Flea Market Finds: Metz, France

PicMonkey Collage

We ventured over the border into Metz, France recently, to visit an antique/flea market there.   The market is opened once or twice a month, and we’ve been three or four times–in fact, it featured in one of my earliest posts from Europe.  I think it’s time to mention it again because it’s a fun day out and I have the schedule of markets for the coming year that I can share with you.  Very useful information if you live nearby!

The city of Metz, sat on the Moselle River in Alsace-Lorraine, is an incredible day out with or without flea markets.  It has Celtic and Roman roots, and its history has remained storied and lively up through modern times.  Like all of this region, it has been a matter of French-German border disputes in the modern era (German during the late 1800’s, French after WWI, German again in 1940, and French after WWII).

This city has something to appeal to  everyone:   the history buffs, the coffee and pastry connoisseurs, the architecturally voyeuristic, the _____ (fill in the blank yourself).  Photographic proof below:

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But back to the flea market that comes to the indoor Expo center frequently.  It’s one of the biggest markets around, bigger than most of the markets that pop up in Paris, even.  (Although  smaller than the famous Marche aux Puces at St. Ouen in Paris.)  This particular day, there were lots of DSC_0915food merchants (not always the case), in addition    to the dozens (and dozens and dozens) of vendors peddling antique furniture and silver,  vintage jewelry, vintage radios, tableware, dollhouses, signs, cutlery, wine paraphernalia, gardenware, etc.  There were even merchants with chic French perfumes.

 

Oh, yes– and dogs.  So many sweet dogs. (Not for sale!)

Beautiful old French chandelier.
Beautiful old French chandelier.

There were certainly things that were beautiful

 

This doll would give my kids nightmares.
This doll would give my kids nightmares.

. . . but also things that were creepy.

 

A little of everything under a warm and dry roof– it made for a great morning of shopping.

If you are wondering whether I bought anything, then you don’t know me well.  Of course I bought something!  But shopping at a place like this isn’t so much consumerism as it is a cultural lesson– a way to travel across times, social classes, and ideologies . . . and to cross the barriers of good taste more than a little, probably.

DSC_0928So we bought some wine paraphernalia, some French cheese, an old French hotelier sign, and a piece of old (1800’s) British silver.   What do you do with a hotelier sign?  I’m not entirely sure, but I knew we wouldn’t have too many more chances to buy one, so I couldn’t let it elude my grasp.  I think it could be cute in a guest bedroom?  (And appropriate that it is from a one star guesthouse, as I’m not known for my housekeeping skills.)

The sign wasn’t an all out bargain, but it was a little cheaper than the silver we bought. I have a weakness for old silver–

A silver fish slice/server
A silver fish slice/server

despite the fact that it has to be polished and doesn’t get used a lot.  I used to see pieces everywhere when we lived in the UK and quickly learned to read the silver hallmarks, which indicate the city where and year in which a piece was made.  They also indicate if a tax was paid to the king/queen, and that stamp makes each piece a quick read (if it’s a dowdy male head, you’re looking at a Georgian piece–early 1700’s to early 1800’s– if it’s a woman’s head, it’s Victorian –mid to late 1800’s).  That ability to place a piece of silver makes it really interesting to me.  Of course, sometimes you can date a piece by it’s style, sometimes by its wear.  Old pieces can be pretty beat up looking, but often they are in fantastic shape–well cared for, they were obviously a prized possession for many years.  And how lucky are you that you can pick up a 200 year old piece for a fistful of dollars, and use it to serve a fancy holiday meal–knowing full well that that punch ladle (or serving spoon, or fish slice, etc.) has seen its way around more holiday parties than you ever will.  If it could talk, what stories and family secrets would it spill?  This is the kind of thing that goes through my head.

And if I sound a little spacey, like someone who lives life in a Beauty and the Beast fairy tale where inanimate objects come to life, so be it.  In my world, they do.  And if you spend any time wandering these weekend markets in Europe, you may find yourself in the same mindset.  Here’s how it goes:

  1. You wander into the flea market, DSC_0903still drowsy with sleep on a Saturday morning, and your eye falls on this vintage French foosball table.  Foosball tables immediately take you back to college days and your shiftless friends at the Pi Kappa Alpha house.  But here you are in France at a “vintage do”– the Twighlight Zone music starts to play in your head, time and space fall a little out of sync, and there’s no going back from there.
  2. Next thing you know, the hands of time PicMonkey Collage 1  begin spinning backwards:  You walk through a maze of old radios from the 30’s, 40’s, and 50’s, emerge in an aisle of World War II and Third Reich memorabilia, and nearly stumble over Rolf’s bike from The Sound of Music. (Ugh, I hate Rolf!) Hoping to get away from the evil grip of Nazi history, you make a beeline for a vendor whose display looks airy and inviting, and find yourself smack dab in the middle of World War I!
  3. From there, things take an utterly surreal turn and you stumble into some magic land of German dwarf bands, Asian totem fishermen with eyes that follow you,  and Alpine yodeling horns paired with Jesus in plaster relief.PicMonkey Collage 3
  4. At this point, relief is exactly what you need, and you are all too happy to see more cheerful items: wine crates, Easter breads, and the world’s most beautiful marionette theater.   PicMonkey Collage 2  When your Saturday morning shopping
Our wizard friend shops the stalls of Diagon Alley. . . ur, Metz market.
Our wizard friend shops the stalls of Diagon Alley. . . ur, Metz market.

experience looks like this, you can’t tell me that it’s more about the shopping than the cultural experience.  And you can’t tell me that life isn’t a little bit “Beauty and the Beast and singing teacups” after all.  But if you want to tell that to somebody . . . well, you can take it up with Albus Dumbledor on your way out of the market.  I’m sure he’ll set you straight, and possibly point you to the best wand vendor he knows.

