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Treasure Hunting, French Flea Market Style

Today’s post is brought to you by our lovely retreat designer Sarah, whose day job is being flown around the globe in search of the prettiest things this world has to offer. From rare museum quality artifacts in a monastery in Tibet to old wine barrels from a Patagonian vineyard, if there’s something beautiful to be found, Sarah is ready to find it. 

Sarah is already curating all the tiny details that will make Moveable Feast: Provence a beautiful, fully immersive experience. Today, she shares with you her go-to tips for treasure hunting through French flea markets.

Sometimes you just need the thrill of the hunt.

There’s a very French feeling that often strikes as you’re strolling down the Rue de Whateveritis. The strong sense that you should be visiting a museum or doing something cultural… but what you really wanna do is go shopping. Luckily, there’s a way to scratch two itches with one bird (or whatever they say). Bienvenue to the dreamworld that is the Marché aux Puces (literally, the flea market) -where history, curiosity, and consumerism meet, and where chasing down treasures from yesteryear is just the adventure you were looking for.

So you’ve made the decision to ditch the history museum in favor of some good old fashioned retail therapy. Before you leave your pied-à-terre, we need to talk about your shopping ensemble. I’ll spare you the basics (you know, like, WEAR COMFORTABLE SHOES/pack layers/stay hydrated) so that we can get to the good stuff.  D’accord? As you get dressed, remember: real, live vintage shopping is not the Met Gala. It’s just not the place to break out your vintage Birkin Bag or your cool Kenzo sweatshirt.  I’ll come right out and say this- if you wear fancy things, you will be charged fancy prices. I’m not suggesting you go to the markets dressed like an extra from Oliver Twist, but be modest. It will assist with negotiations more than you realize. Et plus, most booths don’t have prices listed on anything. Your stack of gold bangles [or series of iPhone camera lenses] will likely give off the impression that you are willing to cough up some cash.

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Speaking of cash… do not forget it! Cash is, and always has been, king in vintage. This is particularly true the further you go from the city or if you are looking to buy small bits. Insider tip- split big bills in one pocket and small bills in the other. Pulling out a big wad of dolla billz (euro billz?) is not going to help you on the bargaining front.

If you are a serious vintage hunter, arrive early. Some people like to find treasures directly off the trucks while they are being unloaded. Arrive earlyish if you’re anyone else. This way you can shop for a couple hours, claim an 11am glass of cerdon as a mid-morning boost, and finish the day with time to spare.

Okay, you’ve arrived at the market and are ready for the chase. Your excitement is high, but always smile. Always greet the person whose booth you are entering. Do your best to squeeze out a few words in French.* Always be cordial. And always say goodbye before you leave.

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When you get to a booth, there’s a balance to be struck between impulsiveness and the art of waiting and watching. There is probably a quote from Zen and the Art of Archery that could be aptly inserted here.

Survey the wares, and consider it a game of hide and seek… Look under tables, behind the stall, open drawers. Even the chair the dealer is perched on while he eats lunch is probably fair game.  If you see multiple things that make your heart start pumping, put a grouping together and ask for one price for the lot. It’s always going to be better than pointing and asking “combien?” 6 times. I suppose it goes without saying, the more you buy, the lower the price goes. This is no time to be shy. If you only want one or two things, decide on your own values in your head… Then find out the starting price.

If you already have plans to buy something specific before you even get to the airport, be prepared. Know thy dimensions! You don’t want to be meet the antique dining table of your dreams only to discover it doesn’t fit into your studio when you return home. I’m crying for you at that point… and I might politely suggest it’s time for a new dining room.

But my most important tip for vintage shopping in a French flea market? Soak all it all in. You’re in freaking France! And you’re shopping! And even if you can’t lug home an oversized 4 poster bed with handcarved wooden details, perhaps you can nab the set of pillow cases to remind yourself of this little voyage each time you rest your head at night.

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*Parlez-vous Marché aux Puces? How’s your flea market vocab?

Here are our must-know phrases:

Marché aux Puces: A puce is a flea. Why are they called flea markets? Back in the day, many a flea-infested mattress and furniture piece was bought and sold at this lovely Parisian treasure trove.

Vous voulez combien?: A slightly more advanced way to ask how much something is. Literally, “how much do you want for this?”

Ca date de quand?: How old is this thing?

C’est votre meilleur prix?: Is that your best price? Don’t be afraid to negotiate. Honestly, they’ll like you more if you do.

Okay, je le prends!: I’ll take it!

Aidez-moi! Je suis coincé sous cette tapis antique Marocain: Help! I’m trapped underneath this antique Moroccan rug!

Fun fact: souvenir en français isn’t just an object, but also a memory, or as a verb – to remember. Perhaps the perfect souvenir (vintage or otherwise) is waiting for you in Provence… what better time to fetch it than during Moveable Feast in October? There are only a handful of spots left, and just like the perfect antique chair, it’d be a shame to let them get snatched up, right out from under your nose! Save your spot here— and let’s get to hunting!

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