A decade ago my mother had to suddenly sell all her belongings and go into a nursing home, and into a small room. She was able to take a few pieces of art but lost a lot of it to auction.
I shipped home, across a border and country, a pair of her early textiles, framed. I have no idea where she bought them or when or if my grandmother had owned them. I wish I’d asked when we were still cordial, but of course I didn’t.
I’m a massive fan of textiles, old and new, and always wondered what these two pieces were — and I follow a serious antique textiles dealer in Britain on Instagram. I recently asked her if these were what I suspected — 17th century Italian.
I’m now wildly fantasizing who used them, and when and where and for what purpose. They are velvet and gold thread and the centerpiece, I believe, is linen.
Italy in the 1600s was quite the place…1.7 million Italians died of plague in the first years of that century. In 1656 around 300,000 people in Naples, this was half the population of Naples at that time….Good God, why is this so awfully familiar?!
We own a few other quite old objects, which have been gifts or bought at auction or antique stores or shows. I know some people have zero interest in old stuff or owning old stuff, but I really love living with, enjoying and using lovely and material bits of history.
I find it extraordinary to tap away on a laptop on top of a gate-leg oak table, probably British, someone made in the 18th century. Ours looks almost exactly like this one, without a drawer.
The craftsmanship is amazing — finely curved edges, smoothly fitted leaves and legs. My father gave it to us a few years ago and I love it. It easily seats four, six at a pinch.
Then there’s a tiny teacup, hand-painted. I love its designs — also very unusual, and someone said, maybe made for the Islamic market. I’ve studied ceramics and silver and furniture and textiles because they fascinate me, so when I spot something potentially that’s very early (for me, anything 18th or 17th century) — and undervalued — I know what it is!
Like this 18th century teapot, missing a lid — $3.50 in an upstate NY junk shop; if it had a lid, it would sell for about $1,000.
The teapot on the table…
If I could own something really ancient, it might be a piece of Greek, Roman or Middle Eastern sculpture or art.
I woke up one morning this week and said…I miss antiquing.
How weird is that?
In our one-bedroom apartment, we certainly have no need for another item! We try to purge on a regular basis, donating to our local thrift shop or to Goodwill.
What I miss, really, is the distinct pleasure of a long, lazy afternoon wandering a flea market or indoor antiques mall — which two French verbs describe beautifully: fouiner (to nose about) and chiner (same, for old stuff).
Also — French again! — flaner,to wander without specific purpose. (Couldn’t find the circonflex symbol!)
I lived in Paris when I was 25, and every weekend I happily rummaged through piles of old lace and grimy bits and bobs at various flea markets. I have the happiest memories of looking for 1960s girl group records with my friend Claes, a gay Swedish journalist who was another of 28 foreign journalists spending an amazing eight months together in that city on an EU-sponsored journalism fellowship, Journalistes en Europe.
Claes died later of AIDS.
I still treasure the mix-tape he made for me.
A friend’s decanter…I love cut crystal!
Today I follow a number of vintage clothing and item-sellers on Instagram, like Ruth Ribeaucourt, an Irishwoman who married into a French ribbon-manufacturing family, and who is passionate about lovely old things, some of which she sells through her online Instagram shop, @the_bouquiniste.
As I’ve blogged here before, I really appreciate old things in good condition, items well-used and cared-for and which offer me — sometimes centuries later — more utility and esthetic pleasure.
We are lucky to live in central London and on a normal day I can get from my front door to the office in about thirty minutes if I catch the right train, perhaps slightly more if I don’t. I tend to give myself 45 so that I can walk at a leisurely pace to the train station and pick up a nice coffee if I feel so inclined. I pass a historic churchyard that’s typically filled with dogs on their first walk of the day, and a famed antiques market every Friday.
My transit time tallies to between an hour and an hour and a half a day. It’s exercise, fresh air, and usually I get an episode or two of a podcast in or a chunk of time on my current audiobook (which I listen to at at least 1.5x normal speed so this can really add up in a work week).
I miss it. Genuinely. This was prime “me time” and I miss the start of my morning that got my bloody moving and switched my brain on.
If you enjoy shopping, this is your city! Especially between January 7 and February 15, during “les soldes” one of the two citywide annual sales. (The other is in June.)
There are few things not to buy here, and so many temptations, from stunning foulards (mufflers), worn by men and women of all ages, to exquisite teas and chocolates, mustards and other culinary lovelies. Perfume! Shoes! Jewelry!
Not to mention things you never realized you really needed until you see them….like this Babar hot water bottle cover.
I’ve been running around my favorite neighborhoods seeking a few treasures to bring home.
I went to Galeries Lafayette, despite the sniffy disapproval of a local who said, “It’s only for tourists.” Um, she was right. It was a madhouse and not nearly as much fun or appealing as I remembered from my last soldes there, (still wearing a gorgeous pair of sandals from seven years ago.)
There was a man guarding the small area devoted to Longchamp handbags and a pretty stunning selection but I found nothing that said “Buy me!”
I finally tried on a pair of great-looking soft red suede boots, ankle high, with a zipper up the back.
