Our landlord recently told us that the building which my partner and I have called home for thirteen years is going to be totally renovated next year, and that the flats will be converted into condos. He generously gave us first choice to buy our old flat for a mere one-and-a-half million Swiss francs. Since we are a bit short of petty cash, we decided look for another place. We finally found a beautiful flat in the neighbourhood, so the existential angst had subsided, only to be replaced by the clearing-out-of-thirteen-years-ofaccumulated- stuff panic. The new flat has no attic and a smaller cellar.
Suddenly all the past book-, magazine-, CD-, DVD- and assorted junk-buying sprees were rearing their ugly heads. How do you get rid of what you no longer need or want or have space for? There are Brockenhäuser, thrift shops, that take almost anything saleable and Bücher-Brockis, large second-hand bookshops, usually on the fringe of town, and then there are Flohmärkte, flea markets…
I love flea markets. I had been going to the one in our town for years as a browser and buyer but never as a seller. So when Rob, a friend who regularly sells stuff, suggested joining him one Saturday morning, I eagerly agreed. Here was my chance to get rid of a pile of CDs, DVDs, and a Balinese shadow puppet that had been scowling at me from a dusty bookshelf for almost thirty years. Everything was packed and ready to go when Rob called the evening before to say he had come down with a bad cold and I would have to go alone. He gave me the number of the allotted space and wished me good luck.
I arrived at the flea market at 8 am to a rush of people setting up their stands. Now where was my spot? Number 332 3, but how do you tell where the numbers are? I knew that Rob regularly sold LPs from his collection of classic rock music in a side row by some trees, so I headed in that direction.
"Excuse me," I asked two young girls who were spreading out a tarpaulin upon which they placed old clothes, shoes, tennis rackets, and other accoutrements of our throw-away society, "where is Number 332 3?"
"Right there," the younger of the two said with a smirk on her face, as she pointed to the pavement beneath my feet.
And there it was, emblazoned on a tiny copper plaque. I felt embarrassed, even more when I saw the two-square-metre spot that was mine. I took out my shoebox of CDs and DVDs, carefully unfolded a plastic bag and placed my Balinese shadow puppet, plus a hand-woven African basket, neatly in the middle. The space seemed immense, especially since the spot to the left was still empty. I sat down on my camping stool, ready for business.
People passed and looked at me with bemused smiles bordering on pity. But soon a very colourful dreadlocked dude rolled by on his bike to which a trailer heavily laden with goods was attached.
"What a beautiful puppet!" he said getting off his bike.
I immediately slipped into my best used-car salesman pitch.
"Yes, she's the Balinese Goddess of the Underworld, hardly used and very rare."
"Wow, how much do you want for her?"
"Twenty francs." I had originally bought the puppet for CHF 130 from a blonde. The price was too much, but I was secretly in love with her. That, however, is another story.
My Rasta-man hesitated, then pulled out a CD and said, "Wanna trade for a recording of my band?"
"Look," I said, "I've got a shoebox full of stuff to get rid of."
He nodded, flicked out the bread, then straddled his bike. Before taking off, he said, "Here, take my CD anyway."
I was off to a good start. A few minutes later two Southern-looking women set up camp to my left. And what a load of stuff they had! Piles of clothes, shoes, pots and pans, a microwave oven, vacuum cleaner, etc. I greeted them cheerfully, glad to have additional company. Then a soulful-looking guy stopped and stared at my shoebox. He bent down and adjusted his glasses.
"Are these CDs good?" he asked.
"In mint condition. Only two francs apiece," I said, glad to be rid of kitschy Italian songs and other vagaries of my misspent youth.
And off he went with four of them. Life was getting better and better when a husky man with a huge suitcase on rollers stopped in front of me.
"Can I stay here with you?" he said in broken German. "You have big empty place."
A younger man pulled up behind him with another bulky suitcase and together they unloaded old radios, cameras, appliances and whatnot. The older man looked friendly and wise. He had been selling stuff at the flea market for twenty years. I told him that it was my first time.
"Ahh, ze first dime, then you must be careful!"
"Careful? Why?" I said, beginning to feel uneasy.
He took me aside and said sotto voce, "Stolen goods…and new things…Id iz forbidden to sell new things. The police always watching." He peered around suspiciously. "They hide behind trees."
I began to look at trees as not just arboreal delights.
"Let me tell you story," he continued. "A few months ago dis woman from Eastern Europe she comes to my stand and asks me to sell something. It is some kind of drill wrapped in cellophane. I say okay, which is a beeeg mistake. An hour later this inspector he comes and looks and says, ‘What is it you have there?' I say, it is a tool this woman give me. ‘Ha, a tool!' says the policeman. ‘It looks new.' No, no, I say, not new, but he goes away and makes call on phone. A few minutes later seven policeman arrive…"
"Seven policemen!" I say. "Just for a tool?"
"Yes, they surround stand. The one takes tool and says, ‘What you do is no legal. You must pay CHF 300 fine or go to jail or work for city for a week…or go to court…I say I am an honest family man and pay fine, but I am not guilty!"
By then a customer had come to his stand and was interested in one of the cameras. A lot of haggling went on. To my left, the women had sold their pots and pans and some tacky high-heeled shoes, a woman came by and bought my African hand-woven basket for three francs, then a rather melancholy man snapped up three DVDs. It was now noon and I had made fifty francs, and it didn't look like I would sell anything more. I thus packed up the few things left, said goodbye to everyone, and went home to listen to the CD the Rasta-man had given me. It was beautiful Spanish music with lots of ´arriba…arriba!` shouting, which apparently is used as an encouragement.
Well, arriba…arriba for the flea market and a seven-man local police raid that has time for a little tool wrapped in cellophane.
(Disclaimer: Any resemblance to flea markets living or dead is purely coincidental.)