Amuse-Bouche: Fleas and friperies. The world is full of objets encombrants.

The world is full of objets encombrants (nickname: “les monstres”).

Lydie and I love to chiner — to go bargain hunting for brocante (“collectibles”, i.e. bric-a-brac).La chine doesn’t come from la Chine (China, same pronunciation) but from échine (spine), because rag and junk men used to carry their wares on their backs. We too wear backpacks as we haunt les marchés aux puces (quite literally “flea markets”), braderies (street sales, also known as réderies in northern France) as well as dépôts-vente and trocs (troc means barter, but both are actually consignment shops). For fringues(clothing), we search the friperies (secondhand clothing stores) known in classier terms as “les décrochez-moi-ça”, literally “unhook that for me”. Vintage (pronounced van-TAZH)—whether it was actually made 30 years ago or just looks that way—istrès tendance (very trendy).

When we were students, we used to faire les poubelles (go through garbage cans), also known as faire de la récup (fromrécupération, reusing or recycling still useable objects) —a perfectly respectable activity among les écolos (the ecologically correct). This was the routine: On days when les éboueurs (trash haulers) were scheduled to pick up objets encombrants(nickname: “les monstres”) like dead refrigerators, obsolete dot-matrix printers and armoires with broken mirrors, people would put out their junk. But before the garbage trucks passed, other people, like Lydie and me, would faire la chasse aux trésors (go treasure hunting). I acquired ratty rattan trunks, old ceramic pickle jars and once, a 1910 Thonet bentwood chair that was only slightly branlante (rickety). Just like the one in the Centre Pompidou.

Collecting is a mixed blessing. That 1930s inlaid wooden headboard abandoned in my courtyard looked great after it was hosed off, given a coat of furniture wax and attached to my double bed. But the next morning I woke up with huge red bites! Apparently les punaises—bedbugs (also the word for “thumbtacks”, equally unpleasant in one’s bed)—can live in wood for years. Lydie, who can fix anything, helped me paint the wood with Xylophène (a French insecticide). Worked great.

Chineurs often develop a chronic problem: no storage space. As usual, Lydie has the answer: “There’s going to be a neighborhood vide-greniers (an invariable noun, ending in s — literally “emptying of attics”, a yard sale). Let’s rent a table!” I collect unused dishes, dented kitchen utensils and historic electronics; wash outgrown clothes and ancient linens. Cleaning out our long-abandoned cave (basement), I come across a ridiculously ugly 1870s silver-plated coffeepot. Impec ! (short forimpeccable, slang for “perfect!”)—ma pièce de résistance.

On the big day, armed with plastic bags, spare change and a thermos of coffee, we haul broken lustres (candelabra), wilted quilts and mismatched china to the vide-greniers. We invent prices for everything. My silver-plated horror costs the most—150 euros. Customers come early because les premiers arrivés sont les premiers servis (first come, first served). Already, an eager quidam (unidentified individual) is inspecting the underside of my coffeepot with a flashlight.

Lui: Je vous offre 100 euros.
Moi: 135.
Lui: 125.
 This is fun!

Lydie guards the table while I go to the petit coin (euphemism). I handle sales while she tours the rest of the stands. It’s tempting to pick up une bricole (an insignificant object) that will be extraordinary after a little bricolage (fixing up), but when she comes back, she hasn’t bought anything. “How’s the competition?” I ask.

C’est selon” (it depends). Rentrer bredouille (a hunting term: “to come home empty-handed”) isn’t that bad — the hunt itself is free entertainment.

Near lunchtime, Lydie allows, “Je suis h.s.” (hors service: exhausted). We’ve been working since dawn. I’m k.o. (pronounced kah-OH, “knocked out”) myself. The verb knock-outer (pronounced nok-aw-TAY) is a hilarious corruption of the boxing term. We decide to close shop, contribute our unsold leftovers to our neighbor’s table and head to the café to manger nos petits profits(spend everything we’ve just earned on lunch).