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  • Debra Palmen

My Underwear Is Not Suspicious


As usual, the crossing to France by ferry was uneventful. It’s a four hour trip from Newhaven to Dieppe so I put the time to good use, doing research for my next couple of books and working on the concept for a possible third. It was that or watch the endless grey waters of the Channel churn by, with only the occasional freighter or fishing trawler as momentary interest.

The weather in France is lovely at the moment, and we arrived into a glorious autumn afternoon. Within minutes of disembarking we were browsing the local brocantes and I was patting a little black cat to get my moggie fix (although the little wretch did try to bite me, so it wasn’t quite like home).

As soon as we arrived at the Hotel Grand Casino a woman leaving the carpark leapt from her car to hand me her parking voucher, giving us free parking for the length of our stay. That was lovely of her. Then the concierge announced they’d upgraded us to a seafront suite on the top floor, so that was welcome news. Directly across the road are the public baths, with the calm, blue ocean beyond. We opened the windows to enjoy the warm sea air and later, in the quiet of the night, the waves shooshing on the pebble beach lulled us to sleep.


But before that we made the pilgrimage to Tout va Bien, situated on the old harbour right next to a historical carousel that is covered with naked women and sinister looking horses. Just what you want to expose your three year old to. This restaurant is our traditional dining spot in Dieppe, for our usual moules a la crème. Yum.

You get a litre of mussels, too much for me, but a very obliging Douglas was happy to help me finish. Then a short walk back to the hotel via a local patisserie to pick up dessert, which we consumed in our suite overlooking the ocean. What a lovely start to our time in France. Except for feeling sick after scoffing too many French pastries.

Then deep into Normandy to visit Serge, who has several overflowing barns and a large scrap metal yard that is a great source of excellent ecclesiastical metalware. But suddenly, at a little country crossroad, we were waylaid by French Customs. In this country Customs doesn’t restrict itself to the ports of entry, but roams the countryside targeting vehicles deemed suspicious. Clearly that’s us, because this has happened to us before, way over in Calvados (near the famous Bayeux Tapestry).

On that occasion I had words with the Customs guy as he rifled through my underwear and said he was looking for guns. I told him my undies aren’t quite big enough to hide an Uzi machinegun, thank you, and I gave him my Cranky Face. As you know from the incident in my pop up shop, my Cranky Face can make grown men step back. Including French Customs, it turns out. So he apologized and closed my bag and we moved on.

But this time it took a whole team to search my underwear. And this time they weren’t put off, even by extended Cranky Face. Even when I raised my eyebrow at them. I know France is in a state of emergency right now, and we did see a couple of enormous Police armoured personnel carriers on the road into Paris, and there has been a suspected terrorist attack in Brussels only yesterday. But come on guys! I’m starting to get a complex about my knickers.

The boys were all cute, true. They all had charming French accents, true. And they were all polite and respectful. Right until the point where my underwear needed to be thoroughly searched. Not the stuff I was wearing, numpties! The replacement underwear in my bag. We’re here for a month, so I’ve brought a lot. Perhaps it was suspicious to a Frenchman to find a woman with such a ready supply of underwear, and not one a g-string. Or lacy. Or see-through. Downright Bridget Jones, really.

So yes, when you think about it I can see why they were immediately suspicious. Douglas’ underwear remained unmolested, while mine might have been hiding semi-automatic weapons. Makes sense. Eventually, though, they had to concede we had nothing contraband in the van, my underwear did not endanger the nation, and we were allowed to proceed.

We got to Serge’s place, but he wasn’t there! I was able to communicate with his wife, who speaks very little English (and I speak very little French), why we were there and she telephoned him. She dragged out a French/English dictionary, and pointed to a phrase she was trying to convey. While I was disappointed Serge wasn't there, it did seem an odd request.

I looked at her in confusion. She looked confused at my confusion. Then her eye went to the phrase she was pointing to. It said “don’t kill yourself”. Oh! Oh! Pardon! Pardon! she cried. She was actually trying to ask me to wait a while.

The message was eventually understood, and we retreated to a nearby country lane to have a picnic with the excellent supplies we had picked up at a local supermarket. Serge wanted his lunch when he got home – this is a vitally important activity in France and cannot be interrupted or postponed, so he handed me the keys to all his secret storage spots and told me to go for it. So I did.

