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Sunday, August 29, 2010

What is French country?

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When I was old enough to drive, I wandered out in the Country Squire wagon, into the country some days, others to our local university town for shoes, or to Mapes furniture store. I realize this last destination is odd for a 16-year-old on her own, in frayed blue jeans, gladiator sandals, and Carole King hair. The store was half way to the university town, a stand alone building not downtown anywhere, on the four-lane thoroughfare running east and west through towns across our state's mid-section. It was a large, sprawling place, laid out in comfortably sized rooms with furniture arranged in home-like groupings. I found rest and inspiration wandering through the cool rooms, empty of people (all but one or two sales clerks who smiled and then ignored me). I breathed in color schemes and fine quality craftsmanship, the shine of mahogany, the luxury of damask, moiré and tapestry and the comfort of polished chintz. All the furniture was traditional, appealing to our conservative small rural community.

This was the era, in the early 1970s, when Colonial anything was making a big comeback, leading up to America's bicentennial in 1976. This callback to our own revolution seems to have also conjured another country's. French country provincial furniture was also all the rage, with its maple framed sofas and headboards with graceful curves and peaks. Mapes furniture store offered a couple of groupings of this style. I don't know how, but intuitively I disliked French country furniture, with a passion, and I all but ignored it. I felt it was fake, in a design sense. I knew it did not look anything like authentic country furniture in a French chateau or cottage. Where was the inspiration coming from, and how did it get here? I especially cringed at the artificial flecks of "wear" and wormholes in the wood. I knew that I would never purchase such a piece of furniture if my life depended on it. I was a fake furniture snob. I would rather own a threadbare velvet sofa from Goodwill than something created to look old.

OK, so now, as a true snob, I will talk about Paris. In 1997 my sister Nancy and I ventured out at the crack of whatever dawn a tourist with jet lag can conjure, and hopped on the Metro north to the edge of the Paris periphery, to the Paris flea market. I bought this 200-year-old French clock for Don at Marché aux Puces St-Ouen de Clignancourt, the place some believe to be the original "flea market" -- so named for the beginnings as "rag-and-bone" market stalls whose furniture was infested with bugs. It has come a long way since then, with shops that are priced way out of my league. This clock was priced at about its age: $200. Not bad, I thought.

One of the things that drew me to the clock was its obvious age and experience with critters. While the front and sides of the clock are embedded with brass marquetry, the back side has worm holes. Et voila! The early bird catches the worm.



I spent a couple of days in the French countryside back in 1975. I slept under the stars in the churchyard of the Vézelay Abbey (Basilique Ste-Madeleine) with a handful of fellow students and one rebellious professor. We awoke inside that stone wall with the one-armed cathedral at our backs (like a Sunday School child raising her arm, frozen in time), and a soft valley freckled with poppies spreading out like a calico comforter from the feet of our sleeping bags. This was after dining the night before in a simple dining room in a hostel, with plain wooden tables lined up, showing great wear, windows flung open to the sleepy sun shutting down the valley, we students, lined up in our wooden chairs under bare light bulbs overhead, one large bowl of pottery in front of us, filled first with soup, then salad, then meat and potatoes, carafes of wine centered on the tables like bouquets. Cool and warm, comforting and luxurious.


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62 comments:

Pat said...

You write so beautifully; you truly have a gift.

What a beautiful clock - that is so interesting about the worm holes!

Lorenzo said...

No "true snob" has ever flaunted wormholes to better effect. Amongst other things in this lovely post, I love the photo of the clock with the open book. I see that, as in your last post, you are in summer, still, still still... Some cyber sleuthing took me to James Thomson's 'Four Season' and to "this opening bloom / Of thy enlightened mind and gentle worth". ;)

willow said...

Ah, Paris is most definitely on my bucket list. Gorgeous, gorgeous clock. Love the wonderful worm hole patina, and the picture of a Sunday School child raising their hand in time. I've been told by an architectural prof that WM is built in the French Country design, btw.

