A flea market (vide grenier) visit ranks up there as one of the things people most romanticize about France. Don’t believe the hype says JOHN VON SOTHEN, who’s had his share of an institution that has seen better days

God I hate “vide-greniers” (French flea markets). I really do. I know it’s not politically correct to say that, and I know flea markets hold a place dear in the hearts of many French. And I know it’s one of those traditional activities up there with grape harvesting or cider festivals (another column I plan to write don’t worry) or school fairs-usually horrible events we’re not allowed to criticize. But you know what? I don’t care anymore. I don’t remember yard sales ever standing up for John, so why should I feel any allegiance? And now that it seems the majority of France has done its own political vide-grenier -airing out its shitty laundry for the entire world to see by electing an FN majority in the recent European parliamentary elections, my hatred now turns towards the institution itself.

The realization I hate vide-greniers hit me the other day of course when I was walking away from a vide-grenier, hopefully for the last time. I won’t tell you where, because that’s not important, and because frankly, it could be anywhere. That’s the magic of vide-greniers. They suck everywhere. A Provence vide-grenier could be a Normandy vide-grenier could be a Marseilles vide-grenier. Because regardless of where you are, most of what you’ll find is similar, which only confirms in a brutal way how cheaply homogenized we’ve all become and how are lives are basically filled with crap.

A visit to a vide-grenier is kind of like a sugar high that wears off after ten minutes. You go in thinking you’ll find an old wooden rocking horse or an overlooked charcoal illustration or a mink shawl for 20 euros, only to realize you were a fool to even hope. Why? Because vide-greniers usually cover a time period of twenty years; which is great if you were back in the 70’s selecting something from the 60’s or 50’s. But today this means you’re looking at anything made between 1995 and now. And let me tell you quel heritage of objects come from this beautiful window of history: broken Xbox games, a pile of old H&M shirts, and plastic baby bathtubs filled with DVD collections. And there’s nothing like looking through a vide-grenier DVD collection in a plastic bathtub. There’s the Teletubbies Season 1 or horribly forgettable films with Will Smith on the cover, or hideous romantic comedies like How to Lose a guy in 10 days, or the worst, Happy Gilmore with Adam Sandler.

Afterward, it’s the piles of clothes. Yes, piles. One would think if you truly want to sell a clothing item you’d make the extra effort and hang it on a rack or fold it on a table in a presentable way. Because honestly, it’s hard to muster up the energy to pick through a pile of dirty clothes. Countless times, I’ve come across “stands” that look more like fire scenes in Paris where everything from the destroyed apartment has been tossed out onto the street.

Often when I’m in shopping centers like Carrefour or Centre LeClerc I find myself wondering, “Who buys these things?” Who buys bug zapper lights or Justin Timberlake bibs, or Cars – the movie slippers? Vide-grenier people do, that’s who. And the great thing about vide-greniers is that you get to finally meet these people in the flesh. What fascinates me most isn’t what they’re selling as much as why they’ve chosen to spend the entire day in the sun doing it. I can even picture the conversation a month ahead of time.

“Honey. What should we do for the weekend of Easter?”

“Oh, I have an idea. Let’s sell our underwear and old baby bottles.”

“But do you think they’ll sell?”

“Cherie, old underwear and baby bottles always sell.”

These are the same people who, when you pass their stand, actually smile and ask « Do you see anything you like? »

How do you respond?

« Yes, your bra looks great. Not the one you’re wearing of course. »

The vide grenier creates an inner conflict for me. On one side I realize a lot of people participate in vide-greniers because they need the money. Or they don’t want to just throw away stuff, or both, and I respect that. Yet, on the other hand, I can’t help but ask myself, why aren’t these clothes going to a church or to some organization instead of being sold to me, the asshole who should be doing his own vide-grenier? Are these people really making enough money to justify the day wasted in the sun? Couldn’t you just donate the stuff and get a sort of tax reduction and then head down to the pool?


Once I made an offer to a “merchant” – 5 euros for the small pile of clothes he was selling, and another 5 euros if he’d help me take it to the church, which was about 100 meters away. He took it poorly because my proposition made it clear I didn’t want the shit for myself personally. He probably thought I planned to throw it away, which I did, but in a good direction. Instead, he assured me that he had a better chance to make more that day, which of course he didn’t. And when I left hours later, his underwear was still there cooking in the heat.

I’m also amazed at how people are often lying down when they sell things in vide-greniers. I know there’s no rule against it, but if I went into a store, I’d find it strange if the vendor were just lying down as I came in. That’s why at vide greniers, I always have the impression I’m in a person’s house picking through their stuff while they watch TV. Yet at the same time, I understand. I want to lie down too. Vide-greniers do make one tired. They and museums are the two most underrated exhausting things in life.

There ARE vide-greniers and then there are apocalyptic vide-greniers, the ones near my neighborhood, where I spot people selling expired yogurt and opened toothpaste or used batteries or broken 2002 Nokia cell phones, and all I can think is that I’ve been teleported back to 1929 right before the Great Depression or somewhere in Bucharest in the 1970’s. I imagine myself watching a documentary on the “Crash of 2015” with the voice over saying « Although the crash came unexpectedly, there were clear signs, including a surplus of vide-greniers throughout France where people were selling used Adam Sandler films. And these things were commonplace every weekend from small villages to big cities.”

A lot of friends have told me, I just haven’t found the right vide-grenier, and if I knew how to “shop,” better, I wouldn’t hate vide-greniers as much; as if they know how to identify an authentic Power Rangers umbrella compared to the fake ones?

Sorry but I’m done. I’ve given up that dream of thinking I’m going to find the awesome 1920’s silverware set from an owner who has no idea what it’s worth. For that stuff, I’m resigned now to find that somewhere at the flea market in Clignacourt and pay the same insane amount of money I’d spend if I bought it from an antique seller on rue Richelieu or the same amount of money I’d spend to build a time machine to go back to 1970.

Summer is here, and I am excited. Just don’t expect to see me at the vide-grenier; the fireman’s ball, yes, fete du boudin sure, wine fair – certainly. But that old Lion King VHS tape of yours or that framed poster of dogs shooting pool, just like far right political views, are probably best kept locked up in the attic, out of sight, out of mind and definitely not at the vide–grenier.

Respect thy neighbor, please.

Vide-greniers: France airs its dirty laundry