Sunday, April 18, 2010

Provence Trip Part II

Y’all, if my landlady doesn’t think I’m crazy after this morning’s escapade, then she is just not paying attention.  I’m expecting the Swiss Mental Health Patrol with a straight jacket with my name embroidered on the pocket to show up any minute now.  I was just outside bleaching roof tiles.

Well, that sounds silly, you are thinking.  Silly, but necessary.  Let me explain.  Domestic Son and Ms. Fiancee are getting married in August, as you know.  As the mother of the groom, I have been doing my job and planning the rehearsal dinner.  For those of you not from the US, a rehearsal dinner is held the night before the wedding after the actual rehearsal.  Traditionally, the groom’s parents pick up the tab for the dinner, therefore, it is the groom’s Mom’s responsibility to plan and execute the party, get it?  A completely American concept, I know, but we are Americans and we need to rehearse things.  Blame it on Hollywood.

Anyway, the theme of the dinner, I decided, would be a typical 4 course menu that we might enjoy over here in France or Switzerland out on a terrace amongst the olive trees and the vineyards, drinking local wine and listening to the cow bells.  (I have not figured out yet how I am going to get some Swiss cows into my backyard in South Carolina, but I am working on it.  I may just have to tape the sound of the cow bells and play it in the background.)

So far, I’ve bought the appropriate flowery tablecloths in yellow, orange, purple and other bright colors.  I found the slate tiles for the cheese course and the little ceramic picks that one places in the cheese wedges so people know what they are eating.  I’ve been planning the menu and experimenting with recipes.  As far as flowers, a typical little cafĂ© or bistro table over here would have only a teeny, tiny arrangement in a teeny, tiny vase plunked in the middle of the table.  If I did that at the party, people would think I was being skimpy.

“Oh, poor dear.  Bless her heart.  She must have ran out of money by the time she got around to ordering the flowers.”  That sort of thing.  

But, I hate big arrangements that you can’t see around while you are eating.  Somebody always has to be the first one to take the bull by the horns and moved the damned thing off the table and onto the floor so they can see their dinner companions.  Then, a huge collective sigh is heard round the room and eighty-six other bulbous flower arrangements are immediately hoisted through the air and thrust out of the way.  Conversely, there is the tres trendy phenomenon of the Flower Tower.  This consists of a glass vase about as tall as an average 12-year old looming over the diners’ heads spilling forth trailing vines and whatnot down from above.  True, you are able to see through the glass and minor stemage to the other side of the table.  However, you then have to deal with the Rainforest Effect of foliage dangling over your head and catching on your tiara.  The flowers are just lurking up there like so many bats in a cave and one has to crane their neck skyward just to glimpse them.  I mean, why bother?  Save some money and buy dead flowers for these kinds of arrangements because no one is ever going to see the TOPS.  Ridiculous.  People, just because it is on TLC or HGTV does not make it good or right.

So, no looming and no bulbous.  All I really want is some sunflowers and some lavender.  Just wrap the stems together with raffia and lay them on the table.  So simple.  Too simple, really.  I can already hear it.  “What, we’re not good enough for a vase, even?  Is this how they do it in France?  They don’t even give you a vase?”  You get the picture.

But then, a brainstorm whilst driving through the Provencal countryside.  “STOP, MR. BIG!!!!”  Mr. Big, being the well-trained husbandal unit that he is, SLAMS on the brakes.  “LEFT, LEFT, turn LEFT RIGHT THERE!!!”

We screech into the parking lot of an architectural treasure lot.  You know what I’m talking about.  The kind of place that has stone fountains and stairways-to-nowhere lying around outside, with random old doors and marble planters strewn every which way.  Heaven, really.  Now, here is where “Provence” comes into the picture.  (You knew I’d get there eventually, didn’t you?) 

For the past two days, Mr. Big and I had been spectacularly spellbound by the terra cotta and ochre-colored roofs and buildings spilling down the hillsides of the ancient villages perches, or medieval “perched” villages in the area of the Luberon and the Drome in southern France. 

I had taken, probably, 200 pictures of just roofs and masonry over the last 48 hours.  (Don’t you know by now that I am a major weirdo?)  And, here we were, just driving by, a virtual MECCA of Provencal building blocks.

What if, I wonder out loud, instead of just laying the lavender and sunflowers on the tables, we cradle them in terra cotta roofing tiles along with a couple of baguettes?  “Trailing Spouse, I don’t know what the hell you are yammering on about but right now you need to get out of the car and attempt to speak French to this nice country-type person who is looking ominously in my window.”

