Alysa Salzberg

Alysa Salzberg
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Paris, France
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December 31
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Writer, copy editor, translator, travel planner. Head servant to my cat.
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A reader, a writer, a fingernail biter, a cat person, a traveller, a cookie inhaler, an immigrant, a dreamer. …And now, self-employed! If you like my blog and if you're looking for sparkling writing, painstaking proofreading, nimble French-English translation, or personalized travel planning, feel free to check out www.alysasalzberg.com.

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FEBRUARY 14, 2011 10:16AM

The Marché aux Puces de St. Ouen: A walk in the Underworld

Rate: 19 Flag
8 
 

Located just north of Paris – so close, in fact, that you may not realize you’ve left the city – is the Marché aux Puces de Saint-Ouen.  Exit the crowded, rowdy Porte de Clignancourt Metro station and cross the ugly Boulevard Périphérique, and you’ll find yourself in a surprising place.

In English, “marché aux puces” means “flea market” – but St. Ouen is unlike any flea market I’ve ever seen.  An outdoor conglomeration of small stalls, shopping halls, cafes, and narrow corridors, this mazelike area, the largest antiques market in Europe, is navigable, yet impossible to know.  Within its twisting covered alleyways you’ll find human warmth and merriment, juxtaposed with ghosts.

Even if you're not looking to buy antiques,  there’s always something to see. The place is bustling with energy, especially that of the sellers themselves.  Antiques dealers are a special breed here in France; they generally seem to sincerely love history and the objects they’re selling, yet they have no snobbiness about it.  You’ll often come across a group of them chatting and laughing together.  Some of them you’ll find eating lunch on a makeshift table in their small shop. They are almost always accompanied by one or more small dogs.  The vendors sell just about everything, from primitive weapons, to retro ‘60’s lamps – sometimes in the same shop. 

Despite the energy and visual stimulus, there’s another side to Saint Ouen.  The Marché aux Puces is only open on weekends and, for some stands, Monday’s, which usually means a good amount of visitors. But sometimes this isn’t the case, and you wander through lonely narrow spaces, all the objects that furnish our lives silently standing testament around you.

The first time I visited, I left feeling like I’d been to the Underworld.  Old clothes once worn daily by everyday people of centuries past, hang on wracks and now and then stir in the wind.  Nineteenth century children’s baptismal robes float in the air of one of the shops. 

A few weekends ago, we went up to Saint-Ouen.  We love going, but hadn’t been there in a while.  The day was dreary and very cold, and though we arrived a few hours before the market’s usual 6pm closing time, very few of the stands and stalls remained open.  Antiquarians make their own hours. 

Still, a bright, unexpected surprise awaited us.  Here are some pictures from that day.

 
 
1
A typical stall where you can buy a wide range of different objects.  I promise I only saw the “No Photo” sign after I took this picture…. 
 
 
 
2
If you need a keychain or two, this is the place for you!  Most of these date from the mid-to late 20th century. 
 
 
3
A lot of stands and stalls are set up to look like elegant interiors.  One day, when I win the lottery and buy a chateau, I’ll have a room that looks like this. 
 
 
4
A sign tells us to keep dogs on a leash…and helpfully illustrates why.
  
 
5 
Some have long since shuffled off this mortal coil, and left their nightshirts behind. 
 
 
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A cluttered storefront. 
 
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“We buy everything, everything” 
 
 
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Looking for an airplane propeller?  St. Ouen’s antiques dealers have got you covered! 
 
 
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A statue looks down Juilet-like from a balcony.  Will she ever find her Romeo? 
 
 
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“Please do not touch” 
 
 
 
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The contrast of St-Ouen: the charming antiques market, founded in 1885, is bordered by modern-day constructions.  Here, the sign of a well-known clock parts shop, and the  drab contemporary building a few blocks behind it.
  
 
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As we were walking along the grey corridors, the bright yellow of this little box caught my eye.  I picked it up to have a closer look, and found something pretty special: the old tin used to contain tire repair patches.  The artwork and lettering made me think immediately of the early 20th century, when bicycles were becoming popular and cars had started to appear. I was utterly charmed by this testament of everyday life in a time of major changes in how people got around, and had to have it.  Luckily, regardless of their beauty or interesting history, many small objects like this don’t cost a lot.  Even if you have just a few euros to spend, you can still come here and find a treasure.  For 10 euros, the box was mine. 

When I got home, I did a little online research and found that the company, Velox, still exists today.   Besides that, I found little else that allowed me to precisely date the box. The company was founded in 1902, and forums, ebay, and other sites have more or less helped me confirm that the box could date from that year, until around the 1920’s.  I’m still trying to find out more information.

I keep my Velox box on my dresser, where its lively color illumines the grey winter days. Each time I catch sight of it, I find myself transported to a time when bicycle and car travel were new -- the marvelous era of the Belle-Epoque.   
 
 
 
 

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I loved this and wish I was there.. I predict a cover piece for you..:)
HAPPY VALENTINES DAY AND RATED WITH HUGS :)
Alysa, that's a wonderful photo essay! I could stay at a place like that for a whole day trying to look in every corner at every piece. Looks like a gold mine for many potential Antiques Roadshow types of pieces are located there!
I love old stuff. I'd go nuts in a place like that, especially the keychain shop, I've got around 200 myself. :)
The Clignancourt Metro station was my stop when I lived there a few summers ago, the summer they filmed the Mesrines movies. They shot Mesrines death scene on the Rue de Clignancourt intersection by the metro stairs, and I got to see Vincent Casell fake die about twenty times :-)

Oh yes. You were talking about the Marches aux Puces, what an amazing place. I almost bought the coolest leather jacket I've ever seen– but it was too big. Your little Velox box is a treasure!
beautiful, felt like I was right there walking along with you.
Ooh, I want one of those hats!

