Thursday, 13 August 2009

sweet mint tea at les puces

7.30am, two café noirs and a welcome pause from the tousle of the early traders in the vast, dust bowl of a car park, tarmac beginning to shimmer in the heat, a portent of the day to come.

tonton ambles across, all smiles as ever, proffering 2 tiny moroccan glasses of fragrant the a la menthe to our little table in the corner of his café, shady under the canvas awning, generously crammed with the sprigs of the bunches of fresh mint that adorn his counter. ludicrously sweet, hot and deliciously minty, it’s the perfect pick me up. tea for my manchester girls, his usual greeting, chuckling at the memories of his decade of lost youth and adventure in preston and clitheroe. good times, he says, his english a rich lancashire burr, incongruous here in mosson from our french algerian grizzled giant, exciting times, preston north end, he enthuses, and the music, aah the best of times! evidently so, with 3 grown up boys from his adventures who stayed on, doubtless with even broader accents….

mosson, the last stop on ligne 2 of montpelliers tram system, where its outer suburbs run out and collide with the languedoc proper, parched scrubby countryside, dotted with battered old farmhouses, dilapidated cattle sheds, a smattering of vineyards and sunken meadows meandering along the banks of the hérault and its tributaries, inhabited it seems by nothing more than the odd donkey, any number of raucous crickets, and wherever the etang and their attendant oyster beds break through, glimpses of exotic pale pink flamingos, the only significant colonies in europe declares the eager guidebook.

mosson, a gigantic overspill on the arse end of the city, high rise and dilapidated like the notorious hulme estate but twice its size and humanised somewhat with splashes of mediterranean colour; windows, doorways and balconies bedecked with plants, herbs and hammocks, austerity brightened by the simple addition of sunshine, flaky painted shutters and gaudy blinds adorning otherwise plain edifices like glittering jewels in concrete. architecture is so often in the vernacular details, its lived-in clutter creating more beauty than any aesthetic drawn up by the designers.

mosson is plainly out in the sticks and barely mentioned on the tourist maps, hardly picturesque and though certainly 'exotic' with a profusion of cafes and local eateries harbouring old men in fezes or taqiyah and long faded djellabas smoking tiny black cigarettes, halal stores piled high with the rich spices, herbs and olives normally only seen in a north african bazaar, is plainly not awaiting fashionable restoration by the type of English second home owner eager to colonise the next up and coming quartier. yet each sunday from 6am to 12.30, this is the place to be if, like most languedocians, you have the flea market bug. les puces is the regional obsession adopted even in the smallest village alongside the everyday food and general markets with larger all day affairs appearing in various fields and scrubby patches of spare land at the weekends. mosson though is the mother of all flea markets, the biggest, most shambolic and best; boisterous, messy and unpredictable, genuine vintage and antique traders budged up against junk and household bric-a-brac of every description, used battery salesmen, hardware, locksmith and mobile phone (broken and very old, never new ones!) emporiums, 3 for 1 beach towels and african hair care vying with pantalooned crusties selling dusty indonesian knick knacks and home made friendship bands brought back from far off travels. inbetween are stalls who appear to have merely tumbled the contents of their wash bags on to the floor, grubby brassieres and mismatched wellington boots next to washing up bowls filled with marbles, headless barbies missing an arm or a leg and far too many small blue smurfs to satisfy any logical explanation. its an english car boot sale with a surreal twist.

this sunday morning is no exception, the car park already festooned with ancient camper vans, prehistoric renaults, colourful awnings of every hue proclaiming that the market is already bustling and ready for the hunt! those in the know head straight for the right hand corner, beyond the resident café stands and their tantalising petit dejeuners of café noir, pain au chocolat and boisson, competing with fragrant tagines and nan breads stuffed with falafels and hot harissa, (like tono the owners are french north african, with menus a profusion of savoury, spicy delights) an oasis of respite from the harsh sun and ever growing crowds.

...and then, where the car park peters out and meets the hinterland of the olive groves and fig trees of old mosson, nirvana - row upon row of brocantes and antiquities sellers nestled under the pine trees at the far edge. here can be found the weird and the wonderful, the essential and the pointless; rusty sundials and battered weather vanes, faded photograph albums filled with forgotten lives and once-important occasions, enamel signs for long gone businesses and nostalgic brands of cigarettes, brass bed frames, roman amphora and columns, caryatids, gateposts and doorways from ramshackle farm houses, enormous scythes, saws and assorted farm implements, beautiful bed linen and table ware, ancient cooking pots, cafetieres and espresso sets from every era, medicine cabinets and garden furniture, and enough crucifixes, rosary beads, virgin marys, sacred hearts, wooden pews and stained glass windows to tempt the most ardent atheist….

12.30 and its chez tonton for at least the third time. we compare notes as always on landmarks around the north west, tono fearful that the memories of his youth might disappear along with preston bus station, and we show off our finds – an old bronze tap, pleasingly antiquated with a slight green patina around the spout, a clutch of requiem cards, the most intriguing the bespectacled mademoiselle celine robin, who died in 1944, still unmarried at 89 (is that a shy or cheeky smile i spy around her lips?), a faded ballet green fish keep perfect for bringing a little taste of the languedoc to my brunswick balcony, an oblong typographers font tidy, a box of gaily patterned 1950’s gouaches, pristine in their packaging, and perhaps best of all an edwardian fencing foil, pale steel sheathed in its red safely tip, long slim handle wrapped in fine coils of soft leather for gripping. as we finish the last gulp of our the a la menthe, gather our treasures and head for home, tono laughs shaking his head at yet another incomprehensible set of finds from his favourite mancunians.

au revoir, see you next week….you know there’s a lovely flower market here every wednesday, he adds as he always does, so beautiful like you’d never find in england...

a persuasive thought that hangs in the air as we wend our way across the emptying car park. but puce addicts that we are, we know in reality we’ll already be knee deep in agde’s weekly puce, a picturesque affair that winds around its medieval fortifications, eagerly looking out for that elusive vintage fencing mask or 1920’s aviation goggles….

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