Crafting Your Business Abroad: Interview with Etsy Expat Victoria Elson

These days I’m a stranger in a strange land after following my hardworking husband to Asia.

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For me, being an expat is what has allowed me to pursue my creative dreams, more so than if I had of stayed at home, in Australia.  I adore living in such a vibrant and dynamic part of the world, and I love the freedom of being able to focus on creating and blogging.  But I also know that being an expat can be isolating and frustrating at times, and it can make small everyday tasks seem monumental.  Which got me thinking about how the expat experience might influence both creativity and business practices, for good and for bad.

So come, take a trip with me and some Etsy expats.  We’ll meet new corners of the world and take a peek inside some lives lived abroad.  First cab off the rank is the vivacious Victoria Elson, traveller and seller of all things vintage.  Together with her husband Trevor, she runs her business Ancien Esthetique out of Theirs, France.

vintage brown bag

Please, tell us a bit about yourself and where you live…

Trevor and I moved to France about a year ago and had a baby nine months ago.  I’m from Wales and my husband is from Oxford, England – we currently live in Thiers, Central France.  Theirs is in the middle of nowhere, it used to be famous for it’s knife making industry but now it has many derelict factories and empty workshops.  My husband rents one of these and restores antique furniture, we love old stuff.  In central France it goes with the territory – people never throw anything away and buildings stay the same year after year, cars slowly rusting outside and roofs slowly creaking into dilapidation over time.

Auvergne, the area we are in, is passionate about food.  Most restauranteurs in the rest of France, particularly in Paris, come from Auvergne.  The local radio station ‘France Bleu’ mainly discusses varieties of potatoes, cheese and mushrooms!

Before living here in France we lived in Bolivia doing voluntary work, but then we surprised ourselves by getting pregnant!  We decided European soil would be more practical for now…We haven’t finished traveling, we believe a semi rooted, nomadic existence enhances our soul and expands our minds, life and spirit.

What about your business?  How has living in France impacted that?

I already had an Etsy shop making jewelry but during our time here we realised that our house couldn’t contain all the vintage treasures we were stumbling across, so we needed an outlet.  And it meant I could easily work from home whilst looking after our baby.

Where do you find the vintage pieces for your shop?

We find them mainly in ‘vide greniers’ (French for ‘empty attic’) which are village fairs throughout summer.  You can buy a little guide book each year which tells you of the locations and dates of each fair in the individual villages.  Everyone arranges their old wares on the pavements or on little streets.  We find amazing old treasures, from Granny’s attic linens and crockery, to forgotten boxes of lace, to broken down old clocks…Why go to IKEA?  You can get second hand but beautiful, stood the test of time pieces with their own character and history!

Also in France they have brocantes – shops or warehouses that people sell or give their old goods to.  We love popping in to these places when we have spare time, often on a Saturday afternoon.  The nearest one to our house is a big draughty open barn sort of room, smelly, freezing in Winter, boiling in Summer, crammed full of bizarre and unique finds.  Then out the back they have more old buildings full of anything from rickety old chairs to fire buckets, old prams and bikes.  Old tools, pots and pans, books, odd shoes galore!  Real Aladdin’s caves sometimes!

Any favourite finds?

Oh so many!  I’m always coming across them.  I found a whole box of antique lace collars and handmade lace ribbons and other pieces which the lady told me had been made by her Great Aunt at the turn of the century.  It had the original spool of thread inside the box and also some gloves she’d made and used.  Basically most of the stuff I find I want to keep and I usually have it in my house for a bit and then grudgingly part with it.  Trevor can be worse than me – one of his favourite finds is an electric coffee grinder which we actually have for sale, but he still looks at it longingly now and then!

Are there any difficulties associated with trying to run your business as an expat in France?

French paperwork!  The red tape you have to swim through, wade through, drag yourself through, to work here in France…You know the guy who went across Niagra Falls in a barrel?  I could probably do that now!  Or build a bridge across with all the paperwork we’ve accumulated here!  And the post office…hmmm!  Let’s just say the French have a very definite way of doing things and until you figure that out and comply with it, well, you may as well just whistle a long boring tune!  But, that’s all okay because now we’ve got it figured out and it’s all relatively easy.

Learning the language is an ongoing process, but being out working in the community is a great incentive and help.  About 99% of the people here are all embracing and very willing to help us, guide us, laugh at us nicely, maybe!  In all honesty I don’t think that all of the French friends we have made here would ‘get’ what we’re doing, as they have such a rich history – so many vintage and antique pieces.  Perhaps it wouldn’t be entirely understandable to them that we search through their ‘off-casts’ and ‘rubbish’ and put a greater value on it.

And the joys?

Basically we couldn’t do what we’re doing here anywhere else.  As I said, the French have a very rich history and have kept their possessions and their ancestors possessions stowed away in lofts and attics for a long time.  It has a certain novelty factor for us as well.  People like to tell us the history of a piece, and we like to learn it, and we usually end up swapping some language help and cultural exchanges.

All round, we love it!  And it changes every day.  Sourcing pieces can become a nice day out, stopping of for a demi (small cold beer) or a glass of red wine, watching the local life go by in different villages – there is often a petanque (boules) competition somewhere.  People are jolly and relaxed, a real summer fete!

In France people have not lost the idea of shopping local and supporting the community.  So, for example, each Thursday and Saturday our town has a farmer’s market selling cheese, pasta, seasonal fruit and vegetables, honey, olive oil, soaps, fish and meat, as well as other handmade products like knitted goods.  In France people still really value handmade crafts and the workmanship that goes along with it.  Trevor being an ‘artisan’ furniture restorer is very popular, all the old ladies ooh and aah!

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You can see more gorgeous photos of Victoria’s neck of the woods here (and if you happen to speak French, you can read more about her there too!), and you can see more of Victoria’s wonderful vintage finds in her Etsy shop, Ancien Esthetique.

~Emily

Emily is one of the talented writers on the Handmade Spark team. She is an Australian crafter living in Asia. She loves all things Handmade and has a slight obsession with paper, owls, teapots, vintage buttons and dachshunds. You can also find Emily leading our Paper Lovers group on Facebook and get to know her on her blog.

Tagged as: Central France, Etsy Expats, france, international, interview, life, overseas, Thiers, thrifting,vintage sellers

  • Chic Chix & Champagne

    Great interview, great take on French life in a small village. Oh Yeah, the paperwork is stifling…I registered as an auto-entrepreneur, much more simplified, but they keep adding other “roadblocks”. Carry on, you sound like a fun, united “in crime” couple.
    Alysen.

  • http://pulse.yahoo.com/_KYSFIJHOJ3HDJJO2LLSOXL2BGE P8ronella

    great inteview !

  • Rita

    Great interview! Thanx for sharing!

  • http://www.etsy.com/shop/sewmuchfrippery?ref=si_shop Rosemary (Sew Much Frippery)

    I have loved reading this. If only it was so easy to source great vintage finds where I live!

  • http://jorpins.tumblr.com/ ejorpin

    I know the feeling Rosemary – I had a bit of thrifter’s envy writing this post!