I take a winter trip over towards Lisieux with my old friend Hope. We roll off the ferry at 6.30am, seeing a glimmer of dawn on the horizon. We stop for a coffee when the cafes open at 7.30 and look over the day’s itinerary.
I usually have with me a long list of antique dealers in each area. But many of these have closed and, on pulling up outside, only empty cobwebby windows are to be found. Or when asking a dealer about such and such a dealer nearby, they say, “no, he killed himself last Christmas”, or, “no, they have retired”, and so on.
Then again some dealers are just not right for me. We happen upon a brocante shop which isn’t due to open until the afternoon, but the faintly eccentric owner lets us in anyway. She has so many tales to recount of marital traumas that it is hard to focus on buying anything! Further on, Hope and I pulled up into the immaculate courtyard of a large farm – well cared for stone buildings on three sides and an imposing house on the fourth. Inside we found beautifully restored furniture, smelling of beeswax polish – mostly heavy chests of drawers and large cupboards – all with hefty prices attached. We depart empty handed and drive on into the fine, frosty morning, down long, straight roads, through quiet villages with clear views across valleys to forested slopes, to our first rendezvous.
Jean-Christophe greets us as we arrive. The shutter on the front of the property is jammed he says, so we will have to go round through his grandfather’s house. We encounter 84 year old Papi again, who shuffles, mutters, feigns indifference but then keenly recalls that two months before I had said I’d buy a pretty little table with cabriole legs on my next visit. “Way back when,” he tells us, “we had seven men working here. We lodged and fed them. My wife and I used to deliver as far as Belgium and Holland. ” Hope and I follow him through his enormous beamed sitting room with the tallest armoires I have ever come across, out to another set of barns. Rooves that had dripped, furniture and architectural salvage that had mouldered over the years. Stacks of every sort of furniture. Dismantled armoires, desks, chairs, buffets draped in cobwebs. I found a six legged farm table, a cupboard and some iron fire dogs and the bargaining was again hard. When we found Jean-Christophe again he asked, he has been nice to you, my grandfather? “Oui”, I said, “he has even given me a present!” “But this in unheard of!” bantered Jean-Christophe as I showed him a dog-eared, worm eaten book that was my gift. The pretty little table with cabriole legs was brought out. A price was marked in chalk on the top, but when I turned it over a much lower price could also be made out. It was a struggle to get a price agreed at all. I was exhausted already! There followed a memorable reversing to the farthest barn, down a long grass track, littered with farm equipment, cookers and bedsteads. Once all loaded, the deals all settled, farewells made, it was definitely time for lunch. Three kilometres down the road, we found a basic formica tabled establishment with a Patron of enormous girth. He was dead pan – not a smile, hardly a word – but our table was duly set with paper cloth, bread, mustard, carafe of wine, and a decent simple plat du jour was prepared.