Just outside Morlaix in Brittany, if you take the road towards the coast, you might catch sight of a rather unkempt-looking building standing just off the side of the road. If you drive too fast you’ll miss it. There is a bare, scrubby area for parking and if you are lucky it will be open for business. The building is an old portacabin, and in the forecourt a wooden shack fronts a number of trestle tables all covered in old china and glass – no matter what the weather.
This is ‘Emmaus’. I do not refer to the Biblical story, featured in old paintings as ‘Road to Emmaus’ or ‘Supper at Emmaus’. The name is doubtless drawn from this. Emmaus is a charity founded in France 66 years ago and which today has branches all over the world. Basically it identifies and helps people in extreme poverty, homeless and without work. To quote from their own website: ‘…the Emmaus Movement promotes an alternative model where work is not a bondage, but rather an opportunity to access the freedom to be oneself in helping others. And this solidarity is organized at all levels: locally, nationally, and internationally!’
We first discovered Emmaus by accident a couple of years ago. Since then we have made a point of finding out when it is open and visiting whenever we are in France. We go partly because of M’s addiction to bric-a-brac, but Emmaus is not any old ‘charity shop’ outfit, it’s a unique experience. We never fail to enjoy our visits – and to come home with some bargains. This time was no different.
The ‘trainees’ at the Morlaix set-up are mostly young Africans. Some of them speak English, but they are nervous of us because we aren’t locals. I speak fairly fluent French, and we usually find that big smiles and shaking of hands help enormously. They are, of course, overseen by some sharp-eyed and experienced French organisers who seldom interfere. Then we begin our search. Outside there are piles and piles of old crockery, glasses, pots and pans. Some are full to the brim with recent rain, while others look tacky and undesirable. In the shack are boxes and shelves laden with ‘stuff’ presumably sheltering from the effects of the weather. They aren’t much better. You have to have a keen eye in these matters.
To my joy I find a little glass (full of rainwater) crammed in amongst a sea of crockery on the trestle tables and mercifully unbroken. That’s the strange thing about these items: very few are chipped and almost none are broken. The French must look after their things better than I do! This glass has a picture of a barrel and the words ‘Weinstube Schloss Heidelberg’ printed upon it. A moment of nostalgia follows… Heidelberg is where my old Uncle spent a year of his life in 1932 at the University. I have a project on the go, posting a number of his photos and items of interest to a Collection on Google+. I must have this glass!
Eventually we have between us collected seven items which we present to the African at the desk. M loves this moment, because he knows that he will get a good deal. What this means is that I will have to act as interpreter. Which I do, but in this case it’s not necessary because a bit of sign language arrives at a price of six euros. A ticket is filled in, which we take to a separate cash desk. The African has carefully written €5 on the ticket! M is delighted.
M decides to move inside the portacabin where they house the furniture, the better quality bric-a-brac, some white goods, clothes and furnishings, and just about anything which might sell. French people poke and prod around at these items, muttering to themselves and each other, determined to find a bargain. A woman picks up a huge pottery dish which might have graced a 1960s dinner table, full of steaming vegetables or salad leaves. She frowns at it, notices me watching and puts it back. We exchange a smile. The atmosphere is quiet and relaxed; concentrated. On a previous occasion I found a piece of red velvet material which I purchased for less than a euro and will use to line a box. This time, though, nothing appeals. M meanwhile has spotted a long mirror on a stand, and then we find another. This is closely followed by some more glassware – this time a set of small wineglasses and some gorgeous dessert bowls.
Another African man wraps each item of glass in newspaper and boxes them up for us, so well packed that they survive the journey back across the sea to England. Mercifully the mirrors are not too big and just fit into our car. We decide to call a halt, having spent a total of 47 euros (about £33) on our treasures.
At home it takes some time to wash, clean and scrub up these things. We are even more thrilled with some of the items. The mirrors and a couple more pieces of bric-a-brac will be sold on, whilst other items go straight into use. The little glass sparkles on the kitchen windowsill, joined by a tumbler which bizarrely portrays the French version of ‘The Waterworks’ from the board game Monopoly.
It is uplifting to visit a place like Emmaus. Rather different from our ‘charity shops,’ the atmosphere is one of peaceful positivity and hope. These young Africans are far from home, but in amongst the fragments and cast-offs of French people’s lives they are being helped to make something of themselves, as well as giving all of us the opportunity to revive some little treasures. Everyone wins!