It was a long awaited trip to France and exceeding all my expectations. I had met my good friend Ann, who was living in Brussels, and together we had driven through Belgium into Normandy, spent a night at an old chateau, climbed Mont San Michel’s well-worn steps to the very top and then stopped in Villedieu-les-Poêles, an old medieval village famous for its copper, on our way to Paris.
I wanted to purchase a set of old copper pots, ones that looked like they had been well used and loved for a hundred years or more. Give me France and the romance of almost any subject just takes over.
We walked into one centuries old shop after another, overwhelmed by brilliant copper pots and pans that lined the walls. The juxtaposition of the ancient buildings and brand new copper was jarring. The new copper was so shiny it was blinding.
These were not the copper pots I wanted.
I speak very poor high school French, nothing more. I had switched my major four different times in college so that I could avoid having to face another foreign language class before realizing that I couldn’t beat the system and struggled through two more semesters of French without learning any more than I had in high school. Like musical instruments and singing, I have no ear for foreign languages.
That did not stop me from trying to communicate with local residents, much to Ann’s chagrin. She had been attending language classes, becoming proficient in French although not in copper-speak. Ann was initially amused with my efforts, but then began to cringe at my attempts. Admittedly, I was pretty pathetic.
We continued my old copper search. No luck. Finally, tucked into a corner of the town square was a small shop where a harried, middle aged sales clerk offered to help. She spoke very poor high school English, a perfect match for my very poor high school French. Between her English, my French and Ann’s translating, the clerk finally understood what I wanted and looked horrified.
Mais, non!! she exclaimed. She went on to explain, the best she could given the language challenges, that one does not purchase, and copper shops especially in world-famous Villedieu-les-Poêles would never sell, the tarnished, well-patina-ed copper pots I sought.
I must have looked terribly disappointed because the clerk stepped back, probably taking pity on me, a nice but very ignorant American tourist who had tried her best to converse in French. She shook her head and motioned us through an old doorway into a dank, darkened anteroom. The three of us proceeded very gingerly down an old wooden staircase with creaky steps to the depths of the shop’s cellar. Now Ann looked horrified.
The clerk pointed to a pile of well-tarnished sets of copper pots in the corner of the cellar. I lit up like a Christmas tree.
She cringed and explained, in very broken English and very simple French, that these were seconds and not worthy of being sold. The tarnish and patina I so loved was from never having been polished, not age nor use.
It didn’t matter. Those were the pots I wanted.
Before she let me pay a meager amount for the set, I had to promise I would never, ever divulge the name of the shop that would sell such inferior items to an American tourist. Their reputation would be ruined for all eternity.
So, if you travel to France, and find yourself seeking well tarnished, faux antique copper pots in the tiny village of Villedieu-les-Poêles, you’re on your own, except now you’ll know to ask to see the copper pots in the cellar.
Puis-je s’il vous plaît voir les pots en cuivre dans la cave?