The story of a flea market purchase

by Cathy Chua

Landscape by André Engel

In that famous speech where Leonard Cohen told us  ‘…never to lament casually’, he continued ‘And if one is to express the great inevitable defeat that awaits us all, it must be done within the strict confines of dignity and beauty.’

When I’m in Geneva I often go to the large flea market in Plainpalais. For most people it’s a source of bargains, or a way to pass the time. But I see death everywhere there, with no lamenting and a marked lack of respect. I am a mourning party of one. I see people’s lives laid out for a few francs. What’s there often tells a story. Curated collections of jazz music, or slightly kooky egg cups from everywhere. From the lost days of photographs, albums of happy tourist are muddled with strange books to see in this market, but put in place by the pictures. I even see home sometimes, a story of Indigenous people, or a guide to Australia, snapshots amongst them.

I lament not only the person who has gone, but the process which ends here, in a scrabble for a bargain. Did nobody care about this deceased human being, that their belongings have been tossed into cardboard boxes to be disposed of in indecent haste? Did the person who left behind this collection of sewing bits and bobs have no one to sew for? I spend a lot of time imagining what had existed. I am moved to buy things I shouldn’t. Does nobody want this framed picture of a child from the turn of the nineteenth century? Somebody must. I must.

But I mainly don’t. I can’t single-handedly save the small histories of these human lives. Instead I mostly stick to a reserved regret and try to honour what I see when it tells a story. Read more »