When Andy and I decided to buy the house, we had only walked down the main street of the town and up to the medieval church in the haut ville. Truth be told, we may have spent a grand total of 45 minutes in the town, and that included the home tour. We look back now and think how lucky we are that we adore Vaison so, so much! It could have very easily went the other way.
Last summer was our first summer spent here and, since we didn't really do our due diligence and scope out the town the first time we came, we had a bit of catching up to do.
We started by trekking up to old town and letting ourselves wander around, taking in all of the absolutely charming homes that lined the cobbled streets.
As we wound our way deeper into the haut ville, we started noticing homes with unusual door knockers adorning their elaborately carved doors. A woman's hand, clutching a ball, sometimes black, sometimes silver and, every once in a while, in copper. Each were worn from age, weather and day-to-day usage. Some were more elaborate than others, having the hand sticking out of a highly detailed lace sleeve. Others were more basic, with less intricate sleeve work. All, however, had one, if not two rings on the hand's finger(s). This intrigued us. They weren't like anything we had ever seen before and we wanted to know more of their backstory.
Sometimes when Andy and I wander the brocantes and antique stores, we find items so unusual, we ask the shop owners to tell us anything about the items. Since it's impossible to follow an item's history after 100's of years have past, they usually can only give us a round about date of an item's age and, if it isn't clear to us, the items original purpose. Either way, we are fascinated by the stories these old items hold and the many lives they've lived.
As we descended from the haut ville, Andy decided that it was his summer's mission to find our house a Fatima's hand for the door.
Back at home, in front of our computer screens, we discovered the knocker had two different names. The first, and most prevalent on the internet, called the knocker the hand of Fatima; Fatima being the daughter of the Prophet Mohammed in the Muslim faith. In the other, it was called the hand of Mirjam; Mirjam being the sister of Moses in the Jewish faith. No matter what backstory you follow, though, each believe the hand represents protection. By having the knocker on your front door, you are warding off evil and keeping the home safe.
Andy was raised Jewish and I Catholic, but neither of us are practicing now, so the religious aspect didn't sway us either way. We knew we just liked the look of the knocker and set out to find our own.
Our first search led us to Etsy, where they had a few for sale, but they were mostly reproductions and on the more expensive side. "We can do better than this," I said, looking up at Andy from the computer screen.
When we are on the hunt for a particular treasure and finally come across it we usually discuss the likelihood of finding the particular item again. I don't, however, want to just buy something for the sake of buying it, so, if I think we are buying an item more because we've found it than because we love it, I'll usually say, "we can do better than this," signaling that this isn't our sought after treasure and we need to keep hunting.
Our second stop was to Gary, our brocante friend. I have mentioned Gary before in the "Things to do in Provence" section of my site. We stumbled across him at the Carpentras brocante and bought our old French school poster from him (as seen in our dining room). He is always posting his finds on Instagram, so if you are looking for any unique/quirky items, you can find him @Gary_la_brocante. He explained that these knockers were pretty rare to stumble across, but he'd keep an eye out for us.
And so, for the rest of our first summer it became some what of a little game. Each time we'd head to a brocante, we'd head straight for the usual boxes filled with brass hinges, old door nobs and other rusty metal items, digging to the bottom, hoping to find a hand clutching a ball within the contents, always coming up empty handed (pun intended).
Many times we'd find a stall or two at the brocantes that had a guy who was selling tables upon tables of old metal items; tools, keys, locks. Thinking this would be the place to find it, we'd go back and forth with the seller for a few minutes, trying to describe the item we were searching for. Each time the guys would scrunch their foreheads, trying to figure out what it was exactly we were looking for.
Hmmm, maybe this knocker was more elusive than we thought?
As our first summer came to a close we decided the search would have to continue next year (this summer).
As the days began trickling away this year, we were getting nervous that perhaps we'd never find our knocker, stopping at all of our usual haunts, but also pulling off any time we'd see a worn brocante sign pointing to an old garage or barn on the side of the road.
