Gypsies, Fleas, and Trashpickers
Just beyond the northern city limits, a twenty-minute trip outside Paris takes you to Saint-Ouen. On a Saturday morning, you emerge from le metro confines into crowds hawking fake bags, watches, sneakers, and the fabulous flavor of illicit urban edge enterprise.
Keep your focus and don’t get sucked in by the smell of roasting corn, sly slight-of-hand games, or sassy street fashion.You’re on your way to a historic Paris market, expect 1stdibs rather than craigslist, with a downtown LA thin candy shell.
You’ll be fine. Marché aux Puces is more fancy, less flea, and definitely not free. Looking is. And a metro ride, a glass of wine, and people watching is for the masses. You happily wander through rows of booths arranged in tableau-like little antique dioramas, most seemingly in themes, that tell you a story or create a room-sized set. You’ll want to shrink them into miniature boxes to line up in rows on your top shelf. They are that cute. From stalls selling 1920s artist smocks and hats to an entire stall of French Bakelite jewelry. Buy it. I still mourn for my missed black-and-white striped bangle. Lacquered deco tables. Inlaid chests. Laden oils. Patterns. Colors. Pretty people with really pretty bags and really really pretty shoes.
One women’s treasure hunt started with the trash heap. The concept of the “flea market” is rooted in industrial Paris’ crocheteurs; sounds pretty, but it means pickers… of trash. Find it, sell it, buy a stale baguette. I much prefer the poetic euphemism pecheurs de la lune, or moonlight fishermen.
So away they fished, until Haussmann kicked them out. As in most cities throughout the mid- to late-19th century, planners built boulevard bulldozers to clear out the debris, dirt, and disease, pushing the pickers and the poor from the central slum to the fringes. And so, the displaced gathered outside the city, built ramshackle structures, and kept on selling. The
flea in the market may commemorate their flight or may simply refer to the bugs living in old upholstery.
In 1885, the chaos of the market was rationalized when supportive infrastructure was constructed and pickers, now legitimate traders, had to pay a fee to occupy their stalls. By 1914, the market had become a weekend destination, with continued growth. I came prepared for one market, but in fact, le marché is actually comprised of about two thousand shops divided amongst sixteen markets. Post-war, businessman had bought up pieces of land, forming the beginnings of the separate satellite markets; the first four: Vernaison, Malik, Biron, and Jules Vallès were established between 1920 and 1938. Marché aux Puces now is touted as maintaining the largest concentration of vintage furniture slash closest to heaven.
If you ever make it to Saint-Oeun, you must stop at La Chope des Puces. I went for a glass of wine, closing out the rosé season, but the couple next to me made a much better choice devouring a massive and beautiful piece of meat. This little bar is the spiritual home of “Manouche,” or gypsy-style jazz, and perhaps the most renowned venue for the music.
A lively combo of jazz and swing, with its musical scale based in Gypsy music, it is believed to have been created by Django Reinhart in pre-war 1930s Paris. Reinhart grew up in a caravan in the Parisian suburbs. He lost the use of two of his left fingers in a fire, creating out of necessity a new jazz style incorporating three-finger chord structures and slinky melodies. It was then handed down orally through generations of Manouche gypsies most of whom, Django included, could not read music. Just as they have been for decades, Manouchist legends were swinging on the afternoon I arrived. It seems fated that both the jazz of the gypsies and displaced vagrants would have found this little bit of leftover Paris.