The past two and a half years, I have been struggling with a lot of emotion that has resurfaced through triggers, both from the tethers to former lives in the United States and to elements of my life in Belgium. As I am wont to do, I have written and reflected on the many waves of emotion and experience.
I will admit that the surfacing of emotions I thought I had dealt with years ago has been difficult and has certainly cast a shadow on my perspective of a place that already boasts grey skies much of the time.
In the desire to opt for the positive on this uncharacteristically sunny and hot (from a Belgian perspective, which has become mine since leaving the truly scorching spring and summer days of central Arizona) day, I thought I would write about one of my all-time favorite elements of life on the western front.
Late spring and early summer are the season of the brocante (or rommelmarkt in Dutch). A brocante is essentially a flea market but for different neighborhoods in our commune of Watermael-Boitsfort. Each weekend, a different set of streets hosts a brocante. People who wish to sell stuff can post little signs in their window in anticipation of the event that read, aptly, Je participe (I participate).
The stuff is one of the elements I find so intriguing about these events. People can literally take any items they wish to be rid of from their house, set a price tag on them (or not), and sit in front of their house all day in an attempt to clear their home of possessions and their pockets with a bit of cash.
We have found all kinds of bric a brac from bygone eras. A shuttle from a loom, which I bought for 2 euros, was one of my first exciting finds. Having spent three years as a park ranger at Lowell National Historical Park, I was beyond thrilled to find this reminder of an earlier time.
My husband’s typewriter fascination/obsession began at an early brocante with the discovery of an Olivetti for sale at a setup along the sidewalk in front of one of the local floral shops.
I also love talking to the people about the objects they are selling. There are older folks who are emptying (vider) their homes because they are moving into smaller apartments. There are adults selling items from their parents and grandparents. I particularly am drawn to hear the stories.
This morning, we walked with friends to the annual brocante à la Olivetti on Rue Middlebourg near our house. We went mid-morning to avoid the heat, though I am not sure we succeeded (we were wiped out and dehydrated by the time we returned home).
Our first stop as at two “stands” situated side by side to one another. By “stand,” I basically mean dozens of material things paid out on some kind of blanket or cloth on the ground and others on different sized tables and wooden boxes. You can find items from many different time periods all in one place. Antique statues, cameras, sewing machines, irons, jewelry sit beside Disney stuffed animals (doudou in French), DVDs, plastic trucks, and clothing.
My husband was drawn (indelibly) to the typewriter, while I ogled over an ink and paper drawing of horses in a frame. It cost two euro, but I abstained (I have already broken down and purchased several framed prints and experience high levels of stress, wondering how I will manage to get them back to Arizona).
Let me pause for a moment and say that we brought only a few suitcases with us when we moved from the United States to Belgium. Our dog stayed “temporarily” with my parents. I was allowed to bring one instrument (I chose my ukulele). Of course, when I had to return to the United States after only a few days in Brussels in order to get my visa (see find blog post about the visa fiasco) I managed to purchase and bring back with me a mandolin as well.
I did also bring two cats, and it was such an expensive hassle that my husband said we would have to stay in Belgium until they moved on to cat heaven before returning to the United States. My response was to assure my husband that my cats were going to live forever.
I mention that we brought very little because it was our intention to live simply. We had sold or given away many of our belongings before moving and still managed to pack our stand-alone garage with tons of stuff. It was overwhelming. I sold our car before joining my husband in Brussels, and we felt gloriously light with so few material possessions.
The natural tendency in the universe is toward chaos, and I have what I refer to as my own Marieke entropy. No matter how simply I attempt to live, I am a magnet for complexity.
Whether it is tiny statues or four-legged beings, I wind up with much more than I anticipated.
I will say that we did pretty well over two seasons of brocantes. I have seen dozens of beautiful objects that I did not even consider buying because they were large and heavy. I have an affinity for old scales because my father used to use one to make sure that my sibling and I received exactly equal halves of anything we were splitting, be it a kosher dill pickle or an artichoke heart. There are SO many amazing, old scales at brocantes around Brussels.
My self-imposed brocante and general rule for our time in Brussels was that I could only buy items that would fit in the palm of my hand. This mostly included tiny statues. My husband made an exception for the antique shuttle.
Somewhere along the way, I began to break my simplicity rule. I am pretty sure the moment was during a four-month period of high stress that included a small claims court trial and wait for a verdict along with a failed attempt to sell my house in Alaska. I have a historic tendency to participate in retail therapy in a desperate attempt to alleviate stress. When I went through a divorce years ago, I must have bought at least 50 pairs of earrings.
The danger in breaking my rule is that once I step over the threshold, things get out of hand fairly quickly. Before I knew it, I was buying framed prints, a second shuttle as a gift, and larger and larger statues. In addition, I bonded with a cat living in our back garden and adopted a big, white husky all in one month (the month leading up to the trial and overlapping with the ill-fated beginnings of the house sale).