Sitting an apèro, discussing our hunt for the knocker, a friend once asked, "how do you know the antiques you are buying are real and you are not getting fakes?" We explained that we aren't buying antiques as collectors and so the authenticity is less of a focus for us. We were more invested in the emotional aspect that the items held for us and the story about how we came to acquire them.
There are many times sitting in our living room in Pittsburgh where we will point out a particular item and talk about the back story of how and where we found it. The pieces bring value to our space, not our bank account.
As we packed up our little house for the summer we began to come to the realization that we would close our second summer without finding our door knocker. In between tidying up and heading into town to pick up all of our can't-live-without treats (that post to come soon!), we decided to head to the Carpentras brocante one last time. Even if we didn't find any of our sought after treasures, at least we could see Gary and wish him well for the coming months.
The Carpentras brocante is located in a long parking lot with two rows of sellers who face each other, lining one side of the parking lot and curving around at the end to line the other side, making a big U shape. We started down one side, ping ponging back and forth between sellers as we made our way down the long, narrow path. Usually, it is so stifling hot that we quickly eye up the items and scurry off to find refuge in the shade of a close by plane tree. There we can discuss if anything caught our eye enough to go back and take a second look. Today, however, it was unseasonably cool, allowing us to linger at each stall and really take in our last brocante of the season.
We were almost to the end of the first line of stalls when we stopped to eye up all of the items displayed on a blanket lining the pavement. The blanket was covered with the usual brocante finds, old boule balls, mismatched stemware, some boxes filled with old post cards, but tucked into the corner, between a few dulled copper pots and some wine jugs, was a Fatima's hand. I bent down, so surprised at what I was looking at that I wanted to make sure. My mouth dropped! It was her!
I turned around and caught Andy as he was about to head across the isle to another table. "Hey.... isn't that your hand?" He turned back around, crouching down next to me. He picked up the hand as if he had found the most precious treasure. Seeing our interest, the owner came up to us, pointing a chubby, calloused finger towards the knocker. "It's very old," he said, in French. I translated to Andy what the man had said. "They say that about everything," he said, a bit skeptical. "It's a complete set," the man added, again in French. I relayed this to Andy. "What do you think?" he said. He had waited so long to find this, he clearly wanted to make sure he was making the best choice. I took the knocker out of his hand and my hand dipped a bit. "Wow, this thing is heavy!" "It's iron," the seller said, watching me bob the knocker up and down to evaluate the weight. Andy turned back to me. "Do you like the color? Do you think it's actually old? Do you think it would match the door?" Clearly he was on the fence, but after taking so long to find her, I surely didn't want to be the one who made this decision for him.
We asked the price and the man informed us she was a deal for her rarity. He wasn't kidding! He was asking half the price of what they wanted on Etsy for the fake ones! Wrought with such a big decision, I decided to jump in and offer Andy some help. "We can't do better than this," I said, with a firm shake of the head, confirming this was our long sought after treasure. Andy nodded, taking out the asked for sum and quickly handing it to the man before he could change his mind.
The rest of the brocante Andy literally cradled the hand, staring down at it in a mix of disbelief and absolute infatuation. At one point I looked over at him, saying, "if you ever looked at me as lovingly as you are that hand, who knows where we'd be right now!"
This was very much a joke, as Andy is a very loving soul, but I'm not sure I've ever seen him so taken with one of our finds. It was actually quite sweet to see.
I'm not someone who believes in superstition or that a hand could protect a home from the trials or tribulations of the outside world. I do, however, believe that things happen for a reason and that we were pulled away from household chores to end our summer with such a special moment. We've found a lot of really interesting items at the brocantes, but this may be the most special.
In my research of Fatima's hand, there wasn't really much out there to discover. I did, however, read that they are found around the south of France. This intrigues me and, of course I want to know more. If you have seen these in your town or in your travels around France, please tell me in the comments below. Tell me where you were. Does your town in France have any of these on the doors? I can't wait to hear your feedback!
À bientôt! -R
Bonjour, Ciao, Salut! My name is Rachel and I am a part-time resident of Provence that splits my time between Pittsburgh, Pa and Vaison la Romaine. Come take a deep dive with me into Provençal culture, food, history, villages, markets and all of the quirks that come along with them!