California Girl said...

I'd say $200 was a good deal. That is a fine looking clock.

*jean* said...

oo what a way to start the day...a wonderful ruth tale...thank you and happy sunday...

Shari Sunday said...

Love your clock. I do have some fake French Country furniture. It is an old (60's) Thomasville bedroom set that I found sitting in the dirt at a roadside used furniture store. The top had been stripped bare on the dresser but I refinished it. I later stayed in a hotel in Montreal that was filled with the same style. But I love it. As for clocks, I have a wall clock with a pendulum that I originally bought for my mother and a mantel clock my mother bought me. Both stopped chiming years ago except that the wall clock occasionally decides to chime at 1:00 (a.m. or p.m.) 1:15 and 1:30 every month or so. Then it stops again. We love our quirky old furniture and clocks but I would love to visit Europe just once before I die. I have my sites set on Italy. By the time I get there I will probably need a wheelchair but I enjoy your travels vicariously.

Coffee and a Book Chick said...

Love the pictures and love your blog!! I cannot wait to visit Paris...one day!

Terresa said...

Your memories are beautifully shared, make me nostalgic for a country I've never visited but dream towards. Although I'm terrified of even attempting to speak the language.

I would be much more at home in Spain, where I am fluent at least. :)

Anna said...

Ruth wow 200 years old, and very nice one too.

The only old thing I have in the house is that one poetry book I picked up few years ago at goodwill for 50 cents, and traced to be 100 years old, and getting older I guess.

Ruth thanks for sharing your story, it was real fun reading it. It is always nice to have good memories.

Anna :)

Deslilas said...

We use to say " Men are the best to speak about perfumes" You're the best to describe the French country" !
We're are going to pick up berries in our Alpes.

Peter said...

The clock was certainly a good purchase... worm holes included!

To sleep under the stars at Vézelay, as a young student (or even later in life), sounds wonderful! (I must admit that when I have been there, it has been at the Hôtel de la Poste.)

Ruth said...

Pat, thank you. The clock came without a, um, clock, the works I mean. I found this not-too-suitable electric clock face that sort of fits the hole if you secure it well.

Ruth said...

Well, Lorenzo-Sherlock, thank you, and I'm impressed. Thomson's book of seasons belonged to my dad, for he loved old things, including books (as you know from my oak book case post). This one was printed in 1788, and I read its lines now and then, and struggle with the "f"s that are really "s"s. The other volume in that photo, with the prettily embossed cover, is John Keats' Shorter Poems, which of course you would not be able to judge from its cover. :)

Ruth said...

dear willow, I think that your manor must be very lovely, from what I see of you, and it (her?). You have impeccable taste.

Ruth said...

Thank you, California Girl, I am glad you agree with me!

Ruth said...

Jean, thank you so much. It was a happy Sunday, even though I had to work.

Ruth said...

Shari, my dear, quirky and old is so good. You finding that French country bedroom set in the dirt, stripped of paint, redeems that design for me. :) We too have an eclectic collection of furniture. It's the new-made-to-look-old thing that bothered me at the time of my furniture store ramblings, and still does.

Don's dad has a large collection of clocks, at least 100, which we are just getting ready to help him sell, as they are downsizing into an apartment. I'll take photos of them all, and Don will post them at a nice online auction site. Don has received a few clocks from his dad, and that is why I bought him this one, to add to his collection. One day we'll have to downsize too, not doubt.

Ruth said...

Thank you, Book Chick. Since you want to, I hope you will visit Paris, and enjoy it as I have. Paris is a different place for everyone who goes, mais, bien sur!

Ruth said...

Terresa, I think France would be very happy to welcome you, even with just a few words of polite French. That is what it has done to me. But I confess that now when I think of going back (after 4 years), I get nervous about that aspect of it, again.

