It was a dismal morning, not yet light. The parking areas of the Parc des Expositions were full of muddy ruts. Vans were all over the place, backing up, wheels spinning. There were shouts and waving torches. No one could see much through rainy windows. Having reversed out of the scrum I found a spot to park on hard-standing, and with gloves, hat and boots on I made my way to an opening in the wire fencing.
A few dark figures straggled around the site from dealer’s van to dealer’s van. Trailers stood with their loads of furniture strapped firmly down. Nothing would be unpacked until 8am. Most took shelter in one of the brightly lit hangers. The Buvette down one wall was, predictably, busy. Cold, damp dealers queued two and three deep for a small plastic cup of coffee. The woman who served me managed a smile, for which I was grateful. Behind her, piles of baguettes and Camembert cheeses were stacked ready for the lunchtime rush.
When it was light, across the grey, puddled show ground, the silhouette of the cathedral appeared on the horizon. A pair of round 19th century bronze finials from a stall in some grand stables felt smooth and substantial beneath my hand. I bought them. A mushroom-grey painted buffet; oil paintings of orchards, diginified notaries and country scenes; a large bag of lace making threads, shelves and garden chairs were encountered in turn and became mine for a while. A large box containing a broken chandelier with most of its pampilles lying in the bottom caught my eye. A project for a summer’s afternoon perhaps. Even lying sculpturally on a coffee table it would be beautiful.
Rain started again. I noted down my purchases with damp, chilled fingers and was glad of my thick boots.
A drenched white sheet was spread on the ground and on it stood twelve wine glasses. I emptied out the rain to look more closely at them, running a hand around the rims. They were perfect. The dealer found soggy pieces of crumpled newspaper in the back of his van and each glass was attentively wrapped, then placed into two used supermarket bags.
Martine and Francis were there – I’d not seen them for a few months. They had not fully unpacked their van in view of the weather but had laid out a set of large metal letters that spelled Boulangerie. Francis told me they came from a baker’s in Loches that had sold its last baguette more than twenty years before.
Towards the end of the fair as I was making trips back and forth packing up my van I saw six caned dining chairs from Alsace in a worn, whitish grey paint. They were just about to be loaded back into the dealer’s van. I had somehow missed them during the fair, and so had everyone else. A price was agreed and the dealer said, “you see there are better deals to be made at the end of the fair rather than at 8am!”
On the edge of the market a middle-aged couple were also packing up. Monsieur stood in the back of his van giving decisive instructions to a younger man. “Non! Pas ca, prends celui la d’abord, je te dis.” They came from Nimes and had strong faces with bright eyes, and tangy Provencal accents. I bought some grey painted Provencal shutters from them. A large 1920’s painted wooden sign from a Credit Agricole was propped up against the fence. Out came the tape measure – yes, it would just fit in my van. I managed to totter to the van with two and a half metres of sign under my arm. When I returned with my trolley for the shutters, Madame, bundled in her thick woolly coat, had had enough. “J’ai froid! Je vais me mettre au camion!” It had been a long day and it was only lunchtime.
The sea of white vans had all but dispersed. Amongst the puddles, and crows and magpies picking over the rubbish, a sodden armchair stood abandoned. Partly draped with a burgundy blanket it looked rather fin du monde. It was in a poor state but had a nice shape and nice legs. An Italian dealer took a photo. He had no room for it in his van, so I heaved it up and put it in Sylvie. Before I left I went back to the Buvette in the now empty and littered hall, and asked if it was possible to still get a coffee? “Yes, yes, and no charge.”