The regular “Puces” flea market on the coast was in full swing at 6am the next morning. It had moved location and was now beneath tamarisk trees alongside the railway line, where long loads of metal shipping containers rolled past.
Groups of men gathered over fishing tackle, rifles and plumbing parts. There is nothing grand about this market and most items are simply spread on the ground, although two or three displays usually have something beautifully worn and faded. A marriage chest covered with 19th century block print wallpaper and a powder blue coffee pot were spotted. Bundles of 18th century books, galvanised tubs and soup tureens are always the staples of flea markets – no less lovely for being dusty or well used. A few wooden crates by the entrance gate displayed bunches of pink garlic for sale – impossible to pass by without buying a carrier bag full.
In the afternoon I went to Agde in search of antiques dealer I had looked up in the yellow pages. An ancient Greek town on the Herault river, it felt oppressive, with many shops shut up. This was not a chic St Remy de Provence. But by the river restaurants were set up on floating platforms. Two women sat out on kitchen chairs in a narrow street, plump arms folded over tight cardigans: “Mais oui,” one exclaimed to the other, “je disais l’autre fois Loulou…!” Timeless snippets of everyday life.
Further outside the old town I walked down a residential street, gardens hidden behind cream rendered concrete walls, looking for number 63, thinking that this was an unlikely spot for a shop. I rang the bell by the metal gate. An old black dog, his back legs failing him, did his best to be ferocious through the bars but quickly gave up and flopped down in the shade. I rang the dealer who said this was his home address and his shop was actually in Pezenas! I retraced my steps to the car and drove to the beach for a consolatory glass of rosé.
Next morning the roads around the Beziers exhibition park were predictably crammed willy nilly with vans from across Europe. At 8h the gathered crowd surged through the entrance of the déballage. The frenzy began. American buyers quickly stuck their shipper’s labels on pieces as they were unloaded. I overheard a brief contretemps, “Don’t go crazy on me and keep texting me “where are you?” I am not going to reply! I just need to keep buying!” I understood this need to keep focused. Buyers dashed from one lorry to the next as everything was unpacked.
I was working with a different shipper on this trip and appreciated his cheerful and positive attitude. While I covered the fair’s outside stalls and hangars as quickly as I could, Barry gathered up dockets, collected purchases and got them organised and loaded. Anyone who has done the fairs entirely single handed will know what a luxury that represents!
Towards the end of the morning the pace predictably slowed down. Dealers sat in any shade they could find. A bare chested man stood pouring a bottle of water over the back of his neck. The next two fairs followed in the same fashion. There was the usual parade of shippers with large trolleys ferrying mirrors, furniture, bath tubs, shop mannequins, tinkling chandeliers back to their trucks.
Chihuahuas on leads or in their own little prams. Announcements over the tannoy in French, English and Italian: be vigilant, there are pickpockets on site. Familiar faces and greetings. Negotiations and hand shakes.
I chatted with a dealer about the restoration work he carried out. He said sagely in his strong Provencal accent, “Vous savez, on ne compte pas les heures de travail quand c’est une passion.” One doesn’t count the hours of work when it’s a passion.
I came across a stall at Montpellier covered with fragments of ormolu, gilded plaster orbs and the broken remains of statues. “I cleared out a restorer’s workshop,” explained Monsieur as I picked up a plaster hand from the pile. It was missing a bit of finger. “Ah attendez,”he said turning to his colleague, “Jerome, tu n’as pas vu un bout de doigt quelque part?” The end of the finger was found and reunited.
The back of Barry’s van was looking pretty full. 18th century dining chairs sat on top of buffets and tables. Shutters, well packed boxes of Sarreguemines dinner ware and blanket-wrapped mirrors all had their place. A stack of galvanised tubs, garden chairs and candelabra were added, and lastly a large portrait of a gentle faced young woman.
With my mind still immersed in beautiful antiques, encounters and the colours, light and sounds of intense Mediterranean landscapes, it was time to return to the UK – and unload.