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Sunday at the Fleas

photo: outside stalls, les puces

The colorful Marché des Puces on an uncolorful day.

With Moules–Frites

Paris:– Sunday, 11. January:– The weather was all balled up, with Saturday's forecast happening on Friday, and Friday's prediction happening yesterday. Whatever Sunday's was supposed to be, it is raining this morning.

Fine thing that I've agreed to meet Laurel Avery at 11:30 so we can go to the Marché aux Puces at Saint-Ouen. But once I've agreed, I tend to go through with things, so I get up and do not phone to call it off.

I don't know why not. I can't remember why I agreed to an excursion like this. I am not taking part in the 'Soldes d'Hiver' – which are going full–blast today – and I'm not in the market for any used trinkets.

Thirdly, there doesn't seem to be a lot of visitors in town, so I wonder if the dealers at the Puces will botherphoto: nougat stand opening. Finally there's the rain. It's not cold, but it looks like it is going to rain all day. I've been at the Puces before, on a day they were closed, and it was cloudy. Closed Puces on a cloudy day are not amusing at all. The photos won't be good.

Snack stand in Saint–Ouen on the way to the flea market.

We've set a rendez–vous at Denfert's Café Rendez–Vous and I am inexplicably 15 minutes early. This is the time it takes to have a double-espresso, the first jolt of the day. At the end of 15 minutes, no Laurel in sight. It's okay, 'Paris–rules' allow for up to 30 minutes of 'retard.'

I go outside for a look anyway. Laurel is standing by the bus–stop, under a big, black umbrella, in the rain. She has no explanation for standing outside the café instead of inside it. It's what cafés are for – standing inside out of the rain, while 'Paris–rules' happen.

Laurel has been to the Puces before, plus she reads guide books. Even if many of these don't include the Puces because they are in Saint–Ouen outside the edge of town, Laurel knows that taking Métro line 13 is better than taking the line 4 to Clignancourt, which is what I meant to do.

Changing from Métro line 4 to line 13 at Montparnasse is possible, but the connection is so long it needs its own Métro line. Better to take line 4 one stop to Raspail and switch to line 6 for two stops, and then making the change to line 13 at Montparnasse is easy. Actually, simply walking over to Gaité and getting right on line 13 is easiest, but it's raining.

Laurel likes line 13 because it has fewer stops going to the Puces. She is right. From Gaité it is only 14 stationsphoto: fiat 500 instead of 22 stations on the line 4, from Denfert. Add in the extra stations we pass to get on the line 13, and it's still less. Odd then, that the ride seems just as long, to the Garibaldi station.

Too good for 'les puces' – this week's Fiat 500, seen on the way in Saint–Ouen.

After leaving the Métro we cross through a small park and end up on a wet suburban street named Rue des Rosiers that looks like just about everywhere else outside the Périfreak, except Neuilly or Levallois, or La Défense, which doesn't even look like France.

It seems longer, but it is only about 320 metres until we reach the first signs of the Puces, at the area called Paul Bert. Along the way there are a few shops with used goods, but then right at the Puces there are whole complexes. Some, like Cambo or Biron look like narrow alleys full of old garages. Others, like Dauphine, are in modern buildings with modern features like floors, roofs and stairs.

In Dauphine we look at stuff, like beads. Reminds me of a documentary I saw last night on Arte–TV, about the textile business in Mali run by Mama Benz. Very colorful. A fellow I talk to says there will be a lot of shoppers later on. Buyers at the Puces aren't they same types as those who get their thrills from the 'Soldes d'Hiver.'

The place is a maze, but it is spacy and well–lit. I follow Laurel outside without us inspecting the upper floor. We go along the cobbled Allée du 1er Mai which becomes the Allée des Malassis. It is lined with ramshackle stands selling mostly clothing, but there are music dealers and others with African drums for sale.