It’s not just brocantes that tempt me here in Brussels. In our neighborhood, people place items on their windowsills and along the sidewalk in front of their house. They often place a sign on the window that reads “A donner” (give away) but it is generally understood that anything placed in front of someone’s house that does not seem to be a part of the décor is fair game. To this end, I have definitely seen signs with sad faces and the words “these items were not a donner” in people’s windows, as well as notes in varying degrees of intensity above boxes of plants and other items that are not meant as give away.
Being of Jewish descent, I have a very difficult time not taking anything that is free. On a weekend “donneraie” event, I wound up with two large paintings, a side table, and other odds and ends; basically, as much as I could possibly manage to carry the short distance back to our house.
The nice thing about brocante and a donner items is that they cost so little it is not a big deal to give them away. The challenge for me is that I grow attached to animate and inanimate objects quite readily, regardless of whether they make my life more complicated.
Back to our morning brocante adventure in Boitsfort. I encouraged my husband to purchase the typewriter. The woman was asking a mere 10 euros. After, my husband explained that he would have liked to have walked around and waited a bit in case there were other typewriters, and I felt terrible for putting pressure on him.
The brocante adventures reveal so much about human nature. My husband has a tendency to wallow over decisions that involve spending money and accumulating stuff. I am the complete opposite. If I like something and it is inexpensive, I will tend to buy it without thinking and then later feel overwhelmed by the abundance of stuff I have added to my life. In the moment, I am worried that if I don’t buy it, I might regret it later. I also worry that I if I leave it and come back later during the brocante, someone else might have bought it out from under me and I would have lost my chance.
Living with my husband and witnessing his self-control, I have tried to re-condition myself toward abstinence. I have started taking photos of items I like, especially the heavy ones or those framed in glass. This way, I have a much lighter memory of the item and feel more at peace leaving it behind.
Something else I have noticed is that there are different kinds of characteristics among the people selling items. There are those who just want to get rid of stuff and will therefore sell at lower prices and offer to lower the price, especially if you buy more than one item. There are others who sell wares at lots of brocantes. They are not from the neighborhood and are in it to make some money.
This morning, I saw many items I really liked. Rather than buying them right away, I asked the price and told people I was going to reflect, “faire le tour,” and pass by on our way home.
The entire process of buying something at a brocante is reminiscent of my time in Africa. I was terrified to buy anything at the many markets because the process involved haggling over price. You ask the price. The seller tells you a price that is many many times higher than the value. You suggest a much much lower price. The seller laughs at you. You say never mind and begin to leave. The seller says, no wait. I can go to this price. You consider it then make it seem like you don’t really want it anymore. You walk away. The seller comes running after you with an even lower price. You buy it.
I went through this process so many times and got so good at it that the sellers would call me “Senegalese” (aka, cheap in the perspective of a Malian). I would respond, I’m a student (aka, I have no money). We would laugh. One item I bought, which is still in my possession, was a green and white bandana. At one point during the whole bargaining process, I realized I was literally arguing over the difference of 12 cents.
This might not seem like a lot, and to a US American it isn’t. This is why so many tourists from the West are more than willing to pay the asking price of many handmade items in Mali. The thought is that you are helping someone out by giving them a little extra money. What I discovered during my time in Bamako was the economic consequence of this assistance for locals, who could no longer afford to shop at many artisan markets because the sellers would only cater to tourists since they knew they could get a higher price.
Back to the Belgium brocantes, I have found that if people are really interested in unloading their belongings, they will often lower the price right away. This morning, I looked at two little owl statues. Each had price stickers on the bottom. The older fellow gave me a euro or two off if I were to buy both. I thanked him and said I would think about it.
Later in the afternoon when we were on our way back, I looked at the same owls. They had new stickers with lower prices. I picked one up, and the older woman who had replaced the man offered a euro less than the already reduced asking price. I bought it.
I have also found at the markets that there is a connection I can make with the seller. This is something I love. I personally have an easier time parting with my own belongings if I sense the person I gift them to will love and cherish them as I once did. This morning, I bonded with several older women. The first came up to me when I bent to look at a little statue of a woman hugging her knees into her chest. I asked her if she could tell me where it was from.
This is often how I begin my inquiry. I am curious about the origin of items. I also ask if there is a story behind the piece.
This woman told me she had found the statue on a trip to Switzerland and that though she could not remember the artist she was sure it was handmade by a Swiss person. She told me she had to get rid of things because she was moving to a smaller place. This statue she had looked at every day as a meditation. The face reminded her to be calm. She pointed to the woman’s chest and said it reminded her of her mother (it sounded more poetic in French).
How much is it?
It pleases you?
Yes, very much.
I also looked at a little duck that was beside the statue, and she told me that it was a little jewelry box. The duck’s behind had gotten a little dented so it didn’t fit as well as it once had, but she said I could mold it back to the correct shape if I applied some heat to it.
I will think about, I said. It’s lovely.
On our way back toward the end of the brocante, I stopped by and looked at the duck a second time. I showed it to my husband. The woman asked if I was the one from earlier.
This pleases you? She asked again.
1 euro 50.
My husband had walked on. I put the duck back.
As I turned to go, the woman asked again if it really pleased me, and I responded that it did.
You can have it, she said. Un cadeaux (a gift).