Maybe that’s a key to how you should approach the Metz antique market– it’s the closest thing to shopping Harry Potter’s Diagon Alley that you will ever find in this life.  You’d be nuts to miss it.

If you have a chance to visit the antique market at the Metz Expo–go, go, go.  It takes time; it takes a little cash; it takes patience to comb through junk to find treasure; and it takes imagination.  But the effort yields an absolutely magical morning.

If you check out the Metz Expo, do bring cash.  (There may be an ATM on the premises, but I’m not sure.)  In my experience, these merchants aren’t big on haggling, at least not compared to the Brits and the Turks.  If you come later in the day, you probably stand a better chance of working a deal . . . but you’ll also miss out on some of the best merchandise that gets snapped up quickly– it’s a calculated risk.

Here’s the schedule, and the address is Rue de la Grange-aux-Bois.  (The market is easily accessed from the highway, but also only 10-15 minutes from the center of town–so you can make a whole day out of it and enjoy Metz, if you like.)    Bon Chance!

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Christmas Markets: Germany, Luxembourg, France

Now that we are knee deep in December, Christmas Markets are in full swing.  So far, I’ve cruised through four of them.  Here are some photos and observations.

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Bernkastel-Kues

Our first market of the season was Bernkastel-Kues, on the Mosel River, which I wrote about in my “And the Season Begins” post.  It’s one of my favorite small German towns, and the market is equally fabulous.  Being there in the evening, or just as dusk falls, is the best–the markets (all of them, as far as I’ve seen) really become magical when the lights are twinkling at dark, or in a hazy swirl of snow.  Plus, Bernkastel has an old world feel that’s undiluted here, but often more watered down in  larger cities (where busy, modern shopping areas stand side by side with older architecture).

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Luxembourg City

DSC_0673My next adventure in Gluhwein and Gingerbread was in Luxembourg City, the week of Thanksgiving.  It was a sleepy Monday, and the market was just beginning to wake up for the season.  The day was bitter cold, so the hot gluhwein and potato pancakes there were greedily gobbled out of both desire and necessity.  And after a glass of gluhwein, I wandered into a store with a friend and bought a big fuzzy mohair sweater.  Later that night, I wondered if that was a wine-induced mistake:  I look a little like giant grey blueberry (greyberry?) in it. . . but I’ve worn it a lot since then.

Pain d'Epices (gingerbread) in Luxembourg
Pain d’Epices (gingerbread) in Luxembourg

Turns out that, ridiculous as it looks,   it is very warm and cozy on a winter day, and sometimes that’s not a bad trade off for looking like a Fruit of the Loom character.  It also hides any extra pounds you might accumulate walking around markets eating potato pancakes and gingerbread.

 

On to the third market of the season:  Rothenburg ob der Tauber, Germany. If you grew up on Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, then you’ve already caught a quick

Rothenburg
Rothenburg

glimpse of Rothenburg– a charming, walled, 13th century town in Bavaria.

 

Any time of year that you visit Rothenburg, you will feel that you’ve stumbled on to Christmastown.  It is quaint and visually perfect, and peppered with small stores selling Christmas decorations.  It’s also famous for Schneeballs (“snowballs”) –a fried doughball covered in (most often) chocolate, cinnamon sugar, or powdered sugar.  They can be delicious, but on our first trip to Rothenburg a schneeball single-handedly took down my husband for an entire evening.

Schneeballs
Schneeballs

We skipped the schneeballs this go round and headed straight for the market and the spiced wine and candies.  The town was crowded, but not overly, and we enjoyed just milling about, eating, drinking, and taking in the sights.  On our first trip to Rothenburg (over a year ago), the kids and I had taken the Night Watchman’s Tour at about 8 pm  (while my husband was at the hotel in Schneeball hell).  It was fantastic–lots of history very charmingly and entertainingly told by an actor in the character of the town’s medieval nightwatchman.  We weren’t in town overnight this time, so we took a daytime tour of the city with a German woman who was probably well schooled in her history, but was

DSC_0152 fairly hard to understand.  Some of her phrases just didn’t translate.  No worries, though–a stroll through Rothenburg ob der Tauber is never a mistake.  The view from each corner is fantastic.

rothenb collage
Rothenburg–it really is Christmastown.