The puddles on the cobbles have a properly dreary B–movie effect. There is a fair crowd ambling along too, with some eyeing the sports shoe outlets. If I were a good shopper I could tell you that prices are better here than on the Rue de Rivoli, but I'm not so I can't.

Laurel leads the way up a diagonally–angled side street to a barn of a bookshop. It is like a self–servephoto: trays of beads warehouse, full of books. I see a mint copy of the reprint of 'Kiki's Souvenirs.' It contains Kiki's autobiography, with a foreword by E. Hemingway, and lots of good photos. I think I paid less for a new copy than the 22€ that this place wants for it. I wish I still had my copy.

If your beads aren't here, you don't want any.

At some point Laurel phones Dimitri to tell him it's lunch time. We wander back the way we came without paying much attention to the side streets, until we find the Rue des Rosiers again, and return along it.

The café named 'La Chope des Puces' has been singled out because it is small, funky, has moules–frites, and live Django Reinhart–type music during the afternoons on weekends. I think the musicians are called 'Les Manouches,' which means something my dictionaries don't know.

The dining room in the rear is possibly smaller than the bar in front. To pass the time while waiting for Dimitri we have some moules–frites. The waitress lady, who may be the cook, the owner, or both, says we can have all the frites we want.

The moules look like a small pile in a shallow soupbowl when they arrive, along with a pot of red for Laurel and a jug of tapwater for me. The frites look like even less. But both are deceptive, and there are a lot more moules than apparent at first. Because I never take seconds – seldom offered in France anyway – I do ask for more frites when the moules are half–finished.

Laurel tells me she has no photos for her next 'Paris Journal' yet. She wants to take a photo of a cash machine that is indisposed on account of being empty. I offer her a couple of suitable photos that will go with her piece, which I have, but haven't read yet.

Half–way through, the musicphoto: ties has begun, and Dimitri arrives and orders moules–frites and some more red wine. When he is finished, without ordering more frites, he shows us the Little Orphan Annie 'eyes' he's made out of two foil tops from wine bottles.

The ties your father didn't want for Christmas in 1955.

He can't get over the fact that the cartoonist could just draw blank circles for eyes – for Annie, Sandy the dog, and Daddy Warbucks – and for everybody else in the comicstrip.

The café's customers who actually listen to the music are in the bar part of the café, so Dimitri doesn't disturb anybody by wearing the blank eyes. We can hear the music fine though.

We linger so long that Madame comes around to ask for money because the 'service' is over. Before this she had passed the hat – a basket actually – for the musicians. Everything is fine. We decline café, pay up, and leave and walk back to the Métro at Garibaldi.

Just as the train enters the station Dimitri pops in the blank eyes and I guide him into the wagon. He does a good job being a character in 'Little Orphan Annie' and sits down okay.

The other passengers, unaware that they are part of a comicstrip, breathe easier when Dimitri raises his eyebrows enough for the blank eyes to fall out. Then they look worried again as he searches around on the floor, looking for the blank eye he dropped.

We get off at Gaité, where we should have got on. The sky to the west and south looks black andphoto: cafe la chope des puces threatening. Later, TV-weather news will say that there is a storm warning for France's channel coast and inland areas. For some reason the Ile–de–France is to be spared.

On Sunday afternoons here, moules–frites and gypsy jazz.

All in all, it has been a successful Sunday at the Marché des Puces. Other than the moules–frites, we don't bring back anything we didn't have before we went there, except a little money.

Marché des Puces – every Saturday, Sunday and Monday, from 10:00 to 18:00. In Saint–Ouen, just north of the Perifreak. Métro: Garibaldi or Porte de Clignancourt.

La Chope des Puces – with its musicians 'Les Manouches,' in the afternoons on Saturday, Sunday and holiday Mondays. At 122. Rue des Rosiers, Saint–Ouen. Métro: Garibaldi or Porte de Clignancourt. InfoTel.: 01 40 11 02 49.

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