Monday, 24 May 2010


They are everywhere if you know what you are looking for. I found them in Haiti, in Tajikistan, Paris (of course), Normandy, Russia, Uzbekistan, Zurich… It's flea markets I am talking about. Yep, I am a flea market girl. Last Saturday was a perfect day to spend it on the B├╝rkliplatz in Zurich. The sun was shining; the lake was sparkling, people were happy to finally embrace summer (or at least a sunny weekend).

For me going to a flea market/brocante/garage sale is almost like reading or traveling. There is a bit voyeurism thrown into it as well, I am suspecting. Peeping into other people's past, reading their life's stories, trying on their hats, leafing through their books, touching their artifacts, walking in their shoes, guessing their secrets…

I love to watch and to listen people negotiating. How different the reactions and ways to find mutual understanding! I grew up in a country where buying without negotiating is an insult to a merchant, as if you were too busy or too arrogant to enter a conversation with him. I spoke shortly with an Afgan family selling jewelries, I know a little bit of Farsi and it was so curious to hear familiar words while they have been discussing their matters. I told them I lived in Tajikistan; they looked pleased and were genuinely friendly. How many language did I count while walking among the rows of antiques and trivia?..Italian, Serbian, Farsi, Spanish, French, English, Russian, German, African dialects, Turkish… It’s like a little model of the world where everybody is getting (most of the times) along.

And of course there is always a hope to find something special, something out of ordinary. Many people don’t know what they are having and what they are selling (Dear Mr. Freeble, I am expecting you to contribute to that thought in the comment section, since I know you had quite a few staggering experiences in that department).

My catch of the day? Two pairs of retro Italian sunglasses in (almost) mint condition. Together they cost me CHF 20.- ; and they were absolutely irreplaceable on Sunday since I spent it in a chaise lounge on the sun (yes, I am very much behind my assignment now...) 

Spotting the second great pair I had a lovely exchange with two elderly (hope they are not reading this) Italian men which insisted on a kiss on a chick if I buy something from them, but they quickly withdrew after my dramatically staged shock and embarrassment ( We settled on an air kiss afterwards). Seeing both pairs in my hand one made a very logical “manly” remark (in German with an absolutely charming Italian accent): “But they look almost identical…?... ” I had to say in my bad German with no charm whatsoever: “To YOU they look identical, but to any woman you ask, they look ABSOLUTELY different”. They laughed and shook their heads. You wouldn’t have this conversation in a Cartier shop, would you?

The biggest luck I ever had while browsing flea markets of the world? My discovery of Anais Nin, of course. It was some years ago in Haiti, I walked down the dusty unasphalted Rue 2, the only foreigner in sight (only I wasn’t a foreigner, they all knew my name and if I didn’t come there two weeks on a row they have been worrying about me, the merchants), and among second hand jeans and tableware from Miami I saw her face.

I picked up this book because it was in English and I had nothing to read, and I never let it go, not from the heart, anyway. I bought all other volumes of her diaries afterwards, but this one stays my favorite. Maybe because it was my first experience on Anais Nin, or because of the period covered in it (1934 – 1939, prewar Paris and “new” New York). I reread it once and again, opening on any page, starting from any line.

Page 27: “Limitations of life. Doors closing as one walks forward. Curtains of silence. Inertia. Obstacles like walls. Then to discover that the limitation is within oneself. A malformation, wanting the impossible. In all of them the imagination is the trap. Evasion is possible by reunification of life and creation of art. Or by accepting limitations….Many creators, romantics, neurotics are tragic figures in life. They are absolutists. They tire of struggling against of limitations of life. In art there are none”.

Page 34: “I love the world so much, it moves me deeply, even the ordinary world, the daily world, even the bar table, the tinkling ice in the glasses, the waiter, the dog tied in the coat room”.

Page 278: “Renata asked Jean: “What is your occupation?”
Jean answered: “My occupation is to learn to walk through all of them in a state of transcendentalism, to live only in the essence, and within the frame of none.”

That makes me think of one episode that took place nearly three years ago, when we just moved to Switzerland. A neighbor, a young woman, asked me what my occupation was, so I told her my story. She looked at me, puzzled, and said: “But you look like…somebody”... Perhaps I am not a great storyteller afterwards.

I wish you to spend this week looking like somebody happy and loved; somebody who is oneself.  


  1. Christopher Freeble24 May 2010 at 06:00

    OK, but just because you asked.

    Being a rare book dealer, going to thrift shops and flea markets is part of my everyday week. I look mostly for modern first editions (books) but I also buy lithographs, old travel posters, hats, cigarette lighters, just about anything. My house looks like it too.

    One day I spotted an antique store/flea market and stopped. Leaning against the counter was this (very heavy) guy wearing a dirty white T-shirt, smoking a cigar and reading a newspaper. The ash from his cigar had fallen all over the glass-topped counter like snow.

    I asked him if he had any books.

    He looked disgusted and motioned me into another room and followed me. I saw an antique Victrola, (old wind-up record player), with a sign printed "$400.00 FIRM."

    I heard the guy yelling, "Hey. Watch that Victrola, buddy! It's worth a lot of money. You break it you buy it."

    I said, "Uh Huh."

    But I wasn't really listening. Behind the Victrola was a rack of books. I spotted one, and my heart started beating. Hard. I saw the distinctive black and yellow dust jacket of Cormac McCarthy's impossibly rare third book, "Suttree."

    I didn't need to even check to see if it was a first edition. I knew it was. They never reprinted poor Cormac's books in the early days. (The guy's a brilliant writer but he lived on beans and literary grants for 30-years before anyone noticed.)

    I carefully grabbed the book and could see it was in pristine, mint condition.

    I took it back to the counter and asked him, "How much?"

    He said, "Three dollars. All hardbacks are three dollars."

    I said, "I'll give you one." (It's rude not to barter here too. And I can also be a prick.)

    He said, "Hell, OK. But you oughta look at that Victrola. It's gonna be worth a lot of money some day."

    I said, "Uh Huh." I handed him the dollar and left.

    As I was closing the screen door I heard the guy say, "Big spender!"

    I peeled tire leaving the gravel parking lot.

    That happened on a Wednesday. I sold the book the next Friday for $2,500 USD.

    Too bad I missed that Victrola though.

    P.S. So I don't sound too arrogant, for every story like this I have a hundred more where I "struck out." But you're right; going to flea markets is one of the most interesting things to do in the world. An endless treasure hunt.

    P.P.S. Cool sunglasses!

  2. Dear Christopher,

    I can't compete with that! But then again, I dont need to... I love your stories. If only I had a fraction of you talent for story telling. Your September trip (of which year?...) to Virginia antuque fair... It is still very vivid in my memory, golden folliage and tiffany lamps. I hope we invade those treasure islands in tandem one day and you teach me how to find real treasures (so I wont have post embarassing stories about sunglasses ;-) Next September, perhaps?..

  3. Christopher Freeble24 May 2010 at 14:49

    Your story is wonderful.

    You've found the greatest treasure of all; an author that you love. Can you put a price on finding Anais Nin?

    Next September it is!

  4. Oh, no, Anais Nin is priceless, you can't buy love...