Above my desk sits a small watercolor that we bought in Vieux-Boucau, France. It captures the sense of ancient stone buildings that are ubiquitous in France where every stone tells a story. Everywhere you look, there’s a medieval chateau, 11th-century cathedral, or Roman ruin. This particular watercolor was purchased at a flea market.
In this remote part of southwestern France, the forest of Landes along the Atlantic coast, towns are small but not ancient as they are in Provence or Alpes-Maritime or Paris. Most of the département was built on sand. And only since the mid-19th century has that sand been stabilized enough to establish permanent towns with the planting of vast pine forests. Those forests provide France with much of its pine, harvested and then replanted to maintain the stable land and provide a living for many of its residents.
Vieux-Boucau is populated in the summer by tourists—mostly French, but British and others as well. In the winter it's quiet and sleepy. Flea markets are advertised on posts at the many roundabouts populating the route from town to town. In the 20 kilometers between where we stayed in Moliets and the nearest large town, Hossegor, there are 19 roundabouts. The low-tech social medium used here suffices.
This flea market was held on Sunday afternoon, the most common time for such events, in a community building far off the main route. It was pocket-sized by comparison with the large antique markets in Anglet or Bordeaux and insignificant by comparison with the markets in Provence. It was a homey affair. Lots of used toys, games, children’s clothes. We were unexpected visitors and heads turned in wonder as we wended our way through. We wandered through the small piles of this and that and walked all the way to the end, which took all of about a minute and a half, and came upon a table littered with watercolors. We greeted the artist and asked if we could look through them. She invited us to peruse, and peruse we did. This sweet little watercolor called out to me even if it might have taken her all of 20 minutes to complete. A recessed stone window set into a deep stone wall, judging by the shadow created by the sun's rays, with only one aging shutter. Of all the paintings we purchased, this one was mine.
After much conversation about where something was painted, the merits of this one over that one, the difficulty in choosing them, we selected seven or eight—none of which cost more than four euros. After making the sale, she asked, “Where are you from?” I responded with “Etats-Unis (United States), California.” She appeared dumfounded and asked, “What are you doing here?” It was a bold question for a French person to be asking. But the real question was, “why are you in this part of France instead of the more popular tourist destinations.”
“We love France—all of France!”
She and her neighboring salesperson returned a wide smile, a sign of both pride and pleasure.
When I sit at my desk, my eyes are drawn to this watercolor, which takes me back to the conversation, the rainy day, the feeling of satisfaction walking out of there with such treasures. Since our return from France, not a day has passed without my thoughts meandering to the next trip. The little ancient window keeps me focused and motivated.
Je reviendrai. I'll be back.