Every time I use my Paris china, I think of how I acquired it, and how two people helped turn my apartment into a home:
A few weeks after I bought the apartment, my son Rob and his girlfriend Lauren came to visit. I impulsively organized a party so my friends could meet them. Then I realized how empty the apartment was – the only furniture was a sofa and two chairs. I wanted something more, and finally decided, the night before the party, that I had to have a coffee table.
So on Saturday morning, eight hours before the party, we trekked to the legendary flea market, Marché aux Puces de Saint-Ouen. With 2,500 vendors, how hard could it be to find a second-hand table basse* with a little character? But by mid-afternoon we hadn’t seen an acceptable table.
Discouraged, I suggested that we give up and go home.But Rob, always tenacious, refused to quit. “Suggest another place, Mom. We’ll find something.”
This led us to the Salle des Ventes du Particulier, a home furnishings dépôt-vente* in the 14th arrondissement. “This is where Parisians sell their used furniture,” a friend had told me.
Its modest entrance opened to two cavernous floors, 10,000 square feet full of tables and chairs, shelves and bureaus, clocks and sofas. We browsed armoires with inlaid panels, angular Art Déco lamps, long rows of vases. Up creaking stairs, there were Oriental rugs, armchairs and a roomful of pianos.
Lauren, a superb pianist, played while Rob and I sorted through a sea of tables. Hurrah! I spotted a wooden trunk, perfect for re-purposing as a creative coffee table. Concerned that my guests would arrive in two hours, I hurried to pay and leave. But Rob hadn’t finished.
“Mom, what dishes will you use?” he asked. “Paper plates and plastic utensils,” I replied.
His eyebrows rose to his hairline. “We need to do something more classy than that,” he declared. Lauren appeared beside him, nodding: “You need real china for your first party.” And they set off on an enthusiasm-fueled search.
At first I fussed, worried about time. But as I watched his blond head and her dark one moving along shelves of dinnerware, I realized: This was what I had really wanted. Rob and Lauren cared about the apartment, and Paris. They were making the apartment ours.
Lauren produced a green leather box of bone-handled knives. “These are just right,” she asserted enthusiastically. I imagined generations of hands that had worn the handles to a rich yellow patina, and nodded, grinning.
Then Rob steered me to a mountain of vintage faïence*. Piled precariously on a tiny table were plates, serving bowls, even a mustard pot and an oval pickle dish, all decorated with roses, bluebells and tulips. With equal parts firmness and persuasion, he stated, “This set has everything you need, and it’s just your style. You should buy it.” Yes, it was perfect – especially because he had chosen it.
At checkout, the manager explained that it would be logique* to deliver our purchases the next day, and laughed when I said, “Impossible. We’re using them tonight.” A bemused workman loaded the dishes into my fabric shopping cart, while I prayed its seams wouldn’t split. We grabbed a taxi, the driver making space for the trunk. In the back seat, Lauren and Rob cradled the cartful of breakables in their laps.
Back home, I ran out for food while Rob and Lauren washed and organized. They set the trunk-now-coffee-table in front of the sofa and spread out the new serving pieces. We added bread, cheese, fruit, and chocolates. Tiny cornichons* looked great in the pickle dish.
Guests arrived, happy to meet Rob and Lauren. They admired the dishes, and spread their pâté with the bone-handled knives. We toasted the apartment. And we didn’t care that our wine glasses were plastic, because now, it felt like home.
* * *
table basse = coffee table
dépôt-vente = consignment store
faience = glazed earthenware
logique = logical, an important concept in France
cornichons = small sour pickles, yummy with cheese and pâté
The Salle des Ventes du Particulier (literally, salesroom for individuals) was the first furniture consignment store in Paris. I learned later that it’s well-known to savvy decorators. Opened in 1973, the store is at 116 rue d’Alésia, 75014.
The Marché aux Puces is actually a network of 14 markets – antiquarians, artisans, collectors, etc. – that together form the largest flea market in the world. It is at Métro Porte de Clignancourt in Saint-Ouen, a northern suburb of Paris.
Réverbère is a pattern made by Lunéville, a classic French pottery manufacturer operating in Lorraine, France, since 1730. This pattern has been produced continuously since the late 1800s. The word réverbère also describes a style of firing and glazing, invented in the mid-19th century, that greatly enlarged the range and intensity of pottery colors.