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A Visit to the Paris Marché au Puces

A Visit to the Paris Marché au Puces

Like macarons in a box, we were smashed together on the crowded Paris Metro in scorching September heat. A couple of wide-eyed sisters from the Midwest, intoxicated by wanderlust and self-acclaimed Francophiles, venturing to France to harvest inspiration for our beloved brand. Never cowering from the opportunity to soak in a good long gander, we felt the eyes of the locals lathering us and couldn't help but laugh at the awkwardness. Would the Saint-Ouen stop ever come?

Named the Marché aux Puces in the 1800's because of the pesky parasites that plagued the belongings of the royals, trash was thrown over the "fortifs" and the rag-pickers on the other side of the wall were delighted to sort through the discarded treasures.  Gathering and squatting along the streets of Clignancourt, a village tucked between Saint-Ouen and the city of Paris, gypsy-spirited entrepreneurs with an eye for fine aesthetics, soon established permanent stalls.  Turn of the Century Paris saw an odd cocktail of bourgeois and beggars sweep the streets for Sunday morning strolls when it became fashionable to peruse the wares that had been resurrected from the scraps of the elite. Thus the Paris Flea Market was born!

An announcement of sultry French flooded the metro car and by the stir of our sweaty coach mates, it was obvious that we were getting close.  One woman looked at me and pointed to the scrolling words above the door, as if guessing that I had been grasping at the translation.  We had just enough French onboard to be dangerous and that was all we needed.  Fearlessly, we poured out of the steamy car, carried by the throng of bodies around us like salmon in a stream, and moved effortlessly with the current towards the "Puces".  

Besides the burning anticipation of a gambler about to try his luck at a Craps Table, we were swept away by the energy of this place that bubbled about us like a circus as we fought to keep up with the fury of fast-moving feet bustling along the sidewalk. Sounds of espresso being steamed, wafting scents of fresh pastries luring us into every doorway and the waxy pungent dew of fresh cut flower bouquets in buckets, filled our nostrils.  A few characters peddled knock-off bags and watches and snagged us as we passed like burrs on a woolen sweater.  Our "Americaness" betrayed us and rather than the somber dead-ahead looks of the other fish in our stream, we made eye-contact, smiled and pulled away leaving frivolous apologies that we would have to buy from them later.

After blocks of this barraging, the promised land finally opened before us.  Stacks of charming antiques with exceptional pedigrees, heaped upon each other as if to entice us into the dark shops, harbouring the real treasures on dusty glass shelves and towering bookcases. Boxes of dainty embroidered ribbons that were surely used to cinch the corset around Marie Antoinette's bosom and painterly palettes smudged with an array of dried oils that must have belonged to Monet or Renoir. Prisms caked with dusty age plucked from chandeliers that had been witness to countless soirees and loomed over passionate love affairs and scandalous liaisons. All heaped in crates and tucked under tables crowding the skinny cobblestone streets.  And all we had were our hands to carry all of these treasures.  Kansas was a harrowing metro ride and an ocean away.  It seemed almost cruel.  That was only the first booth and there were a million more to see.

I remember every face we met that day.  Beautiful faces of storytellers, patiently sifting through the language barrier to share the tales of these artifacts that had become their own.  Proud histories and tantalizing tidbits of the lives these things had lived. Ancient and not quite forgotten.  Quietly, they exuded their mystique while relying on their newly adopted rag-picker parents to tell their tale.  

A threadbare harlequin suit was held up that belonged in a museum and delicate busts of French beauties seemed to be holding their breath because they looked so real.  Faces from the past that had stolen the hearts of men and now, frozen in time and defying age, were immortalized in their perfection.  Soft rounded cheeks and straight noses that only the French seemed to master.  Madonnas and cherubs dripped from the highest shelves and hung from heavily timbered rafters, forcing us to duck beneath masterful carvings and furniture pieces that had been sentinels in the corners of bed chambers long ago.  These aged heirlooms had witnessed so much and I felt young in comparison to the breadth of their existence. Naive. Sheltered. New. To be in the presence of all of this ancient beauty was a humbling experience and much different than being in a museum.  It wasn't shiny under glass or displayed with care.  It was raw and it was real. 

Scents of old perfumes, nubby textures, doll head thread bobbins, detailed castings, intricate carvings, faux bois, velvets, airy silks, brittle laces, musty smells from abandoned chateaus and storybook cottages...somehow I remember it all.


That place is there right now. At this moment, there are dark corners filled with fascinating pieces of the past.  Looming and waiting to be discovered. It can be argued that we have plenty of antique stores right here at home and I love those as well, but the evocative mood of the Puces is charged. I know why the furniture came to life in Beauty and the Beast.  The French invested so much energy and passion into their creations, that they breathed a soul into them. The imagination doesn't have to work that hard to envision personalities in these pieces. A victim of an overactive imagination all my life, I project human qualities onto everything from an ant on my desk to a forgotten apple dropped on a grocery store aisle.  Perhaps it makes for the perfect storm. Those streets haunt me and the memories stir emotions that lure me back like a siren to tumultuous waters.  Like a strange addiction, it gnaws at me. 

I found impossibly cheap airfare to Paris two weeks ago and almost hit the BUY button but reality got in the way.  But until then, we have those beautiful memories to ease that ache until we once again, walk with the fleas.

This is a glimpse of the inspiration that we harvest from our travels. Sisters are the perfect traveling companions and I am blessed to have four.  An endless sea of exuberant chatter and manic excitement, we are not always a calming factor for those around us but we do relish in the adventure and embrace the newly found friends that we encounter around every turn.  Travel is good for the soul and an essential ingredient for Hopeless Romantic.