No doubt you would take Spain by storm, and I'm quite certain a friend of ours would gladly welcome you there. ;-)

Marcie said...

Your memories come to life in 'french country'. So beautifully written...

Ginnie said...

I wonder when you will go back again, dear sister, now that it nearly sits in our back yard. But not before you first visit US...then we will let you go. :)

Deborah said...

Ruth, I winced a bit reading about new things made to look old. We ordered a lovely Empire-style desk for my better half from a cabinetmaker in northern France, only to find that it arrived with deliberately-made dings and scratches! I really don't see the point.

Even though I lived for 7 years near Paris, I never made it to the marché aux puces ! I don't have enough confidence in my knowledge of antiques nor my own taste to take good advantage of these types of markets. I might see something I like but have no idea of its real value, and I have too often bought things only to find that it doesn't work well in my limited design concept. But I enjoyed reading about your experiences and really like the clock!

Susan said...

Dear, dear Ruthie, only you could make a furniture store seem like someplace one should go immediately to try and capture your experience. I've always loved them, too, and my favorite thing to shop for is furniture.

I think sleeping beneath the stars in the French countryside after filling my belly with rustic food sounds like the only thing in the world I want to do tonight. :)

George said...

An interesting post, Ruth, but you will have to do better if you want to convince me that you are a snob. Seeing your evolution and growth is always interesting, but the last paragraph about your experience in Vezelay was especially meaningful for me. I have passed through Vezelay on many of my trips to France, often spending a night or two there. I am a devoted Francophile and, as such, I have nothing but great memories of every minute of my life spent in France.

margie said...

september 2011, paris and barcelona. our retirement trip, as close to backpacking as the two of us can stand. can't wait. great post.

Oliag said...

I have never taken to the "distressed" on purpose look either...I have too much of the naturally distressed in my home it seems. My favorite image from your post is that of you as a teen visiting furniture store vignettes...I loved those scenes too but never thought to visit them on my own...

Love your clock case...worm holes and all...what a unique gift.

Loring Wirbel said...

Oh, that's right, you're one of those cheese-lovin' surrender monkeys that LIKE France, huh? (Just kidding.) Seriously, have you been to the French Alps, near Geneva? I have one word for you - Cluses! Cool town!

Jeanie said...

I think I love hearing your Paris stories more than almost anything! I can see you and your sister at Clingancourt, shopping; traveling about. Ah -- Yes, I love the concept of "French Country." Unfortunately, most of what the stores had wasn't quite it!

westcobich said...

the clock pictures are lovely - it's the lighting and the angles and the inherent beauty of the craft in the piece - I mean, honestly - do we stop and look at things closely enough, ever?
Then you topped the pictures with your mention of Vezelay. OMG, it's been ages since I thought of it.
I have to dig around and see if I have any pictures from there.
And a wonderful defintion of "French country", mon amie! Love it.
And then your mention of Vezelay.

westcobich said...

Oops, didn't mean to repeat the Vezelay line. sheesh....

Sidney said...

What a gift for writing... superb photographs too... with a wonderful light.

And my favorite country is definitely France...

rauf said...

Oh deeah ! Last thing in the world Ruth, you being a snob of all things.

i am always fascinated by old buildings and old furniture. i take pictures when ever i spot them.
i like going to our local flea market which has a history of its own. since antiques have a good market and good profit, most of the things i find here are fakes. i can't afford even the fakes Ruth. Some remaining palaces are open to public but unfortunately photography is not allowed. i love to take pictures of the furnished interiors. Salar Jung was a Nawab of Hyderabad once and he had a massive collection which is displayed in Salar Jung Museum in Hyderabad, most fascinating Ruth.

Highly intricate work on the clock you bought is indeed fabulous Ruth. You have captured all the details so well.

Babs-beetle said...

This post takes me back to the late 60's/early 70's when all things Victorian were to die for.

