The warm glow of a vide-maison

A couple of times every week we have to go out and search for vintage and antique French treasure for our Etsy shop. This could be classified as ‘work’, but if it is, it is without doubt the best job I have ever had. There are many sources for such items but there is one in particular (which today has proved) that makes this a dream job. Unlike the UK whose high streets are lit up by them, France doesn’t really go for charity shops, but we have a corker quite close by: the Hope charity shop on the outskirts of Confolens which is well worth a monthly deep trawl. Near to Hope there’s a cracking brocante and a wonderful Reclamation Yard which make the one-hour round-trip even more worthwhile. Our most regular jaunts are to vide-greniers, brocantes and marchés aux puces, which are all varieties on the same theme, namely indoor or outdoor flea markets.

Within 40km of our hometown we are becoming familiar with a growing number of these, some are obviously better than others and we visit as many as possible, the regularity dependent on distance and quality. Marchés aux puces (outdoor flea markets) offer the greatest temptation, and the buzz of excitement I feel when approaching the legendary and fortnightly ‘les puces de la cité’ in Limoges is without doubt a huge amount stronger than it really should be. Covid has wreaked havoc with the regularity of these markets, but French treasure is everywhere, from online ads to house clearances to the wonderful La Boîte à Grenier. The latter is a ‘permanent garage sale’, a sizeable shop housing people’s unwanted items, from kid’s clothes to rare antiques and everything in between. We’re lucky to have two close by, in Saint Junien and Aixe sur Vienne.

Today’s search for Etsy stock reaped not just a car boot full of treasure, it also proved how vide-maisons can be the most rewarding route in our search for curios and collectables. Vide-maison translates as ‘empty house’, it’s a house or garage sale and they’re always worth keeping an eye on with online sources to find them, or word of mouth works too. I’ve been to a dozen or so now, and they’ve varied massively from a total waste of time to an educational and emotional venture into a family’s history through their personal belongings. Many of these items have been in the family through generations, and as well as educational it can often feel emotional when understanding how much these antiques have played a part in family life.

Today’s vide-maison took us to a small rural hamlet the other side of Saint Junien, to the home of a lovely couple who are leaving a beautiful old house that has been in their family for four generations. The house was grand, though as they mentioned, now much too big for their needs. Much of the decoration was stunning though not in the best condition, and as soon as we ventured in and were greeted with a warm welcome we new it was going to be a positive experience, especially when just inside the front door was a wall filled with antique kitchenalia. The lovely couple were restaurant owners, and it was evident that some of the family’s historic kitchenware was proudly being displayed.

When selling on Etsy it not only makes it easier, but it also feels much more rewarding when you know exactly where your items have come from. To hear stories of their use, and in some cases today to understand exactly who used them, raises the level of satisfaction immensely when they’re sold and passed on to live a new life, with a new owner often on the other side of the world. We are still very much learning about many items we find, and today was no exception. We found out that what we thought was a maybe a type of stand or trivet was in fact a foot rest or ‘footman’, used by the couple’s grand-mother to warm her feet in front of the huge fire where it was placed. It brought a smile to my face when he mentioned that it would also work well as a book rest when reading. Clearly a salesman.

Vide-maisons are also a perfect place to improve our French and today showed that our French is indeed slowly improving. Almost all conversation was in French and it gave us a warm glow as we were leaving to have evidence of our improving language skills. What also gave us a warm glow was seeing the pretty pony whose home was a small field attached to the house. The pony looked as content as we felt. The fact that a few of the items we purchased today won’t make it as far as our Etsy shop, but will instead find a place in our own home is something we’ll just have to live with. C’est la vie.     

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