For the next three days I stayed in the ochre-painted, blue shuttered farmhouse of a delightful couple, Yvette and Alain-Pierre. Behind its tall hedges Le Mas de la Cigale Bleue sat in the middle of vineyards and orchards, Gushing irrigation ditches ran alongside surrounding narrow lanes.
My first visit to the major Deballage at Beziers, a two hour drive away, was the following morning. Yvette would not hear of me leaving without breakfast, so at 5.30am the three of us sat down to coffee and home made croissants just out of the oven. Way beyond the call of duty!
Provence had been weaving itself into my senses since I was eleven. I’d spent a summer in Beziers on a French exchange, age 12. Marie-Pierre and I hadn’t hit it off but the rest of her family were kind. I remember dinners out in the dry, aromatic Mediterranean garden, the platters of roast stuffed tomatoes, and first tasting olives. One night we went to see “Carmen” in the Roman arena, followed by a Mise a Mort, a bullfight to the death. I had a little crush on Marie-Pierre’s cousin, Bernard, with soft brown eyes. At 18 he seemed exquisitely mature. He showed me how to eat lobster in its shell. Before I left, Marie-Pierre’s parents gave me a record of Alphonse Daudet’s “Les Lettres de mon Moulin.” read by the Provencal actor Fernandel. Listening, understanding barely anything, I remember being caught by the rich roll and cadence of the Provencal accent. Eight years later I would be spending a year in Arles, very near Fontvielle and Daudet’s windmill.
Sometimes things go awry. After a haul along the autoroute towards the Pyrenees on the horizon, I came off at the wrong exit, got lost, and found myself driving along badly surfaced lanes that ran along the Canal du Midi – picturesque beneath ancient plane trees, but not where I wanted to be. When I eventually arrived at the Beziers exhibition park the roads were lined with vehicles way into the distance. My level of frustration at what I was missing was great. But as I walked through the entrance gate at last I bumped straight into a well known London dealer I greatly admire – and then into Paul, my transporter. He showed me where the truck was parked, alongside many other transporters from across Europe.
The format of the fair was standard – high quality pieces in the hangars and a mass of outside stalls with stock of all kinds. I relaxed and got into “buying focus”– but with time to banter and smile. The day was hot and bright. A van had come from Spain loaded with nets of oranges. Stalls were preparing paella in vast steaming pans. Dealers were tanned and dark haired. They came from Toulouse, Valence, Girona and La Spezia – the South! A smoky-voiced Italian dealer had stunning chandeliers for sale, and vivid blue Murano glass wall sconces. Another dealer was selling pieces of 18th century carved gilded wood. All sumptuous. Prices were high, ridiculously so in some cases. Some dealers would negotiate, others would not.
A couple of dealers from one of the Paris markets had brought a van load to sell here. We amicably haggled and prices were agreed for wooden candle stands, 19th century bound journals and a fauteuil that was just about holding itself together. From the stand next to them I bought large turned finials and an ancient Provencal watering can. A pair of “girandolles”, dripping in crystal pieces were added to my list of purchases. In one of the hangars I talked to a local dealer with a magnificent four door cupboard, in a wonderful grey paint, with chicken wire panels, tall and more than two metres wide. This was the sort of thing I had been hoping to find – and that would never have fitted into Sylvie. (It only just fitted through the door at Station Mill when it arrived a few days later).
A woman with a warm smile and Provencal accent who I’d bought from at Le Mans a few years before was there with a huge array of linens, ancient coats, shirts, lace and trimmings. She was being harangued by customers all wanting to know best prices of this and that, trying on rumpled jerkins, standing with armfuls of fabrics. She handled them all with grace and came over at last to tot up my pile of beautifully embroidered linen napkins and thick linen tea towels.
A large and heavy section of grey and white painted oak paneling held an oval foxed mirror. It had to come back with me. By early afternoon, as things began to wind up, I gave Paul the list of everything I’d bought. What luxury to have someone to collect and load my purchases, no unloading and reloading van, no squeezing, heaving or stretching – just plenty of space to fill.