A winter’s day at the Saint Ouen flea market inspired writer and amateur anthropologist Blyth Brentnall to ask herself an important question; are we looking in the right places when we visit touristic sites?
A banquet for the eyes: antiquated furniture, crate-loads of jewellery, sacred artifacts from across the world, ritzy vintage and couture clothing; marvels that once belonged to another person, another era. These are the sights at the heart of Le Marché aux Puces, a popular flea market located in the poorer area of Northern central Paris. The objects here beg the question, ‘what is their story?’
But, bedazzled by beauty from times long gone, a voyager like myself risks overlooking another mystery surrounding something that is less visible; what social life exists in this particular place? For me, an amateur anthropologist, the people, punters and sellers at the market, were of equal interest as their wares. The story of the humans in this part of Paris, in a certain snapshot of time, is worth considering if you yourself are to make a touristic pilgrimage to the area.
One bleak, winter day, under a grey Parisian sky, I entered the market from the direction of the Porte de Clignancourt Metro stop. The first stalls I encountered were selling items such as brightly-coloured sweatbands for ‘goths’, or gimmicky t-shirts. If you look at ‘TripAdvisor’ or ‘Yelp’, the wares here prompt disgusted reviews, encouraging people to veer right in order to reach what they evidently see to be ‘the true market’.
Instead of heading straight to the market’s more celebrated centre, I continued along this avenue of shops and stalls, which dwindled into smaller stalls, and eventually ended at a space where items were being sold from squares of fabric on the concrete. Nearby, overlooking the scene, stood four policemen. I had also read online reviews, written by people who must have arrived via this end of the market. According to them, the characters you meet here are “very edgy, druggy, and easily provoked.” And “It seriously looked like a bunch of homeless people gathering underneath a bridge with a variety of tacky items spread out on a tarp.”
These insensitive reviews dismiss the blatant poverty of the people on this peripheral area of Le Marché aux Puces. Historically, there was a similarly derogatory association with flea markets; ‘puces’ translates to mean the irritating insects which inhabit old clothes and bite their wearers. From the online reviews, it seems like this disdainful perception has stuck.
But if you do not follow ‘Yelp’’s advice: “don’t make eye contact and keep walking,” and instead look straight into the eyes of the people there, you might see something different to what their reviews describe. I wandered amid the stalls of market’s periphery and tried to see people’s faces as they peered at spreads of various objects: shoes, plastic cameras, pirated DVDs. They barely noticed me, the middle class, comparatively privileged, white girl, and they were smiling at the “tacky items,” which I imagine for them were in fact necessary purchases.
In this part of the market, the sellers, sometimes known as ‘biffins’, can operate legally provided that they pay a small sum of money. Here, in comparison to the more pricey area around the austere antique shops, it was thriving. Yet this busiest part of the market is censored from other travel writing about Le marché aux Puces, such as that featured in the New York Times.
Here we find sanitized descriptions of luxury goods for the wealthy, tactfully excluding any mention of the overt poverty that lies adjacent to these riches. Nor do such travel reviews question the ethics of selling sacred or ritual artefacts amongst the antiques. These are pinched from North American and African tribes, and there have recently been cases where tribes have gone to great lengths to reclaim items from French markets and auction rooms. While this thievery goes ignored, police are ordered to keep an eye out for stolen or illegal goods in the poorer market area.
Approaching one of the policemen, I asked what might have seemed to him like a stupid or naive question: “Excuse me, do you mind if I ask you why you have to be here?” He quickly retorted defensively: “Why are you here?” but then looked helpless when I asked again, before saying “These people here, they are poor.” This very brief statement by way of an explanation was followed by no further exchange in French other than polite small talk. The policeman had been ordered to be there because “They are poor.”
Their poverty gives them no choice but to reuse and recycle, something that the French middle classes can choose to do, not to save pennies but to be environmentally friendly. Their base in the area is La Recyclerie, a restaurant-bar, set up last summer in a renovated railway station next to the Metro Porte de Clignancourt. It is generally filled with throngs of students and trendy families, who go to such places to feed their conscience by eating food sourced from vegetable gardens running alongside the disused railway tracks. Inside, the left-luggage room is now decorated with pot plants, and the upstairs has been transformed into a space for craft workshops. It is a work of ingenuity in its reuse of available resources, just as the poor have had to do in the market.
The people in Le Marché aux Puces seem to be on a grim historical trajectory; the present is different to the past, but at the same time all too similar. Originally accommodating for an exodus of poor tradespeople, Le Marché aux Puces came into being as travelling salespeople passed through Paris. Never rich in early years, it was also witness to an outbreak of the bubonic plague in the early 1920s.
During my visit this month, it seemed as if the struggles of the original inhabitants had morphed into a melancholy emerging in a new era of migration, inequality and capitalism. Pre-revolutionary aristocrats banqueted whilst the poor starved. Today the rich parisian minority feast their eyes on grand antiques, whilst the poor take delight in the small things. But this, apparently, is invisible to the disgusted tourist.
Text and photos by Blyth Brentnall. If you are interested in writing a piece for Invisble Paris, please send me a mail!
Read more from Blyth on her blog, People in Paris.