Vide Grenier: Lost and Found

My wife, Kim, and I were zipping along in our Twingo, on our way to Béziers. Driving a Renault in the Hérault you might say. We got lost just below the Montagne Noir and began looking for signs that would guide us back to a main road. Toutes Directions, though normally good signs to follow, only took us farther into la france profonde.

Just then, Kim saw a little sign, nailed to a tree. The hand-painted letters said, “VIDE” with a little arrow pointing à gauche.  Never ones to pass up a flea market, off we went. Finding Béziers could wait.

Finessing my French

Similar hand-made signs with arrows continued along the dirt track, then disappeared in the middle of a vineyard. I was about to turn the Twingo around when I saw an old man headed our way, on a donkey. He stopped to give us the once over, lighting his pipe at the same time.

I rolled down the window and asked if he knew if this was the road to the Vide, which he mistook for “

Is this the road for vite, speed.”

That stumped him. After a long pause, he replied,

Pas de Vitesse ici,” exhaling a thick cloud of black smoke while waving his pipe. I had to agree, this was no place for a car race. A donkey was infinitely better.

Non, non, pas de vite, le vide grenier, marché aux puces.” I spoke slowly and a bit too loud.

Ah, oui, le marché. Là-bas, tout droit.”  His old eyes looked down the road.

Turning back to me, he did what the French love to do, give the poor lost tourists a lesson in the world’s finest language.

Il faut dire Vid-Uh grenier. He repeated this a few more times, re-lit his pipe, and nudged the donkey to move on.

Lesson over.

That little unpronounced e

The same thing had happened once before.

Funny enough, we were also looking for a flea market, this time in Antibes, not far from our home. The sign we saw in the middle of the road said Deviation, blocking the route Google Maps had suggested to us.

A long, winding detour took us up into the foothills of Sophia Antipolis, a seven-syllable tongue-twister that even the French have
shortened to SoPo. We were lost again. Two cops at a roundabout pulled us over to tell us we had to turn around. I said we were perdue and looking for Marineland where there was a huge flea market.

They just shook their heads. They’d never heard of Mareen-land, and, taking a good look at us, probably thought we were Norwegians. It would be hopeless to talk to us. Then I showed them our printout.

Ah, Mareen-A-Lan. Il est la, toutes directions.”

That little unpronounced e had led to a complete misunderstanding.

We now take more care with the endings of French words, giving them the emphasis they deserve.

Objects and photographs – all have a story to tell

The same might be said for why we love flea markets. We find little things that may not look important, but, if used correctly, can lead to immense enjoyment. Kim likes to find objects she can use in her assemblages and sculptures while I am always on the lookout for vintage photographs.

I’ll go through a box of hundreds to find the people I would’ve liked to have known or talked to, captured forever in photographs clearly showing the raw and untouched human spirit.

Two children leaning out a train window, saying goodbye to their father was, I learned later, taken during the Kindertransport when 10,000 children were spirited safely out of Europe just before the outbreak of World War II.

Vide Grenier

I own thousands of photographs, safely tucked away in archival boxes. They all have a story to tell. They’re just waiting for someone to take the time to listen. Kim once found a handful of photos with eight love letters written in 1926 that led us on a ten-year journey to figure out who wrote them and why. But that’s another story.

Tell me a story – Now it’s your turn

And if you can come up with a story for one of my photographs below, true or made up, send it along in the Comments section. I’ll publish the best ones here later.

Vide Grenier

A classic. Grandpa obviously focused on the food and not the photo of this Italian family.

Vide Grenier

A tiny, blurry image that has always been a favorite.                                                                                                                  

Vide Grenier

Four Women and Two Dogs                                                                                                                                                                 

Vide Grenier

Bus trip to Lourdes

Now it’s your turn to tell me a story based on any of the 5 photos above.

Want to know more?

The Museum of Modern Art in New York now recognizes these old photos, snapshots capturing everyday life and subjects, as a major form of vernacular photography.
The MET has several important collections and this article on the rise of amateur photography:
There are hundreds of sites that share their images or offer them for sale. Here are some of my favorites:



About the Contributor

Mark & Kim Jespersen

Born in San Francisco and raised in Chicago, I fled Minnesota and landed on the coast of New England (as far as I could go at the time). There I met my wife, Kim, in a used bookshop. Fifteen years ago, we set sail for France. Creating – from music to writing to photography to art — keeps us busy.

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  1. Barbara Sause Nov 19, 2023 at 4:40 AM - Reply

    What a pleasure to read, like slipping into a favorite sweater, being entertained, and informed all at once!
    I shared with a friend who’s attempting to polish her French.

    • Mark & Kim Jespersen Dec 14, 2023 at 8:02 PM - Reply

      Hi Barbara – I only wish I was at the stage where it would be correct to say I am polishing my French. Malheureusement, I am still applying the polish. And thanks for your comments. A new story coming up soon will feature the Round Pond, Maine painter, Tony Jackovich.

  2. Jane Selverstone Nov 19, 2023 at 7:43 PM - Reply

    From Jane Selverstone: I just wanted to let you know how much I enjoyed your latest story, Vide Grenier. You did a wonderful job of painting a picture of two lost tourists encountering a near-caricature of a confused Frenchman, followed by a little lesson. As someone who has frequently mispronounced words in several different foreign languages, I loved the way the Frenchman gruffly corrected you. Most of all, I loved your transition from the importance of the little things in pronunciation to the importance of little things in your finds from the flea markets. So many little details, each one needing special emphasis. If you had just written about your flea-market finds, the point would not be as obvious. Turning an unpronounced ‘e’ into a pronounced syllable changes everything – and so does coaxing a story from small artifact from the past. Beautifully done. I wish I could write the way that you do.

    • Mark & Kim Jespersen Dec 14, 2023 at 7:59 PM - Reply

      Jane – Well, if I can make a world-renowned geologist (who spent years up in the Alps to study rocks) sit up and take notice over a tiny detail, I am flattered. Thanks for your comments. Mark

  3. Erica Moody Nov 21, 2023 at 3:09 AM - Reply

    Lovely to read, to be invited so easily into your world noticing these lovely nuances in language, wandering journeys, and found images, reminding or rather encouraging us to explore and notice the details with wonder. A lovely read that is one of these little journeys with lovely reveals itself.

    • Mark & Kim Jespersen Dec 14, 2023 at 7:55 PM - Reply

      Erica – Thanks for your comments. Kim and I love wandering through France, discovering little things that are so different yet so endearing.

  4. Heather Nov 23, 2023 at 7:18 AM - Reply

    What a charming piece—I’ll try to channel some of Mark and Kim’s good humor the next time I’m struggling to communicate in a new language!

    The photos are wonderful. Re: Bus trip to Lourdes, I would like to know more about the no-nonsense woman dressed in all black. Was she the trip organizer or the trip enforcer, or both?

    • Mark & Kim Jespersen Dec 14, 2023 at 7:53 PM - Reply

      Hi Heather – I just saw your comment/question here. I’m guessing that’s Father “somebody”, in black with the hat. Though it could be a lady. I may be getting old but their driver seems a tad young to be driving a bus. Jesus Take the Wheel, I suppose!

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