Lille, a quiet city in the north of France, becomes a hive of crazed activity for two days a year as two to three million people descend onto the streets to buy trash.
Dating back to the twelfth century, the origins of the popular festival lie in the large gatherings of traders and producers selling their wears in a fire sale and morphed into a garage sale and flea market by the sixteenth century. It all started with servants being granted the right to sell used items from their bosses’ houses and as it grew it became famous throughout all of Europe. It ceased to exist after the wars but was reborn in our growing consumer society as students, youth and the elderly began selling their old belongings for a pittance. But by the time I arrived this festival has transformed from a fire sale to a full on commercial industry with sellers and buyers from all over Europe and the local public is now interspersed with many professionals.
And so we arrived on Friday afternoon by two cars packed to the brim and on trains with massive suitcases. Together we had amassed a considerable collection of belongings. In order to make this event a success we had to devise a plan, a concerted effort to sell as many of our goods as possible.
We believed in our product, and we were ready to have some fun. Despite being mainly previously worn clothes, they were all from good brands sometimes even being unworn with tags and all! And we also had under our purview some exciting if junky paraphernalia.
Not wanting to waste any time I headed out with the master of Braderie himself, to explore the town and some of the professional stalls by the river.
As the city prepared itself for this huge festival I managed to sneak through some of the most beautiful buildings.
Returning to the apartment we settled into our home of the next two days and prepared for the hard work ahead.
Besides my position as junior seller, given my questionable obviously foreign simplistic French and the fact that this was my first Braderie, I had been tasked with the unique job of feeding the workers during our weekend stay in the north.
We had champagne and dinner and all tried to sleep which was surprisingly difficult given the excitement and the terrible mattresses…
Waking early to get a fresh start the tables were set up as we watched the marathon runners tackle the traditional warm up race to the big sale.
Although even before everything started we had to tackle a turf war. It seems that some professionals with big vans had illegally taken our reserved positions in a scare tactic ploy against the little guys. But they did not quite guess just who they were messing with – seasoned professionals, with attitude, and aware of their rights, and willing to defend them – these are not people to be messed with lightly. And so after a mere 5 minutes they had begrudgingly admitted defeat and moved on to steal someone else’s spot.
Setting up at least seven tables and two racks our stores were ready almost as the starting gun was blasted at 11am – but even as the clothes were being laid out a few early customers were coming in ready to snap up that elusive early choice bargain.
As time passed we began moving product quickly and with success, the five of us each on a drive to make people happy and sell at the same time!
Trying to beat the competition we used our passion, loud voices, multilingual capabilities, multinational charms and may have employed a few tricks and attention grabbing gimmicks. There may have been a questionable looseness from our mascot, and the maestro also repeatedly advertised, encouraged and instructed his adoring public to come and see his wares and buy buy buy – Le Grand Marques for le Premier et Dernier Prix!
Overall we were charismatic, but as our stomachs began to grumble I was sent on my way to produce a nutritious and delicious lunch to reinvigorate our energy levels!
And so following the requests of the busy sales staff I made smoked salmon sandwiches and cherry tomato and cheese toasted sandwiches to the cheers of my family who ate them quickly and also received the necessary caffeine hits.
Everywhere you looked there were hoards of people, in every direction.
Despite all this the city’s beauty and history shone through.
We dealt with some interesting characters during the day selling hello kitty bags to hello kitty enthusiasts, children’s dresses as Halloween outfits and customised jackets as haute couture – it was all about the pitch, how best to sell a piece by appealing to the needs or dreams of the client.
By finding our niche markets we were able to inflate the prices beyond rock bottom, to the realm of reasonable profits!
But we found our match as a group of Nigerian women descended onto our meagre shop ready to bargain their way into free purchases, with tactics including distraction, frustration and sheer persistence – I decided to take the brunt of the attack and protect my cousin – I faced our collective lynchpin as they tried to laugh and smile off their confronting shopping assault – they had little chance of disturbing my peace and after a good 45 minutes of negotiation they purchased their selection and we rejoiced in our freedom!
By nightfall we had been selling like madmen for a good 10 hours and the place was looking like a warzone!
After a late dinner we all headed to bed exhausted.
Waking late, I made a special breakfast of pain perdu made from croissants served with a black fig and sour cherry confit and a spiced speculoos crumble.
But for most of the visitors to Lille a bowl of Moules-Frites, the classic, and also a major part of the history of La Braderie, is the dish of choice – the restaurants all enter a challenge, to create the largest pile of empty mussel shells, with over five-hundred tonnes of mussels and 30 tonnes of chips sold, I just don’t want to be the one to clean up all the mess.
And so we said goodbye to Lille after an extremely successful Braderie, selling thousands of euros worth of old belongings to the public and making all of us very proud – I had achieved my goals, exploring Lille, being in the centre of this once in a lifetime festival, spending time with my family, and finally the unexpected twist of being an incredible salesman!
BRING ON THE NEXT BRADERIE!