That, my friends, is how I came to be bleaching roofing tiles in my little garden under the suspicious eye of my landlady.  I DID buy 20 ancient roofing tiles in Provence and they WERE covered with hundreds of years of spiders and dirt and one CANNOT serve baguettes off dirty tiles.  Even crazier, I am now about to weigh my 20 CLEAN tiles and find the 16 that are the lightest, wrap them in bubble wrap, and pack them in my suitcase.

“Excuse moi, madame.”

“Oui, monsieur?”

“What are those suspicious-looking items in your baggage that weigh approximately 1,015 pounds, sil vous plait?”

“Vases, of course, you cretin.”

Customs Officer looks sheepish and replies, “Mais oui, madame.  Bonne voyage.”

Oh, did I tell you that I am also on a hunt for authentic Laguiole cheese knives for the cheese course?  So far, I have found seven at a flea market in Buis-les-Barronies.  Only nine more to go.  I know my Small Son is reading this and thinking, “I am never getting married.  Because if that woman puts stuff about me on the internet like this I will croak of embarrassment.”

Wednesday, April 14, 2010

Mini-Trip to Provence

As I touched on last time, I was getting increasingly grumpy with Switzerland’s freezing excuse for spring, so I convinced Mr. Big to make a road trip into southern France to find some sunshine.  Well, we found no sun but we did find some of the most remarkable scenery and quaint villages that exist on the planet.

Folks, there’s a reason why Peter Mayle is now a millionaire author and, conversely, much-hated in Provence.  Yes, he moved there about ten years ago to the town of Menerbe and yes, he wrote many books about it.  HOW COULD YOU NOT?  It’s like paradise.  Really.  I have lived in California, which is also beautiful, but it does not have the unrelenting ambience that Provence has.  California does not have old French men in berets fishing from the sidewalk.  California does not have castles and houses round every curve that were built in the TENTH century.  Unfortunately, the effects of Mr. Mayle’s books have been an absolute inundation of tourists into the cities, towns and hamlets of the area known as Provence and it is no wonder that the locals are growing weary.  (They are, however, enjoying the fact that the value of their properties have increased tenfold.)

Our trip has at least three sub-genres that I can write about in this blog, so I am only going to touch on the first one today.  Namely, where we went, what was cool and what was crap.

First, the crap.  OK, here is the way I normally plan a trip.

“Mr. Big.”
 “Yes, Dear Trailing Spouse.”
“Let’s go somewhere.”
“Where would you like to go, O Love of My Life?”
“I’m thinking Provence.”
“What country is that in, Snookums?”
“It’s in France, Mr. Big.”
“Well off we go then.  Do we need plane tickets?”
“No, we can drive.”
“Well, alrighty then, do we need hotel reservations?”
“No, we are going to wing it.”
“Brilliant.  Do I have to bring anything besides blue jeans?”
“No, dude, you are good.”
“Will they have the internet in this place you are taking me to?”
“I will make every attempt to find you some internet wherever we stay.”
“Lovely.  Off we go then.”

That, my friends, is how you plan a vacation.  That is also why I can never, ever stay in a B&B, (or an auberge or gite or anything with less than 20 rooms.)  Bed and Breakfasts give Mr. Big the heebie-jeebies.  He does not want to have to run the risk of sitting and conversing with strangers.  Also, there is a 99% degree of probability that a B&B does not have the internet.

Hence, our days in Provence were filled with small villages and complete wonderment and the taking of over a thousand pictures, but our nights were spent in the cities.  Here is where the crappy part comes in.  Have you heard of Avignon?  Do not go there.  It was disgusting.  It was filthy, crowded and vile.  We stayed in the Mercure right off the Pope’s Palace and I watched two drunk, teenage girls pee on the side of the hotel thinking they were hidden by the potted olive trees.  Um, no, ladies.  You were in plain sight.

I know what you are thinking.  You are thinking I am spoiled because I live in the land of exceedingly polite, quiet and clean people.  I assure you, Avignon will make even a person from Newark, New Jersey turn up their nose.  Don’t waste your time or your money.

