Paris -- A visit to Paris means one thing to me: shopping. Paris Hilton isn't named after the City of Light for nothing.
But I don't have her Visa card, so when I want to shop here I wait for Sunday. Then I round up some friends and metro over to the Puces de Paris at Saint-Ouen.
At the metro exit, an illegal game of three-card monte is being played on two upturned cardboard boxes. Hawkers sell fake Rolexes from their wrists, and a woman wrapped in Ghanaian fabric offers roasted corn on the cob. We're swallowed by the crowd surging toward the narrow alleys of the Puces.
Welcome to the biggest, oldest flea market in Europe, the fourth most visited site in Paris (after the Eiffel Tower, the Louvre and Notre Dame). Every weekend, visitors from every corner of the globe battle it out for the best deals with Paris hipsters, impoverished fashionistas and serious antique hunters. The Puces is the liveliest shopping experience this side of Istanbul's Grand Bazaar.
We pause at one of my favourite stands to say hello to Lili Gantarski, who sells antique ribbons, beads and trim in the oldest part of the market. Back in the early 1800s, rag-and-bone men used to sell their wares here, just outside the city limits. The men were known as "pêcheurs de lune" since they hunted the streets by the light of the moon.
"The Puces is a picture of France," says Lili. "You meet everyone here."
Lili's not exaggerating. Everybody does seem to be here today.
The Puces attracts some 150,000 visitors on an average summer weekend. And it's hard to leave empty-handed. One of my friends has wandered off to look at gramophones at the Techniques & Musiques Méchaniques stand. We convince her that a Victorian-era gramophone will not fit in her suitcase.
There's a stand selling embroidered satin cheongsams. While I check out Dragon Lady outfits, my friend tries on a fake fur coat in the next stall. We're convinced it's exactly her style: Russian Mafia princess, in a good way. As the coat gets stuffed into a tiny plastic bag, we're distracted by African masks displayed on the sidewalk further ahead. The Puces is actually a group of 12 individual alleyway markets, each with its own strange specialty. We step past a giant cast-concrete mushroom near the door of a turn-of-the-century house, where Venetian mirrors send our reflections glittering into infinity in a surreal mishmash of antiques. We marvel at a printing press surrounded by crumbling 19th-century garden furniture and dried, neatly pinned insect collections.
As we walk on, every stand becomes its own theatre set, waiting for us to step through the looking glass. A poodle sleeps beside an umbrella stand made from an elephant's foot; around the corner, there's a clutter of ball gowns and accessories. My friend shrieks when she finds a pair of Courrèges shoes, black patent-leather stilettos appliquéd across the toes. They're a perfect fit. While she negotiates the price, arguing the stall owner down a good 20 euros, I push ahead for my chosen niche: the tiny music-filled Chope des Puces.
It's standing room only in the Chope: well-known guitarist Ninine is playing, and jazz connoisseurs have crowded inside to drink beer and enjoy Django Reinhardt-style jazz music.
We stand at the door, beer in hand, enjoying the parade of shoppers and eccentrics, relishing the fact that next week, when someone back home asks my friend, "Where d'ya get the great shoes?" she'll have the impossible-to-set-a-price-on pleasure of saying "These? Oh, I found them in a little flea market in Paris."