The Odd Shopper

Santas at l'Amicale
Seeing Santa suits on display is encouraging in this day and age.

Getting Around Without Busting the Plastic

Paris:- Wednesday, 10. December 1997:- Riding on the train they call Ville de Bougival on the SNCF western line this gloomy day, reading my 'special fêtes' guide - trying to keep my mind off the downtown centre of the world, because it's all been done too much.

Its a lucky thing I know the boss of the job I'm on really well, and I can just say it's time to go east for a change, and he can't do anything about it. If it isn't raining it, will be soon.

Somewhere between Vaucresson and Saint-Cloud, I pass this little display ad for the Comptoirs de Trocadéro and a couple of pages further on my eye stops at 'L'Amicale,' which says 'Comptoir des Articles des Fêtes.' The métro stations are given as Avron or Buzenval, and that seals it.

Hello 20th arrondissement I also say as I come out of the métro at Buzenval, but I don't because I'm looking for the usual handy map. I've come out the wrong exit and I have to go back in to find it.

Just like in other countries, sometimes in France they will say it is right around the corner. In this case it is physically true; but all the same - with the neighborhood map in my head - I manage to get around a lot of corners, and as far as the other trees & flowers métro station at Avron - long before I find L'Amicale.

I manage to get 400 metres in the wrong direction before finding I'm on the street I'm looking for so on the way back I take a glance at the extremely sleepy place de la Reunion, which doesn't add much to this history.

There are no trees in this story; but you may need some flowers.

In fact, this area has nearly no history and later I see from my big map that it is all labelled 'section en travail.' In a little over 100 years it is gone from countryside to workers' housing to a target of 21st-century real estate speculation.

L'Amicale is in an old warehouse in a dead-end off the rue des Vignoles, opposite a sympathic-looking African-style bar called 'Aux Chutes du Carbet.' About 15 metres in, there is a plain sign saying 'L'Amicale' and 'entrée' with an arrow pointing at the door. There's no neon.

Right inside the door there is a scene with three Santas and three gas-cylinders for blowing up balloons. The place is not wide, but it stretches back, forever. About a third of the way there I find the cash desk, and learn that this is the mythical Ali-Baba's cave of everything you need for any kind of party decor - not just Christmas.

Until after the war, L'Amicale specialized in theatrical costumes and makeup, and it still has make-up. In the cellar it has fireworks - no smoking! - and the whole upstairs floor is also full of - oodles of stuff.

The catalogue is 62 pages of small print; about tinsel, clown masks, balloons - nine models, a ball-and-chain - item 10276: 25 francs, and it is called a 'boulet de bagnard' in Caractere shop case you need one. The striped-suits which go with it are here too, in kids' and adults' sizes. There are 12 pages of hats and three for wigs.

Yeah, well, anyhow - if you want seasonal decor for your hotel room, head out this way.

As hard as it was not to buy two of the ball-and-chain sets, I go off looking for... but he's not there, so I decide to head for Oberkampf where I saw a neat shop called 'Caractère.' Here I get what I need and find out about neighborhood events - and will be back here in February for something unusual.

Friday:- I have been putting these 'Marché de Noël' items in the program feature without knowing what they are, and I run right into one in Saint-Germain-en-Laye, while coming out of an underground parking garage.

In a rare spare space, a half-dozen little wooden chalets have been set up; sprinkled with pine boughs and some lights. Closer inspection reveals that each chalet contains some regional specialty - spice bread from Alsace, honey, lots of wooden knick-knacks, odds and ends, bits and pieces - and none of these are plastic or 'made in China.'

In one of these chalets there is a four-tier wooden stand, containing an army of little figures. I learn they are 'Santons de Provence' and they come from around Marseille.

I gave up on figurines when I ran out of interest in broken lead soldiers. These French ones do not appear to be made of lead, and they do appear to be hand-painted - and are wonderfully detailed; representing the people of France in regional costumes. There is a 'femme aux poules' and a 'ravi femme' and a 'femme à la courge' with a pot on her head.

There are animals too, the kind people eat, and there are boules players and their terrain; and even some lavender pickers - harvesters? In Marche Noel at St Germain all, these are detailed in a full-color six page brochure put out by the Escoffier firm. No address or phone number is printed on it, but you may run into one of their stands on marchés down south, in Provence.

The real thig: the Marché de Noël; with the real thing - the Marseille 'Santons.'

I want to get some food and drink photos in Saint-Germain and as luck would have it, the town marché is on today. It is a prosperous town and its advantages over Paris are that it is small and it has no glass and steel buildings in its centre - which means it looks like a well-kept-up older town.

To get the equivalent in Paris, I would have to criss-cross the city looking for undeveloped islands; but in Saint-Germain I can get nearly all of it in an hour on foot.

That's also the reason I don't come here often: I've seen it all; and there's lots of Paris left to see - like the rue des Vignoles and L'Amicale, which is truly unique.

As for shopping, if you don't need a ball-and-chain, or a odd-shaped hand-made flask, or a lady figurine holding a goose - there are always the Grands Boulevards. You know where they are.


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