In Paris, old stone, worn leather & warm memories


Today’s post is by my very good friend Doreen Carvajal, a Paris-based reporter for the New York Times. It’s been a few years since I celebrated a “big” birthday with Doreen and her husband, Omer, at a beautiful restaurant on the river Oise. I think I’ll have to return for the next “big” birthday, to see how the house has changed–and bid on some beautiful old items at a Paris auction.
By Doreen Carvajal
Author of “The Forgetting River”

 Rescued Treasure


I first encountered the Resale Evangelista when we were young reporters in Philadelphia, full of ambition and ideas and wallets of maxed-out credit cards.

It was Susan who first taught me the value of Pennsylvania flea markets, mastering the rhythm of when to pounce, pass or haggle at the sight of antique radios or pink Luray bowls from the 40’s or the 50’s, preferably the year I was born.Stone farmhouse

I still have those Luray dishes in my stone farmhouse in Paris, mementos of young adulthood that hold indelible memories of long-ago dinner parties. Now I heap them with steaming mashed potatoes at Thanksgiving for French guests who humor me by participating in this cherished American ritual.

Since Susan and I lived as roommates in two 19th century row houses in the center of Philadelphia, I have carefully honed my flea market skills. I’ve roamed different states and countries, avoiding the Ikeas of the world and am now haunting the little auction houses in our region by the river Oise, about 25 miles northwest of Paris.chest at auction

There’s something about an old object, touched by many hands, that comes with a vague story. I want to know what it has witnessed — the set of 30 cut-crystal glasses from a French judge’s estate, sold for about $12 with the bang of a gavel by an auctioneer anxious to move through a chaos of boxes.  Some objects seem to hold the pulse of their making, like the glossy cherry table and six cane-backed chairs, out the door at $175, along with scars that date back to the German occupation.

The key to an auction for any beginner is simply patience, long hours waiting for something you really want, and then passing it by without mercy for a better   bargain you buy on impulse. You never know what you will  come home with and, for the uninitiated, it’s possible to Cherry table and caned chairsmake mistakes. But the auctioneer will always take it back if you didn’t mean to lift your hand to bid, even at the bigger auction houses like Drouot in Paris.

Recently, we completed our own restoration of our farmhouse, built of pale millstones and extended in different stages over three centuries by generations of owners. Our restoration, adding a living room and bedrooms, is only the latest and, most likely, not the last.

The hazard of collection is clutter and a house makeover is like a city hosting the Olympics, forcing the owners to clean up and rearrange. This was our moment to clean out ten years of boxes stored in a room that could only be entered from the outside, and an opportunity to mix and edit the furniture acquired over the years from local auction houses and Paris flea markets.

Sunlight on leather chairsWith the stone walls freshly revealed and glowing, we mixed caramel leather chairs from the antique quarter of the Marché aux Puces de St.-Ouens, with a Louis XV commode we bought at a clear-out sale at a local castle for 150 euros,

Most every piece of furniture came with history and on a low budget–an embroidered burgundy canapé from an annual village flea market, a solid mahogany and dusky green brocade chair from the same judge’s estate as the glasses, a sale that included his silverware, late-model Mercedes and abandoned suits.

I no longer know if I am collecting antiques and foundling objects for their beauty or their memories. I think of all the systematic erasing of family stories, the separation of people and their possessions, and I know there are certain things I can never let go.

Doreen Carvajal is author of “The Forgetting River,” a memoir of her search for family roots in the centuries-old Andalusian town of Arcos de la Frontera. Raised as a Catholic in northern California, Doreen discovered her ancestors may have been Jews forced to renounce their faith and convert to Christianity in Inquisition-era Spain, or face torture and death.

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