On a weekend not long ago I visited the flea market in town. It had sprung up on Schwetzinger strasse, a narrow one-way street I use everyday on my drive to work. Spots on either side where cars are parked on a normal day were now taken up by long tables spread out with odds and ends, and behind these tables sat the sellers, old women with striking hairdos watching passers by with indifferent eyes, and behind the women stood their cars, small Volkswagens or Renaults, reconditioned versions of a long-obsolete model, as though these old automobiles were also up for sale. Walking along this familiar street now flaunting an altered character was like traveling forward or backward in time, into a future or a past that was vaguely familiar and yet whose contours and rhythms I could not identify.
I was with a friend, and I was glad my wife, a compulsive shopper, was not with us. As my friend went about looking for an interesting piece to carry back to India, I tried to jog my memory and create a list of objects at home I could get rid of with a stall of my own some day. It seemed as though anything could be put on sale here, and there were enough foolhardy people who impulsively indulged in these wares. I was one of them. After an hour of wandering up and down the street, I found myself dearer by sixteen Euros on account of two small framed objects, a black and white sketch of a tudor house next to a small lane, and a reproduction of a medieval town scene that seemed to me reminiscent of something Pieter Bruegel had painted. I am yet to find a suitable corner for them at home; it is not wholly unlikely that I will put them up for sale when that stall of mine goes up.
I bought the latter frame because I liked it, and the former came into my possession because I liked the woman behind the stall where the frame stood. She was dressed in a loose gown, and beneath her floppy hat she wore a look of amusement that was a mix of condescension and detachment. When my friend examined a tin box by opening its lid, the woman spoke: if you open it, then you must put something in before you close it. We laughed, struck by this sudden flash of humour at an unlikely place. When I picked up the tudor house sketch for a closer look, she said something that caught me by surprise: the sketch showed the house where Nietzsche had grown up. I don’t know if this eccentric old woman could see through my love for dead German philosophers and writers, but she had grasped something subtle about a flea market: you can buy old objects here, but you don’t inherit the context. Where was this object acquired? How? What hands did it pass through? How did this mark come by? Why is this figure defaced? Who is this stranger in the portrait? An object must have a story behind it, and a second hand object must have a story that precedes the act of my purchase. Unknowingly, with that remark, the woman had volunteered information I desired most.
I was skeptical of the Nietzsche angle, but she had chosen to highlight this element, and I liked that. Six Euros, she said. But, she added, I could have another frame for a combined price of ten. This second frame enclosed a sketch showing a courtyard revealed through a narrow alley, and apart from calling it pretty she did not have anything else to say. I paid her six Euros and collected the tudor house sketch. The story, I knew, was worth much more. Never mind that it turned out false.