The vide grenier (“attic clearance sale”) season is with us again in Touraine, as it is throughout rural France, and will continue through to the end of October or even early November. Every weekend, two or three little villages will be holding one – generally a mix of jumble sale locals and semi-professional bric-à-brac dealers, with “buvette” beer tent, a cheap lunch of merguez with chips and piped music or a roving compere. Some are themed (“garlic festival”, “snail festival”, “roast suckling pig festival”) while others finish up with accordions and an evening bal musette. For the record, the « snail festival » is in Loché sur Indrois, and is named after an enormous metal sculpture of a snail in the public common where it is held – not a single real snail, with or without garlic butter, is in evidence, and striped T-shirts and basque berets are also conspicuous by their absence.
More often than not, a vide grenier is the annual village fête by another name. You can find out what’s on either from a tourist office leaflet that lists all the pre-planned ones, or from more up-to-date lists on the Internet.
If it’s clutter you’re after, you can either go in a serendipitous mood, or with a mental list of things you need for the home, excluding furniture, which is rarely of quality. In fact “vide grange” (“barn clearance sale”) would be a better description in this part of the world, and there are always lots of 19th-century agricultural or domestic implements, terracotta storage pots, old wooden wheelbarrows or cast iron fire equipment that nobody seems to want. In the past, I’ve bought up lots of heavy Victorian irons which make perfect doorstops, or old photographs – windows into departed worlds. Above all, the vide greniers are splendid places to meet people and stop for a chat. I remember long conversations with a veteran Foreign Legion parachutist selling off all his militaria and an old man, a widower, who asked me if I knew of any unattached elderly women in the locality that I could introduce him to.
Today it was Bournan, a dreamy little bourg not far from La Chapelle Blanche Saint Martin in unspoilt rolling countryside. We first met a young woman who had returned from five months travelling around South East Asia and now lived and slept in her van. She had caught the travel bug and was selling everything off to drum up enough cash to drive to Romania. We contributed to her expenses by buying BD albums (Tintin and Les Bidochon) and an antique wire-net “cloche” to protect fruit or cheese from flies. Next came an amateur radio enthusiast – wearing a baseball cap with a built-in electric fan – who was selling off half a dozen old valve radios, most in working condition, and he knew their stories off by heart – like the one his father listened to throughout the Second World War. Later we chatted with a gifted couturier and upholsterer who had worked in Germany and Paris and settled with his brother here in the village, with his little workshop, L’O Air Atelier, making eccentric decorative, upholstery and clothing items like 1950s Betty-Boop-style “perfect housewife” kitchen aprons, all frills and plunging neckline.
The fetchingly retro village café/bar/shop has that which interior designers the world would murder for in their failed attempts to achieve – simple functional authenticity, accrued like a patina over the years. At today’s vide grenier, they served us a perfect, unpretentious lunch – mixed crudités, entrecôte of beef with chips, a selection of cheeses, fruit salad, coffee and a bottle of rosé – all for 12 euros a head – while the village oompah band played outside.
The Touraine vide greniers are like something out of Jacques Tati’s Jour de Fête. All of human life is here – including, on this occasion, a bearded Muslim striding through the village in long grey djellaba, staring straight ahead and apparently oblivious to the festive atmosphere in this month of Ramadan. At the previous vide grenier we went to – in a tiny village of about 200 inhabitants – the locals glanced incredulously at three gendarmes, armed to the hilt, including one with an assault rifle and grenades, doing the rounds, from the kiddy trampoline to the wicker chair repairer. For verily, we live in parlous times…
Part of the poignancy of these village fêtes is that they are a sunny throwback to another time, but more and more they also feel like the last breath of a near-perfect way of life, fluttering on the brink of extinction.