I love these posts, Alysa, where we get to see parts of Paris and its environs that we tourists never see. If I had gone there when we were in Paris, my wife would have maxed out the credit card and I would have been subsisting on bread and cheese until the flight home.
A Great Flea Market, Grand Bazaar, in St. Ouen, Paris, France.
Linda – I’m so glad you liked this! I’ve been meaning to post it for a while but then I thought I’d wait till I knew more about the Velox box…unfortunately, no news on that yet…. Happy Valentine’s Day to you, too!!!!

designanator – You’re right – it’s all too easy to spend a day here. And there are legends of treasures being uncovered here. You never know – it’s endless, the stalls, all that they’re full of…it’s an incredible place.

ocular – I’m glad I posted this, if only to learn a very interesting fact about you! : - )

greenhorn – How cool is that! I love Vincent Cassel and am super-jealous! As for the jacket, I’m sorry it didn’t fit :- (

bbd – I’m glad you enjoyed it. I hope you’ll get to come see St. Ouen for yourself one day.

Cranky – You would look very cool in one of those hats! As for the money situation, at least Paris has really good bread and cheese….
Okay, just as well I and especially my younger daughter aren't getting to Paris this spring after all.

Great post!
How delightful, Alysa. A French flea market is a place I will never see unless you show me. Thank you.
Cool pictures! Merci beaucoup!
Best Wishes,
Blittie
I love walking through flea markets in foreign cities. Yours reminds me of the one in Amsterdam, but it's nothing like the Grand Bazaar in Istanbul. (See it when you get a chance) I've got my eye on that "castle" Bundt pan ever since Paul Hinrichs sent me a link to the cake he baked today. Thank you, Alysa - what a delightful armchair you provided for me on a snowy day.
Bisoux ♥
Ms. Stim & I loved wandering St. Ouen. We stumbled onto a shop that sold old advertising posters. We bought a couple vintage posters. We'd never be able to find that shop again if we tried. The market is magnificent.
Amazing, and I can imagine Linda drooling right now over those treasures. What I don't understand is why the one shop didn't want its picture taken? Fencing stolen goods maybe? Neat.
Time travelling, is what it seems like to me.
They say it's not possible,
because of the speed of light or something...

but the Light from the Past still reaches you on your forays
into the Underworld,
and the Light from yr little box
confirms
the invisible everpresent tangible continutiy
of
Time
makes your day more beautiful
I only got to spend one day there, and it was a cold and blustery November day, but it was absolutely enchanting. Thanks for bringing back wonderful memories!
beautiful piece, alysa. i'm afraid "achetons tout" would be my motto if i were there. [sigh] there's not enough euros for me on a shopping trip in paris. thanks for the walk!
Ahh Mademoiselle, what a treat to be taken into this trove of old goodies. If only a thing could tell tales. I loved this line,
"Some have long since shuffled off this mortal coil, and left their nightshirts behind."
Thanks for this taste, I've always wanted to explore this market. Someday I will.
I always enjoy your Parisian jaunts.
Myriad – I’m so sad that the trip is off!!! But I guess at least my post gave you a reason to be glad…. Hopefully you’ll get back here again soon, though.

maryway – I’m so glad you enjoyed it. I do hope though that you’ll prove yourself wrong and come and see St. Ouen for yourself one day, if you want to.

Blittie – De rien. Ca fait plaisir de te voir.

Fusun – I’m glad you enjoyed this and I hope you get your cake mold. I’ve wanted to go to Istanbul and Amsterdam for years, and keep hoping for the stars to align to make that happen. Thanks to you, when and if I get to these cities, I’ll know to check out their flea markets. Bisous a toi aussi.

Stim – So well put. It really is very difficult to re-trace your steps at St. Ouen – even my boyfriend, who’s been going there for years, has a lot of trouble. I’m glad you guys got the posters when you saw them, and didn’t tell yourselves you’d come back and get them later – they would have been lost!

Matt – You have put a whole new dimension on the “No photo” sign! I love your theory!

James – So, so true. Thank you for saying and seeing it in your lovely way.

Jeanette – I’m glad you got to experience St. Ouen for yourself!

femme – Merci! The good thing is, you really can find treasures here for very little money…plus, if you’re visiting, you have the luggage weight limits to consider, so I think you’d get through St. Ouen without any major financial ruin. It’s worth a try, right?

bluestocking – Thanks! I’m so glad you enjoyed this. All I can think of when I see those nightshirts, are ghosts. It’s different with other clothes, but a nightshirt is so personal.

kate – Glad you enjoyed this. My boyfriend and I often go to the Marche St. Pierre, the fabric shop area in and near Montmartre, too. That’s where my boyfriend gets more or less all the fabrics and fixings he uses to make his Napoloenic battle reenactment clothes!

Ablonde – I love your attitude. I really believe that anyone who wants to come here and see this, can. You just have to believe. I hope that when you get to St. Ouen, you’ll find it waaay better than my photos. It’s hard to do such a place justice.

Harry’s –Thanks so much! Your comment means a lot to me because it comes from a master of photo and video reportage!
Wonderful! You are my favorite travel writer bar none, even though you are not traveling. However, it is imperative that you continue to post. I am fickle when my needs are left unmet.
A dreary underworld sounds like a wonderfully dismal evening. I shall have to tell Gomez to take me there soon.
Brassawe - I could say exactly the same thing about you! Except for my being fickle...when my needs are not met I just blame myself and end up crying... Your way is better.

Morticia - You absolutely should!
great, it brought back memories, some things have changed since 68 and 71/ 72
i enjoy very much your writing and wittiness
Simone - Thank you so much - and I am so jealous you saw St. Ouen and Paris in such a legendary time!