There is a wedding invitation waiting for me back at home. The daughter of a friend who I’d known in Paris in my twenties. Alice was just a little girl when I last saw her, and I cannot miss the chance to celebrate her marriage, and to see Colombe again. A ferry ticket is booked for Le Havre. And one August evening I set off on my own, Graham waving goodbye from our front door.
Bigger ferry, bigger port, lots of freight. Moe feels small and a little disquieted – or is it me? But, next morning, with a new Sat Nav I drive into the heart of Rouen and south of the Seine for a weekly Thursday market beneath a large concrete multi-storey car park. I take Moe up the snail’s shell ramp, gently scrape her roof as we go over a bump, and then take the concrete stairs down (the sort where one holds one’s breath) to emerge into the market.
A moment of magic – stepping into this other world – of people offering the things I resonate with, rather like going through a mysterious portal into a parallel “pop up” world of antiques and brocante. This is a quiet, local quarter of Rouen with one permananet magasin de Brocante, a large fruit stall, a cafe with a pretty awning and the Proprietrice who calls out greetings to passing clientele with their shopping baskets.
First of all I buy a large pine trunk. The stall holder has been sitting on it, reading his paper. “I just sold the arm chair I was sitting in,” he explained, and when I return to pick up the trunk he then found a blue plastic crate on which to sit. I come across another vendor who has spread a large sheet on the concrete floor and daintily arranged her objects. Her selling style was extremely animated. After I had bought a set of enamel kitchen containers (getting harder to find, and more expensive with it), a large pitcher and a bottle carrier, she took me by the arm over to her small white van and clambered in through the back doors over boxes and plastic bags. She produced item after item, rummaging – did I want one of these? What about a set of those? We did a little more business and she told me a little of her story, one increasingly common, that she’d had her own shop for thirty five years, but now she she just did the markets. Once I’d done my final trawl of the stalls and carried trunk, linen sheets, an enamel “Maternity Clinic” sign and more up the stinking car park staircase, she caught my arm again as I passed and called out to a neighbouring stallholder. “Voila la dame qui aime les torchons, tu as toujours ton porte torchons?” I was escorted to Elizabeth’s stall for a further transaction – a prettily turned wood towel rail for my tea-towels.