The next night, after a lovely day out in the countryside, we spent in Aix-en-Provence.  This is the hub town in Provence.  For those “in the know”, it is just pronounced “Ex”.  I would pronounce it “Ex-traordinarily Overpriced and Overrated”.  I’m sorry.  There are about 67 other towns in Europe that I can think of immediately off the top of my head that are nicer that this town.  Again, avoid at all costs.

Having said that, if you do find yourself in Aix against my good advice, do go to a fabulous restaurant there that we found simply called “White”.  It is tres trendy but the food was absolutely outstanding.  (Hint:  wear black.)

On to the good bits:

Gordes—undeniably fabulous in every way.  You will be spellbound.

Lacoste—as in “Izod”.  Medieval village perched on a hillside that Pierre Cardin has bought and is pissing off the locals in every way.  Fabulous.
Rousillon—you will not believe that it is a real, functioning village, it’s that cute.
L’isle-sur-la-Sorgue—where the men fish from the sidewalks and the antiques are EVERYWHERE.

Bonnieux—Mr. Big wants to buy the church on the top of the hill and renovate it into a house.  I’m like, Mr. Big, I’m pretty sure it’s owned by THE CHURCH, so that’s probably not going to happen.  (Ever since he found out flippin’ Pierre Cardin bought his own rundown castle in Lacoste, Mr. Big wants his own rundown castle).

And, a few other towns that no one appears to have “discovered” yet, so I am not going to tell you about them until I get my mas and then I will pass on the location!  I am a ruthless bitch, am I not?

Monday, April 12, 2010

Glossary for Going Antique Hunting in Europe

I apologize for not updating this blog in a timely manner.  I got extremely depressed over this continuing Swiss cold weather and Mr. Big and I departed on a road trip to the Provence region in the south of France to look for some sunshine.  Alas, it rained for the better part of our mini-Easter vaca, but the scenery was spectacular and we stumbled upon some great little villages.  More later.

Anyway, I was going to give you the skinny on flea markets here in my neck of the woods.  I must begin by providing a glossary, semi-organized by country and language, that will enable those of you who like to “go antiquing” to have a better understanding of the quality of merchandise that you might find should you venture across the Atlantic for some goodies.  I’ll start with the American definitions and use those as a baseline.


Antique Show:  High end gathering of professional dealers.  Beautiful things, but no bargains to be found.  Famous Antique Shows:  Miami Beach, NYC Pier, NYC Armory.  Here’s a hint.  If the title of the show includes the words “and Fine Art”, get out your checkbook.  If you usually go around antiquing in a pickup, your RV or towing a trailer, skip to the next definition, cuz you got no bi-ness steppin’ foot round these heah parts.

Antique Fair:  Fun, fabulous and fairly certain to find something in your price range.  Look for the big ones like Brimfield’s in Massachusetts with hundreds, if not thousands, of vendors.  Something there for everyone, from high-end dealers to Mrs. Jane Suburbia shopping for a chest for her foyer to Ellie Mae Clampett lookin’ to replace her rug beater.

Anything that ends with “And Collectables”:  Mostly down-market but this is where you might find a “hidden gem” for next to nothing.  My favorite kind, but labor intensive.

Flea Market:  Gross.  Knock off pocketbooks, sneakers and blue jeans.  Stay away.

Garage Sale, Neighborhood Garage Sale, Yard Sale:  On rare occasions, a person with an eagle eye can find a treasure at a garage sale.  These are held out in front of the residents’ homes and the customers start showing up even before the paperboy/girl.  Me, I don’t have the patience or the gas to do the “Garage Sale Circuit”.  (In America, I drive a Hummer.  I know.  I know.  I am the Anti-Christ.)


THE UK:  Every time I have been to the UK on an antique junket, it has been for my store, so keep that in mind.  In other words, I was only looking for things for resale, that I could buy for less than half of the price that I could sell it for back in the US after adding on the charges for container shipping.  So, having said that:

Antique Fairs and Antique Markets:  Have the same meaning.  Usually, flippin’ huge compared to the US antique fairs.  Filled to the brim with awesome stuff.  My friends and I who are dealers spend three or four DAYS at one of these fairs.  Go to Newmarket, Ardingly, or the website

 Car Boot Sale:  This is the equivalent of the US yard sale, except people gather their stuff together in one spot, (usually a random field!), spread it out on a blanket and sell it.  However, you have a good chance of finding some really great things.  Copper pots, wicker baskets, even some furniture.  Mr. Big once pounced on a golden swan faucet by Jado that he scooped up for 2 pounds sterling which we later sold for 200 American dollars.  Go, Mr. Big!