No French angels this time, I’m afraid, but lots of lovely church metalware, lots of excellent copper, a great little enamel cabinet, coffee grinders, enamelware and that nice butter churn you can see at the forefront of the photo. It took a bit of manoeuvring to get to that butter churn, let me tell you. I also found an excellent old French brass fire extinguisher that is exactly the same as one I saw converted into a lamp in that charming French bistrot in Bath. So I snapped that up, and now it can be a lamp in Australia.

I also walked away with 15 heavy linen men’s chemise du nuit (night shirts). I took four last time and they were immediately leapt upon by customers in the pop up shop, who demanded more. I knew Serge had a secret stash, and now they’re mine. And thanks to my friend Gaelle for the quickie French lesson so I knew exactly what to ask for in French this time – last time it took a whole lot of mime before Serge understood what the hell I was talking about.

While I was sorting through the chemise a sweet little black cat came by to oversee my work and demand cuddles. He was gorgeous, insisted on being picked up and then snuggled under my chin and madly purred. So we were both enjoying a total love-fest when Doug arrived and told me a few other dealers had just turned up so now I had competition and better get a move on. Fortunately my new furry best friend decided to accompany me as I carefully navigated through Serge’s barns, so I still got the occasional cuddle.

Serge’s barns and yards are dangerous to explore, as you might have guessed from the photos. You must be careful that something you pull out for a closer look doesn’t cause a cascade of precariously balanced other stuff that will bury you. It’s such a higgledy-piggledy mish-mash of stuff, some fabulous, some utter junk, and it’s easy to miss good stuff if you don’t focus.

When I got to the main barn there were two other women there, one English, one French. The English woman was deep in the interior but came scurrying back as soon as I picked up ten very old copper saucepans. Oh, I walked past them and didn’t even see them, she told me. Do you want them all? Yes I wanted them all. Nothing is priced in Serge’s barns, so I showed them to him. He nominated a stupidly high price in a loud voice because the English dealer was lurking close-by, pretending not to listen to our negotiation but clearly eavesdropping. I had my back to her so I whispered a far more reasonable price to him, an incredibly good price, and he whispered back Yes.

So the English dealer thought I had paid a really high price for the copper, but told me she would have paid it. And every single thing I selected thereafter, right from under her nose, she immediately declared she would have taken it, if only she had seen it. Perhaps if she had stopped concentrating on me and started looking more closely at the stuff, she might have found some good things too.

But then the French woman, who clearly spoke English and heard everything the English dealer was saying to me, decided to be my little well-dressed shadow. I squeezed into one tiny space, barely big enough to turn around in, but I knew I had to wriggle in because I’d found good things in this hidden corner before. But the French woman decided to join me! She was pressed tightly against my back – it really was ridiculous of her to follow me, but she was determined to see what I was looking at. Madame, I think we must now get married, I laughingly told her over my shoulder. She got the hint and then followed me at a slightly less than joined-at-the-hip distance.

These women were clearly dealers, so why not concentrate on their own affairs? Mind you, I do get special privileges at Serge’s these days, after being a customer for so many years. So I get handed the keys to the secret spots and told where special things are hidden. The English dealer, seeing my big pile of chemise (plus a bunch of beautiful thick, thick linen sacks) asked Serge where I had gotten them.

He shot me a reproachful look, because apparently I was supposed to keep the secret location secret. He has a very French attitude, willing to sell things to some people, but not others. But struggling under a teetering pile of linen, it was pretty hard to sneak them back to the van without the English dealer seeing. But it was okay, I had taken all the good chemise and sacks, and the secret shed is dusty and almost packed solid – you have to really breathe in to wiggle and squeeze around, and everything good is hidden in cupboards. So even though she got to look into the secret shed, she exclaimed over all the dust and didn’t bother going in. Good. If you’re not prepared to walk away from Serge’s looking like a dust-devil, you’re not going to find the best bits.

Then on into Paris. Of course we hit town right at peak hour, so the Peripherique was its normal utter, complete, absolute chaos. You’ve really got to sit in the middle of it all to get a good feeling for how overwhelming this incredible mass of vehicles can be. If you’ve got my book you’ll know this ring road has a chapter all to itself. But Douglas wended his way through it all, and we emerged unscathed. As well as reading the chapter on the Peripherique (it’s a short one), it's time now to read the chapter on Porte de Vanves Market. I’ll be there on Saturday morning, and I’m really looking forward to it.

But first we’re visiting the Louvre, which we haven’t been to for about 20 years, and perhaps getting all touristy and taking a cruise down the Seine. More soon.


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