I can think of nothing that makes me happier than walking through a small rural French village on a warm Sunday morning and coming across a ‘Route Barrée’ sign. The road is usually closed for a good reason, and that’s the annual ‘Vide Grenier’.
Almost every French village and town has one or two of these a year - it literally means ‘empty attic’ and it’s a chance to clear out all of your cupboards.
The nearest English equivalent is the car boot sale, and it doesn’t really compare. French law states that individuals are only permitted to take part in two events per year and sell used personal items, otherwise you need a licence as a commercial trader. This makes the vide-grenier more of an occasion, a sociable village occasion and it is eagerly anticipated all year. Numbers can range from 20 to 200 stalls. They are held in town halls, sports centres, town squares, along the river, in a field – hunting them out is half the fun! More on that in a later article..
Vide-greniers are almost always held on a Sunday or on bank holidays. People come out to set up early (often 6ish) and often in front of their own homes, next to their neighbour’s stall. For locals, this is a chance to catch up on the gossip in the sun (hopefully) and coffee and croissants are followed by a picnic lunch and a few glasses of wine. After lunch is a good time to start bargaining!
They often go on until 5pm but can close early or even be cancelled when poor weather threatens.
A village committee organises the whole affair; from parking to marking out stands, hanging out road signs and collecting dues, to the all-important food and drink stands – from early in the day you can smell barbecue smoke drifting through the streets as they prepare to cook hundreds of galette saucisse et frites!
Wear comfortable shoes, bring a trolley or bags, plenty of change and small notes, and dive in! Speaking French really helps you, even if just a few words. Always start by saying Bonjour Madame/Monsieur, it’s polite. To ask how much is C’est combien, s’il vous plait? Numbers can be confusing if you’re not used to French but you can always ask someone to write it down.
Haggling is fine, if done with respect and within reason! It may be that you are happy to pay the asking price but if not, ask Quel est votre meilleur prix? (What is your best price?). And of course, always say Merci!