Then the zipper broke and I couldn’t get them off.
Four salespeople joked, “Oh, now you have to buy them!” and finally a strong man with a large pair of very sharp scissors cut me out of them. That was a first, and, I hope, a last. Merde! (No, I didn’t have to buy them and they were extremely kind about it.)
I have a few categories of things I’m always on the hunt for: textiles for our home; clothing; shoes; accessories; lovely things for entertaining (tableware, napkins.) When traveling, I don’t look at books (too heavy) or electronics or much artwork (difficult to get home and we already have plenty.)
If you love people-watching — and getting inspired by what you see — this is the place. Women here, whatever their age, (and women over 40 consistently seem to look the best), take great care with their appearance and it’s fantastic to see.
Unlike New York, there’s no slavish attachment to the same tedious and tired logos — Michael Kors, North Face, Coach — or the usual Big Name Designers people in New York use to flaunt their wealth, like Prada, Gucci, Goyard and Vuitton.
Here, instead, you’ll see some of the French classics, like Longchamps and Lancaster (handbags) but will also see a much wider range of colors, textures and styles.
Women, and men, are very definite in their own specific look, whether their hair is loose and gray, and they’re wearing Converse, (sneakers are called “les baskets”) or they’re blonde, sleek and soignee. Their self-confidence is lovely and you can quickly pick up style pointers just by observing them discreetly.
So far I’ve bought:
1) a chocolate brown dress from Irina Gregory, a fave shop in the Marais; 2) several scarves; 3) a small canvas handbag I sling bandolier-style across my body; 4) a thick black-and-white sweater/jacket; 5) a thin rust-colored mohair sweater and 6) matching color T-shirt to wear beneath it; 7) two bright chartreuse linen pillow cases; 8) a dark brown vintage fedora; 9) fab 80s’ earrings; 10) two presents for my husband and 11) a fountain pen and multiple cartridges 12) two small pouches for organizing; one for change and one for loose ends, like pills and fountain pen and lipstick. (The small one is velvet, a great choice as I can know it by feel when rummaging in a crowded carryall.) 13 A bottle of Hermes Voyage, a perfume of theirs I wasn’t familiar with.
I’ve already picked up on a classic French style trend — sticking to a palette of colors that are flattering and go well together. French women wear a veritable rainbow of colors, but many of them wear a delicious mix of camel, cream, navy, black and gray. They may add a burgundy or olive boot, or a pale blue scarf. Very few women, anywhere here, wear prints, unless it’s a fantastic oversize houndstooth coat or jacket.
I had another retail mishap (what the hell?) after walking down the Rue de Rennes.
As I settled into a cafe for lunch, a woman at the next table pointed, aghast, (and smiling sympathetically) at my new jacket, made of thickly woven fabric….in its folds I had snagged a camisole, still on its plastic hanger, and walked out of the store with it attached to me. No one noticed. So attractive!
Where to shop?
Les Grand Boulevards
This is where all the major department stores are: crowded as hell but with lots of selection and multiple places to sit down and eat a good meal to regain your stamina. You can also get your “detaxe”, VAT refund of 12% right there if you spend more than 175 euros in one day and are returning to a non-EU country. The biggies are Galeries Lafayette, BHV, Printemps and Au Bon Marche (in the 6th.) For a totally different world, try Franck & Fils, in the 16th., a quiet and elegant residential neighborhood.
Irresistible. The tiny, winding streets are charming and filled with boutiques, not the usual chain suspects. Everyone loves Agnes B (too plain for me). I discovered Miller et Bertaux, pricey but gorgeously simple women’s clothing. I like Irina Gregory, clearly. Just to weep gently and silently, visit L’Eclaireur; everything is exquisite, costly and edited. The space alone is worth seeing.
It’s an upscale residential neighborhood, so the pickings are slim, but very nice. Petit Bateau sells high-quality T-shirts (and great kids’ clothes) on Rue de Grenelle. I scored a lovely fountain pen and my discounted pillow cases on the same street.
The flea market
Meh. I never thought I’d say it, but…meh. Most people go to Porte de Clignancourt, as I did, which is huge and divided into many smaller markets. Unless you’re buying furniture, lighting or art, though, you’re going to Vernaison, which I found just really overpriced. (I did much better at Eponyme, a small but great vintage shop in the 11th.)
If you have the time and patience, Paris is loaded with vintage shops, some of them with crazy-low prices — like 10 euros for a shirt or sweater ($12-15.) Go to Eponyme, 7 rue Paul Bert in the 11th; the owner is a treasure and speaks English. Great prices.
Contrary to popular belief, you don’t have to buy Big French Names (like Hermes, Chanel) — unless, of course you have pots of money and they’re your style.
I get much more pleasure from some of my smaller, quirkier purchases I’ve made here over the years — a polka dot apron from BHV, a crinkled duster coat from Irina Gregory, a fab poster by the classic cartoonist Sempe and three burgundy striped votive holders.
You’ll notice I’ve skipped the legendary strips of the Champs Elysees and Faubourg St. Honore; the latter is lined with every possible designer and well worth it, if your budget allows.