I had just got married and we furnished our bedroom with furniture that we bought from one of the famous markets in London, called Junk City. There was an Antique City, but that was for renovated furniture. We liked to renovate it ourselves, and it was considerably cheaper at Junk City. It had to be old and not fake, and it just had to have worm holes.

It was also very fashionable to have old Copper, Brass and Pewter, and lots of it. We even bought books to learn all about the hallmarks, to make sure it was really old before we bought any.

Memories :)

Bella Rum said...

I think you got a bargain at $200 - a beautiful clock and tale to tell.

Ruth said...

Oh hello, Anna, it's good to see you. I loved Matthew's self portraits. Now he is not old.

I didn't realize until after publishing the last photo that the open book is the same age as the clock, actually a little older maybe.

Ruth said...

Bonjour, Daniel, oh but I know so little about France. But what I know, I love, and I guess it comes through when I write about it. I'd say berry picking in the Alps, eating some cheese, bread, some Swiss chocolate, and you will round out summer very nicely. Enjoy!

Ruth said...

Peter, good if you think it was a good deal. You know how pricey the Puces can be. The clock did not have the works, but the marquetry was good, and the wormholes lively and interesting.

I don't think it matters how you sleep in Vézelay, there is such delight driving around the hill to the top, and looking down across the hills and valley. Waking up anywhere in that town, having a cuppa, and wandering out in the streets in the early morning in solitude is something to want to go back to.

Ruth said...

Thank you, Marcie. I'm glad you liked it, because this is one of my favorite memories, that of Vézelay. I wish I could walk there right now.

Ruth said...

Boots, I wonder too. It's hard to believe it would be just about as far to Paris from you as Chicago is from us. Hey, we could swap houses? :D The thing is, we'd want to stay together, so that wouldn't work.

cathyswatercolors said...

Hi Ruth, loved the memory. Your clock purchase is great,wonder what it's worth now? More I bet. Hey did you forget to mention the plastic wrap on french furntiure,oh wait, that may have been french provincial furniture. Your youthful travel seem so appealing.

Margaret Bednar said...

You are fascinating! Loved the tattoo piece - who knew I would read the whole thing! And Paris is a place I hope to go with my daughter in a few years. Flea Markets - never thought about the name before, but thanks for filling me in. And love the poetry!

Ruth said...

Hello, Deborah in Greece! Picturing you languishing on the deck of that water craft while you skip in and around the islands is so great. Maybe you'll come across some antiquities there. I bought my mother an antique necklace in Athens the same year I went to Vézelay.

Your Empire desk story reminds me of a scene in the Mary Tyler Moore show (did you get that in Canada in the '70s?) when she was "antiquing" a piece of furniture by beating it with a chain. Those were the days when everyone was painting and staining on top of surfaces to make them look old.

Ruth said...

Susie, you are such a doll. I love you to death.

How about we go furniture shopping and then make a rustic dinner. I need to remember that I can bring France and Paris here by recreating something of the good memories. Why not make a 3-course dinner and serve it in one big bowl, mopping out each course with a piece of rustic bread?

Ruth said...

George, it is especially meaningful to me that you have spent time in Vézelay, after meeting you at Transit Notes when you were posting about your C2C trek. I was so taken with your attention to the British countryside and your photos, and your attention to life and Life, and now I learn that you love this place too. It's yet another soul connection, and I hope I can hear more about your travels in France at your blog one day.

Ruth said...

Margie, what a plan! I envy you both cities, but maybe Barcelona more at this point, since I have never been there, and I have a growing urge to visit Spain. You know, I think planning a trip is almost as much fun as finally getting there.

Ruth said...

Thank you, Oliag. Sometimes I am surprised myself when I look back on the things I did then. I just loved being alone, and it seems I pretty much did as I pleased. Interesting that these outings didn't lead me into furniture design or interior design.

Ruth said...