And trip number four?  Metz, France.   Metz market has an ice skating rink which our kids enjoyed last year.  This year, it has added an ice sculpture exhibit (Disney themed).  The market is actually multiple markets in different squares around the city, but we DSC_0186 lingered longest near Place St. Louis–home to stalls with table linens, butter biscuits, and outrageously good candied fruits.  Candied fruits are rarely featured in the German markets, so they were a special treat!

Place St. Louis was also home to one DSC_0187 of the most beautiful carousels I have ever seen.  (We’ve noticed vintage carousels in so many French cities–always a delight for the eyes.  One of my favorite photos of my kids around age 4-6 is on a carousel in St. Malo, France.)  This carousel in Metz boasts a balcony–fancy stuff!

Truth be told, most Christmas markets have a similar feel.  They are best suited to a day (or better yet, an evening) of meandering, nibbling, and sipping.  The ambitious (or tipsy) among us may revel in the shopping experience, but it’s the general atmosphere that most of us go for.

Frohe Fest (Happy Holidays!) and see you at the markets!

Metz Market
Metz Market

 

All Hallows Week: The Ghosts of Wartimes Past

creepy halloweenThe pumpkin sits, uncarved, on the front steps, and the massive bowl of Halloween candy sits undisturbed near the door–so, surely, it’s too early in the season to invoke Charles Dickens and A Christmas Carol.

But here I go–because it’s never wrong to call on  Dickens (!), and because Europe is a haunted continent.  At Halloween, on Christmas, or any given day, its history is rich and messy, and its ghosts,  like Jacob Marley, won’t be silenced.  In our experience, these specters whisper at you from around each corner.

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In a nearby town  there is an odd sign designating a speed limit for tanks.  I occasionally pass this, and I always laugh and cringe at the same time.   I assume it is a remnant of  Cold War times, although this is just a guess. Maybe troop movements around here are frequent enough that this is still warranted?  Either way, I find the sign both amusing and jarring.  Do I need to be worried about tanks rolling through the city center?  Probably not, but it does make me think of the citizens of Ukraine, where the everyday reality is more raw; and it also conjures a not so distant past in this historically complicated country.

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In Metz, France–the city that brought us a war hero in the unlikely guise of the baker Harelle (see post “The Bread is Mightier than the Sword”)–you can’t help but see the ghosts of the past on each block, beginning with the chapel  of the Knights Templar (to the right)DSC_0775 and running up through the Second World War and the present day streets honoring the likes of Winston Churchill.

I’m always stunned by my ability in Europe to walk a city block in space  and feel that I’ve walked a thousand years through time and history.   William Faulkner may have had the American South in mind when he wrote, “The past isn’t dead; it isn’t even past,” but his words seem to reverberate off the stone streets of Europe.  We tread on hallowed ground and haunted ground–and I couldn’t tell you were the one starts and the other stops.   Especially regarding the somber ghosts of the Second World War.

I find myself pulling against visiting the concentration camps, at the same time that my conscience keeps telling me that this is something I need to do.  I can’t imagine setting foot on those grounds and not feeling physically ill,  possessed of the anguish of the souls who were tortured there. But those anguished souls need us to remember, don’t they?  We owe it to them.   I can tell you, my own Marley-esque specters are visiting me on this one.

Not all ghosts are war-torn and tortured souls, however.   Our historical imps deserve to be noticed too.

So, as a sidenote on Dickens and his ghosts, here’s a travel tip for London:  The George Inn in Southwick.  It sits on the south bank of the Thames, is an old (400 years old, give or take) pub that’s been in business all these long years.

The George Inn, Southwark London
The George Inn, Southwark London

We stumbled on this pub in 2010.  Although we didn’t stumble, really–I dragged my family out of their way to have lunch here, and it was a very good call.

Why make a grand effort to eat at this pub in a city full of pubs?  Partly because of its general history–in business since the 1600’s; still boasting a gallery of balconies where plays and concerts used to take place, it is reported to be the last remaining galleried inn in London; and (here’s the kicker) an old favorite of Charles Dickens.  The food here was great; I had a grilled goat cheese salad that I remember 4 years later! Granted, our waitress was less “waitress” and more “table wench” in attitude–but, if nothing else, it added a Dickensian touch to the meal.  And our inquiries about the history of the inn and its famous patrons lead to a journey behind the bar, where there is a framed document bearing Charles Dickens’s signature.  If my rusty memory serves, it was a copy of his Last Will that he gave to the Inn owner (knowing it would have some value), in lieu of actually paying his bar tab.

In the style of a worthy “old haunt,” this speaks of both mischief and misfortune.  Our Charles Dickens was both debtor and darling, making him the perfect drinking buddy for anyone who might find themselves at the bar here and lifting a glass to old Charlie’s Last Will.  Talented as he was, his life wasn’t perfect.  Nor was it infinite:  so raise a pint and lean in toward the framed document, and I’ll wager that you’ll hear him whispering, “Cheers and carpe diem!”

(Lore has it that Shakespeare may also have been a customer–his Globe theater was close by–but the veracity of this is lost to the haze of time gone by.)

Some ghosts loom large (the scars of a world war);  some ghosts are more personal (unpaid debts).  But in this season of hauntings, it’s best to give them all their due.

Happy Halloween!

Boo!