Promoting French and American friendship and understanding…
…is another man’s treasure.
Le malheur des uns fait le bonheur des autres.
Many Americans probably imagine the typical French family living in a charming mountain village or a large old house surrounded by vineyards and full of sunshine. The reality is that, like in most industrialized nations, the majority of the population lives in apartments near a city center with limited storage space and difficult parking. To an American who is used to sprawling out in lots of space, your typical French apartment will literally feel like the size of a shoebox. On several occasions I have heard people raving because the apartment they just moved into included a huge 6-foot square “cave”1 (storage closet) in the building’s basement! What luxury!
Fortunately, this article isn’t about boring urban demographics or interior decorating, but rather to answer a fundamental question of our consumer society - what the heck do you do with all of your accumulated junk when you’ve run out of space? The American answer is to drag that old couch to the front lawn, throw open the garage door, plop down in a lawn chair and stick a “yard sale” sign in the ground. The French answer is to pay $20 and sign up weeks ahead of time for a reserved 10′X10′ spot in the parking lot where your local ”vide grenier” (which literally means “empty the attic”) usually takes place. During this special event, along with sometimes hundreds of other participants, you can now sell off all of your old books, games, toasters or whatever else you managed to dig out of your “cave” with the official sanction of the local French administration.
As usual in France, there is actually a law2 governing mass selling of used items. Officially, you’re only allowed to sign up for two ”vide greniers” per year. You must provide an official ID to the organizers and, if your regular job is as a retailer/store owner, you can’t participate. There are numerous ways around this law, the most obvious by registering your stand under the names of friends or family; semi-professionals, easily identified by their selling of specialty items such as antique matchbox cars or knife collections, do this all the time. And, of course, if you’re really hassled by the authorities there’s always e-Bay!
Taking part in a “vide grenier” is quite an experience. All participants are required to unload their cars and setup their stands usually between 6-8am. This means you pull out the back seats, pack your compact car to the brim ahead of time and then wake up around 5am hoping that the shocks have held out over the night. If you’re late, then the parking lot gate is shut without mercy. Slow unloading is also frowned upon. We had barely cut the motor to our mini station wagon when the car was completely surrounded by early birds. These people wake up at the crack of dawn to stake out good deals from participants while they are unloading. I literally had to beat back the crowd as they started ripping open the boxes to rifle through my old laundry. Clutching my wallet to my chest, I was surrounded by people offering me ridiculous prices for every manner of object. The problem is that you are tired, disoriented and completely trapped, so inevitably you end up giving things away just to get some space to finish unloading!
Once your stand has been setup, you can then settle down with a hot cup of coffee and wait for the general public to arrive. It’s also fun to take a quick browse around to pick up a few early deals (but remember the goal is not to leave with more than you came with!). Concerning etiquette, it is perfectly normal to negotiate prices and to visit the same stand a few different times to discover that hidden, overlooked jewel (like your old grandma’s porcelain butter dish).
As always, food is an important part of any event in France. Around noontime there is usually a thick cloud of greasy smoke as the local organizers start barbecuing merguez (spicy lamb or beef sausages) to make fresh, half-baguette sandwiches. My only advise is to get in line quickly because they usually run out fast! If it’s a fund raising type of “vide grenier”, there can also be many homemade quiches and cakes on offer as well. And a good glass of wine never hurts and will help the afternoon to go by quicker when there’s nothing but slim pickings left anyways.
Here are a few things not to forget:
Happy Bargain Hunting!
vide-greniers.org - A basic site that lists ”vide greniers” in different parts of France, Switzerland, Belgium and Canada.
Vide Greniers 06 - This site is horribly designed and full of annoying ads, but it has great details and maps of the “vide greniers” in the Riviera area.
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