Here is where terminology starts to get tricky.  I’m going to start from the bottom because that is where I have run into the most pitfalls.

Vide Grenier:  Literally, this means attic sale.  It is pronounced “veed grah-nyeeaa”.  Just trying to say it is scary.  Well, the merchandise is scary as well.  If you like really down-market garage sales in the US, you will love these.  95% of the stuff is collectables, kids’ toys, clothes and plastic storage containers with no lids.  Ugh.

Brocante:  A step above.  I have found some great bargains at Brocante Faires.  There is a lot of junk, but you can find things.  For instance, piles of framed prints with the random original piece of art in the same pile.  Tons of stuff that the French think are routine but that Americans think are cool like wire egg baskets, vintage Le Crueset cookware, Provencal pottery bowls and urns,  old school kids’ maps and posters, etc.

Antiquite:  Pronounced “ahn-teek-ee-tay”.    This is usually only used outside an antiques store on the sign, not on the advertisements or posters for a fair or market.   If the fair is advertised as a “Faire des Antiquites”, it will be very high end with lots of Louis This and Louis That furniture.

Marche Aux Puces:  Pronounced “marsh-oh-puuusz” and that “r” should sound like you are coughing up a hairball.  (I know you are all trying it out loud right now and there are people in the other room saying “What the hell is she/he doing in there?”).  Literally translates to “Market of the Fleas”, but definitely not like flea markets in America.  Lots of good stuff here.  The biggest ones are in Paris at St. Ouen and in a town called Lille at the “Braderie” but they are found in all towns, mostly in the warmer months.  Just search on Google for the town/s or departement/s  you are visiting.

Word of warning:  If you see just the word Marche on a poster or a website, it means a fruit and veg market, not an antiques market.  

GERMANY:  Just like France except brocante equals brocki, antiquite equals antik and flea market equals flohmakt.


Ah, the Swiss.  I thought they would be very similar to France.  Non, non, non.  The Swiss are the packrats of the world.  Worse than your hoarding Aunt Edna.  Nothing is ever thrown away.  You thought Happy Meal toys and Beanie Babies were bad/tacky?  The Swiss would laugh at that.  That stuff is high dollar, baby!

At a brocante faire in Switzerland, you must wade through approximately 300 of the local residents who have just come outside their homes, laid out blankets on the cobblestones, perhaps brought out a folding table to display their really “good” stuff, and proceeded to think they are going to make a million dollars selling what you and I would call “trash” on any other sane day.  I mean, it’s trash, there’s no two ways about it.  Stuff that you would be totally embarrassed to put out at a yard sale, like a BROKEN glass bud vase that once came from a Teleflorist arrangement, (you know the vases I’m talking about, uh, the FREE ones?).  Hello.  5 franc.  Children’s skis from the 1990’s that have been BROKEN in half and wired together?  20 franc.  Suitcases with broken zippers?  How many do you want?

Total Packrats.  I blame it on the strict recycling laws.  These poor, sad folks could never figure out the correct day in which to dispose of these offensive items so they sell them as “brocante”.  The Swiss should stick to Christmas Markets where they excel.

I have found two exceptions to the rule regarding crappy Swiss brocante markets.  The one held in Geneva every Wednesday and Saturday morning is OK.  Not great and certainly not worth a special trip, but OK to visit if you are already downtown shopping.  There is one vendor there who sells Swiss Army surplus and you can get good deals on used military stuff.  We bought a Swiss Army blanket that was embroidered with the boy’s name and year on it which was kind of cool for only 35 franc.

Last month, I stumbled on an oil painting leaning up against a table leg.  It was a typical mountain scene, as the vast majority of Swiss paintings are, but this one caught my eye because it looked exactly like the view out one of the windows of my house. 

Lo and behold, when I flipped it over to the back, the artist had written his entire name and address and it was an address about five houses up the street from ours in Lausanne!  The painting is really old, so I’m sure the guy is long dead and there’s no way to meet him, but it’s still cool to think about whenever I pass his house.

The best Swiss antiques market that I have found is held once a year in Le Landeron.
There seems to be much more emphasis on eating and drinking and sitting out in the sunshine than actual buying, but I was still able to find a Murano glass chandelier for only 100 franc, which is less than we spent on lunch.

Enjoy the pix and if you are coming to Europe and want to go antiquing, let me know and I can tell you the best places to “hit”.