Go with the Floh(markt)

Far left: “Your baby is adorable! I’ll give you four euros.”

Flea markets (Flohmärkte) are a bit of a huge deal here in Berlin. As I briefly and casually mention in a previous post, every Sunday this city suddenly becomes like an abandoned amusement park, full of hollowly empty streets, eerily swinging shop signs and rolling tumbleweed. Flea markets would seem to be Berlin’s response to this unbearable hiatus of human activity, as every Sunday every ‘Platz’ and park you come across is filled with rickety stalls with grimy-coated people selling Trödel (junk). As an apologetic member of the hordes who are addicted to old and retro stuff I am a sucker for these markets. I can happily spend hours drifting around the stalls not buying anything but simply marvelling at the sheer weirdness, ugliness or superfluousness of the trash being sold: abysmally grey-looking cuddly toys, old leatherware so ancient that it’s peeling like Hannibal Lecter’s face, an impressively wide selection of serving dishes…they are a festival of useless knick-knacks, a museum of old tools and coffee grinders and broken jewellery.

However it seems that flea markets are suffering from that syndrome of false nostalgia, in that while I have never known them to be anything other than the way that they are, I cannot help but lament the Beautiful and True Flea Market in my mind which I always half-expect to find on my approach to the stalls: in my mind, flea markets are funny and casual places where you drift around bartering with cheerfully grinning blokes who happily sell you an entire kitchen’s worth of useful bits and pieces for three euros for the lot after a pleasant few minutes of bartering, chatter and cautious flirtation. In my mind, one can rifle through boxes of old things without getting one’s hands smeared with a suspicious black mould and one will always at some point stumble upon one item so beautiful and excellent and perfect that it makes the whole effort worthwhile – at which point one barters it down to fifty cents and walks away with a near-mint condition 1950’s Cartier Watch complete with carrying case made from rare Egyptian mosquito silk. I long for this to be the case and I dream of furnishing a room with old armoires and whisky barrels that cost me little more than a nod and a wink. 

This, of course, is not the case, and I don’t suppose it ever was. The majority of things sold at these flea markets are so pitiably bad that I would not exchange a thumbnail clipping for them and there is also a good deal which you suspect should not be being sold in the first place, from obviously stolen bikes to whole crates full of beautiful ancient family photos which clearly were once treasured but have since become little more than a record of people long since dead (who, incidentally, buys these at all? It is surely taking hipster interior decorating to a macabre extreme to display photos of dead strangers on their wedding day). If you do discover something genuinely nice most of the stall vendors have become surprisingly Wall Street and will not barter with you no matter how much cleavage you thrust at them. They bark at you that ‘this is a GOOD price’ and ‘times aren’t like they used to be’, which I assume is the Flea Market way of blaming everything on the Credit Crunch. You might occasionally get lucky; one woman sold me a handful of excellently bizarre silver rings for three euros once, including one ring with a tiny silver frilled lizard on it and one with a hand giving a thumbs up, complete with a hole between the fingers so you can make it hold something. You also have to have adaptable thinking; it is worth it to fumble around in the 50 cents box of the clothing stall because that torn and horrible skirt looks fine once you have restitched it and cut off that weird gusset on the inside. 

Another sad fact about the flea markets is that the proportion of Flea to Market has significantly dropped since that time before I was conscious when I imagine these things were much more brilliant. By this I mean that these days you find yourself looking at more overpriced new stuff than underpriced old trash, wandering around stalls selling hand-carved ladles or hand-felted alpaca wool so expensive you have to use an inhaler to recover if you dare ask the price. This also draws the flea markets to the horrible inevitability of the high street in that they all look exactly the same; in every flea market in the whole of Berlin you will find hand-carved ladles, hand-felted alpaca wool, the dude selling rings made with computer keys and LEGO or the guy selling earrings that look like gummy bears. How can modernisation be getting to the point where even flea markets are being dominated by this terrible homogeneity? And more importantly, who is buying the hand-felted alpaca wool shoe inserts? The presence of these sellers makes no sense; people come to the flea markets specifically under the impression that they will be cheap and necessitate little more than a pocketful of change, so the hope that people might change their mind so wildly that they then splash out a hundred euros on a Nepalese sofa-throw seems somewhat naive.  

But I will keep going because these places are still a great entertainment and they do still harbour occasional glimpses of the true flea market spirit which I yearn for during the cold dark night. There are people selling old, faded copies of German MAD magazine and people selling fresh orange juice which they squeeze by hand at unbelievable lightning speed for just a euro per cup. There is a man with a puppet who he is making sing classics by Coldplay. And there is a dog lying in a baby’s cot wearing sunglasses. And none of these are made up. 

Rose T