You got me, Loring. :)

No, I haven't been to the French Alps or Cluses, but from the google images I just browsed (gorgeous!) it looks a lot like Lauterbrunnen in Switzerland where I spent a few days, and fell in love! (with the Jungfrau). Ah featherbeds, cheese, wine and church bells in the deepest valley in the world.

Ruth said...

Jeanie, thank you so much. It's wonderful to know you are there, waiting to hear more stories about Paris. And to think, there are more Paris stories somewhere for us to create. :)

Ruth said...

Oh, you can mention Vézelay a few more times, and that would be fine with me. In fact I wish we could sit and chat about it, face to face, so I could hear what you did there. There are some pretty remarkable relics in that abbey. And this is the church that officially excommunicated Henry VIII! But I don't need to chat about that, when there is French countryside. We could have a picnic!

Ruth said...

Sidney, your kind words are very gratifying, coming from a photographer such as yourself. Thank you.

Ruth said...

rauf, , I am always drawn to beautiful interiors too, especially the ancient ones. There are so many different ways of living. I have a fabulous big heavy book called THE WAY WE LIVE with interiors and a few exteriors of homes and dwellings and buildings from around the world, all by the same photographer, Gilles de Chabaneix. I posted photos from it once, with your photo too of the wall dish cabinet in the mud hut, created by a village woman. It does not matter what the cost of the furnishings or decor, when something is designed well, there is joy and beauty in it.

Ruth said...

Yes, Babs, I remember that craze too! Don't you wonder what triggers them? Junk City sounds like just the place Don and I would have loved exploring. He still does, but I have lost my inspiration and energy for renovating much of anything (except me). Remember the brief period in fashion after the movie Romeo and Juliet came out, and we all wore those Juliet sleeves, poofy at the top and then fitted from above the elbow down to the wrist? :)

Ruth said...

Bella, thanks for agreeing that I made a good purchase. The proportions of the top and bottom of the clock are a little goofy, I think, but I feel that lends it extra charm.

Ruth said...

Cathy, good question. Don is getting his dad's big clock collection listed at an online clock auction, and I wonder if they would have an idea of its value. Hmm. Maybe I'll send a photo of this one along with the others.

Ha, I like your comment about plastic wrapped furniture. It is quite incredible these days, how well people can pack their things for moving. And the Marché will send anything anywhere in the world, for a nice price (nice meaning big).

Ruth said...

Margaret, thank you for your generous praise! I am all over the place, that's for sure. Who knows what this blog is about? I am very gratified that you have found enjoyment here.

I certainly got visual pleasure from your warm and delicious water color & pen & ink of roses today, my favorite colors in a rose.

mystic rose said...

I love the last photo. Which books are those? They look exactly like the kind you would like to browse through lazily on a warm afternoon.

My idea of French Country style is that it is laid back and still elegant with lots of linen, warm whites and the greenish blue colors(patina?). At least that's the idea I like.

Susan said...

Oh, please, please, don't love me to death! Then I wouldn't be able to read your wonderful pieces. You can love me to pieces, though. ;)

Now that would be a fun experience...furniture shopping with Ruthie. And that sounds like my favorite kind of meal...and there would be less dishes to wash.

(no need to answer, dahling, I know you're already working on the next one :))

Ruth said...

Mystic, James Thomson's Four Seasons, printed in 1788, and the one with the prettily embossed cover, is John Keats' Shorter Poems, about a hundred years newer.

Your idea of French country sounds gorgeous, comforting and something I want right now. :)

Ruth said...

Susie, when I say love you to death, what I mean is love you until I die! :)

Susan said...

I know, I was just bein' Silly Susie! XO

Sandy said...

I've enjoyed catching up here and loved the photos, poetry, and this clock! Beautiful.

French country furniture said...

Interesting post, Ruth, but you have to do better if you want to convince me that you are a snob. Seeing their progress and growth is always interesting, but the last paragraph of his experience in Vezelay was especially meaningful to me.