for many pilgrims who arrive here, the anticipation of the hunt for a new item is almost overwhelming, especially during the bi-annual Grand Déballage – the “Great Unpacking” – held four days around Easter and mid-August (see www.foire-islesurlasorgue.com).
We are ready to leave. Oliver returns with his mirror wrapped up in an old piece of newspaper. “Does the mirror have a good provenance?” I ask.
“Mais bien-sûr,” he replies. He scratches his chin, astounded that I might even think otherwise. “It is the very mirror that Grace Kelly used at the Nice studios, when she was there in the 1950s filming To Catch a Thief!”
Fancy dipping into the world of brocanting? Here are some tips.
1. If you want to buy, get there as early as you can. The best items will have gone by eleven o’clock.
2. Form a view of the trader. Are they telling you any old story? It helps if you’ve bought there before – even if it was something small. They’ll likely reward your loyalty with a better discount on price.
3. Don’t be in too much of a rush. Have an idea of budget or market value by having looked at similar items. Don’t spend more than you feel is reasonable.
4. Use the lingo. The trader will appreciate you much more if you can discuss the piece you are interested in. For many of them, their pieces are like children to them, and they would like to see them go to a good home.
Caren Trafford writes environmental books for kids – see www.planetkids.biz – and lives in Provence. She is happy to find architectural pieces of interest for you in Provence.