Off Piste in Rouen

One of the most pleasant things about France is that, unlike most of Britain, things only get christmassy when christmas is just round the corner. It means that Autumn can be celebrated for its beautiful colours before the sparkly lights and street vendors come out to roast their chestnuts. Somehow, when all these things happen too early the excitement of christmas looses its edge before the day actually arrives.

The difference I suppose is that whilst the British manufacturers are on the ‘hard-sell’ for all those totally unnecessary “must haves”‘, the French are more interested in true excellence; the smoothest fois gras; the perfectly chosen wine; the oozing cheese; the freshest of fish and the elegance of christmas. Maybe because France is fairly new to me I am seeing it with the same eyes that children see their first few Christmases.

Christmas decorations  appeared in Rouen at the begining of December with a classic simplicity which makes one appreciate that many are doing their bit to rein in the austentatious displays which jar with the reality of the recession. Simplicity in itself can still be beautiful!

Our school has a wonderful tradition of ordering in christmas trees and donating at the same time to charity. There is something wonderfully festive about families gathering to collect their trees together from where they are stacked in the school garden and carrying them home under their arm or with the aid of their children.

This year my children demanded that we updated our decorations a little from the unbreakable ones we had when they were very little, and so it was that over the last couple of days I have, under the guise of hunting out decorations, wandered off my usual shopping route in search of something classic, beautiful and unusual. As I did so I made many exciting discoveries and it struck me that this too is one of the fundamental differences between England and France. How many more specialist shops, how many more shopkeepers and customers are keeping alive traditional regional products and traditional manufacturing methods;  the pride of a nation which not only fiercely protects its own small industries but also maintains its demand for their products, celebrates them and stubbornly defends them against foriegn rivals. As one moves from department to department, from region to region, there is always at least one product associated with it, and usually many more. But I digress a little as today I have been savoring the variety of little specialist shops tucked away in tiny side streets of Rouen and the generosity of spirit of those who run them in recommending and directing me to their neighbours, colleagues or competitors in my search for the few odd bits and bobs that were on my shopping list.

The main item on my list was a collection of old pendalogues, the glass ‘drops’ from a crystal chandelier which I wanted to hang from my christmas tree. My initial thought was a glass and linen shop on Rue Beauvoisine. I was disappointed to find it locked up but spotted a little notice in the window requesting that enquiries were made next door at an antique bookstore. What a delight was in store for me. Piles and piles of ancient books towering up to the lofty ceiling, beautiful antique covers jostling alongside modern-day classics.

I asked to visit the neighbouring glass shop, to discover that this was the husband of the owner. He was only too happy to open up and we discussed the correct terminology for the glass drops, and I realised that although his wife did not have what I was looking for, her antique linen tablecloths and crystal glassware were to die for and would be beautiful on a christmas dining table.

I spent a good ten minutes back in the bookshop discussing how reading french books was an essential part of my language learning. In his turn he recommended the colourful  and classic language of Maupassant as essential reading matter for a varied vocabulary and correct sentence construction. I was happy that I could confirm that I had already read several. For all the apparent disorder he knew exactly which stack of books held the desired recommendations, and pulled out a few english ones too. I left clutching three under my arm.

He then recommended the rue Eau de Robec area for my continued search for pendalogues.

Having passed several very beautiful antiques shops – too daunting to enter – I finally spotted  one, a little more approachable than the rest and enquired if he had any broken or damaged pendalogues that I could buy. Not thinking me ridiculous at all in my request he directed me to a beautiful chandelier shop only moments from his.

I was charmed therefore to find that the owner of the Chandelier shop not only had pendalogues for sale but also a large variety. We selected a few all the time enjoying pleasant banter with him and his wife and he asked me to pop back later, by which time he would have embellished each pendalogue with either glass flowers or stars and created wire hooks for each for me to thread ribbon ‘hangers’ through.

Whilst waiting I passed through a narrow pedestrian allée to discover another fabric shop with a basket of remnants and its owner busy on a sewing machine creating curtains for a client. Her selection of linens was delightful and this one was too ‘french’ for me to pass by!

Next I passed this wonderful flower shop

and this violin craftsman

The Quartier des Antiquities in Rouen is an architectural delight with its pretty streets, leaning colombage buildings and pedestrian allées, as well as providing a visual feast amongst its shop windows:

I came home very pleased with my purchases and charmed by the people I’d met on my travels!

and spent the evening adorning my tree!

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