Saturday, December 18, 2010

The stale end of the day

This phrase from Greg’s sci-fi novel “the stale end of the day” sticks with me all the time. French bread is really only good for one day. You have a stale end, everyday.

(I am also not a night person, so the end of the day often does feel stale to me as well.)

And things here are fresh, used quickly and discarded when old. Everything is smaller: toilet paper, portions, refrigerators. They are always ready for change.

Yet waste is reviled. The pigeons thrive on this. They are part of the whole ecosystem. People reuse and recycle. Pigeons pick up the pieces.

It makes me think the USA has a proportion problem----maybe because it was largely settled by people who had big dreams, who were not satisfied elsewhere, so left?

And that brings to mind my morning in Paris at the Puces or the flea markets. These are amazing places that have created something from nothing.

According to the brochure I read, the “rag and bone men” were kicked out of the city proper (in like 1870) and so made their living at the margins. Every Sunday they would lay out their wares on the ground for sale. By 1920, there were more organized collections of market stalls at the gates around the city. The gypsies and their manouche jazz became associated with this flea market tradition. So where once there were outcasts, there was now music and food and things for sale. Crowds would gather.

And the markets kept evolving so that today at the center you can find a lovely mixture of pseudo established stalls/stores selling vintage clothing and antiques, second hand furniture and industrial signs, buttons and jewelry, books and prints, and pretty much any kind of bric-a-brac you can imagine. Prices in these well-established stalls seemed high to me, but it was like eye candy to look.

I loved how each stall had its own style and its own specialty. It was all sort of ad hoc and organic with winding alleys where it was easy to get disoriented and turned around. I had been warned not to carry much money as this was also a haven for pickpockets (another part of the ecosystem that thrives on crowds).

The stall keepers all know each other and have their own thriving community. At lunchtime, a neighbor or family member brings a hot lunch, and they lay it out on their antique tables and dine. They seemed incredibly gracious with customers and loved to gab and chat.

One common technique is to take something that would normally be discarded, an old key for example, collect lots of these together, organize them, display them in an interesting way, and then sell them for a couple of euros each. Trash to treasure, just like that. It was beautiful.

Then, around these now-established market stalls, there are other less permanent stalls selling wares from Africa and Asia and usually run by more recent immigrants, and then, on the edges of those stalls, are streets where men just put a blanket on the ground at their feet and sell whatever they can find to sell. It is the same old tradition.

On the fringes there were even the proverbial guys selling watches from the inside of their trench coats. Okay, so maybe not watches and maybe not a trench coat, but more like something they had just lifted from a store. It was seedy and fascinating and incredibly lively, especially on a Sunday morning when other shops are closed.

An aside: later in the day I went to the huge Galleries Lafayette department store in the center of Paris, thinking surely it, of all places, would be open. There were thousands of people there thronging around the building looking at the Christmas window displays, but it was closed. I have to wonder what kind of forces are at work to keep such a capitalist enterprise closed when thousands of people wanted a chance to get inside. Fascinating!

The rag and bone men don’t have that luxury. Their niche is at the edges before something becomes established. They fill in when the other shops are closed. They take what is discarded or underappreciated and turn it into art. Where some see a problem, they see an opportunity.

2 comments:

Mom said...

I think another reason we in the U.S. think big, is because we live in a geographically large country. We have lots of space. If we didn't live in huge houses with big closets, attics and garages, we wouldn't have a place to put lots of stuff and we wouldn't buy as much.

Lisa said...

Your Mom makes a really good point. More room = more stuff. We're trying to be more aware of this in our own lives, but I still love the gestalt of a good flea market.