Notes & Essays

One man's trash is another man's culture

When scenes at a Scandinavian flea market assumes racial, cultural weight.
IMAGE Nash Ignacio
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A woman, tidying up, gives me a Barack Obama book for free. The Audacity of Hope. She just seems happy that it will be going to someone who looks like she might genuinely read it. When I look up from the book, I see a bottle of perfume with a respectable layer of liquid at the bottom. When I offer to pay for both items she simply shrugs and gives me a tired smile. “We don’t want to pack it up all over again,” she said. “We’ve been awake since four o’clock. We just want to get back home and sleep.”

The discards of Danish households, once coveted and (presumably) treasured, now abandoned for the immigrants, the hoarders, the bargain addicts to pick over.

It is only two in the afternoon on a bright windy summer day, but the flea market is done. What was once a confused hive activity—of flapping fabric, laughter, long white arms taking money a few coins at a time, has become a rectangle of churned gravel. Boxes of debris mark the spot where some vendor’s table stood. Inside the boxes lie twenty-year-old clothing, picture frames, paperbacks, picture books, old women’s magazines, hobbyist paintings, shoelaces and hair ribbons, bra straps bereft of bras, Christmas ornaments made in China, CDs, headphones, old gadgets... the discards of Danish households, once coveted and (presumably) treasured, now abandoned for the immigrants, the hoarders, the bargain addicts to pick over.

Little by little, over the course of the next hour, the boxes and their contents will disappear, as the scavengers—the next and final wave of market habitués—take over. I see three of them in a row, women in their 30s, their ample buttocks balanced on a guardrail in the parking lot, which they have turned into a bench. One of them wears a headscarf, but I am not sure if it is for religious purposes, or a simple carryover from the rural community from where she might have come. They are taking brightly colored garments out of reused grocery bags, passing leopard-printed leggings back and forth, exclaiming amiably, chatting. They have waited, waited to part with their money until the last hour, when prices drop to 2 crowns a garment, and they are prepared to wait some more, for the Danish sellers to clear out, so they might resume their forays.

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There are days when a scavenger, quietly stooping, stirring and filtering, can walk away with so much more value in her rumpled grocery bag than a professional seller has made throughout a long and frustrating day.

Not that the sellers like this. A good many will refuse to give away their wares for free. In the corner of every flea market stands The Dumpster. In Denmark this is roomy enough to house a class of fourth graders playing hide-and-seek. In terms of square meters it is larger than your typical slum area shanty or thatch-roof hut in the Third World hinterlands.


Into this vast ringing metal space goes the detritus of the day. One afternoon I observe a man, muttering under his breath, hefting a huge box of porcelain and glass to the dumpster and flinging the load in as far as he can. The contents shatter into a thousand pieces against the back wall, with a sound both painful and musical. I watch his back-and-forth perambulations with awe. He destroys his wares with a mix of disgust and perverse satisfaction. He is not alone. Men and women, they muscle past the gathering crowd, burdens in their arms, glowering, speaking to no one.

Then I understand. The people who wreck perfectly good, recyclable stuff are professional vendors. Those who—like the amiable woman in her 30s speaking effortless English—might be happy to gift me with Barack Obama’s words and a used bottle of Burberry Touch, are the amateurs, interested only in ridding their homes of junk, only too happy to pass that junk on to people like me. But professional sellers can’t afford that largesse. It takes away their income. It chips away at their livelihood. They know the more they throw away stuff, the more they condition the scavengers to expect the freebies.

One afternoon I observe a man, muttering under his breath, hefting a huge box of porcelain and glass to the dumpster and flinging the load in as far as he can.

I don’t know where the professional junk sellers source their wares—charmingly mismatched cups and saucers, artisan clay pots from 30 years ago, kitsch marked 5 and 10 kroner—but everything that is spread out on their tables has been salvaged somewhere, been paid for, been cleaned and shined, taken up someone’s valuable time. God knows how much a professional flea market vendor loses, in money and minutes, through each minute step that leads to a transaction. There are days when a scavenger, quietly stooping, stirring and filtering, can walk away with so much more value in her rumpled grocery bag than a professional seller has made throughout a long and frustrating day—a day that, like everyone else’s at the market, began at four o’clock that morning.

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There is an atmosphere of quiet cooperation among the scavengers. There are no arguments.

Their evident disgust for the scavengers is no deterrent. On most market days a crowd gathers about the dumpster. It is unique, different from most crowds, in that people barely speak. There is a certain humorous patience with which they watch the back-and-forth movement of the men and women disposing of their baggage. Half the time, the sellers are content to lay their cardboard cartons on the ground, not caring to look as the boxes are immediately set upon. Drinking glasses, candlesticks, hugely irrelevant poinsettias are drawn out, examined, apportioned. There is an atmosphere of quiet cooperation among the scavengers. There are no arguments. If a voice is raised in anger, the entire market stops and turns to the source: it is a great transgression—there are treasures here for everyone, why be so greedy, as though this were the last day of the?last summer of the last retail cycle of the world? There is camaraderie, cooperation, there is also the unspoken rule that, whoever is first to lay a quick hand on an item, owns it.


So this is the conundrum facing one woman. She is evidently Southeast Asian, young and slight of frame, with long, unbrushed hair and that rough, slightly gray quality of the skin that indicates a childhood of artesian well water and rudimentary meals. She has “au pair girl” written all over her, as have the young women of nearly similar age who keep her company. Each of them guards a shopping bag filled with the day’s treasures, purchased or salvaged. But the young and troubled girl has gotten herself a bonanza—a trove of drinking glasses: tumblers, champagne flutes, fragile stemmed little numbers fit for martinis. There must be 30, 40 of them in all. Some came in their original boxes with cardboard divisions, into which she endeavors to lay the glasses that do not belong. She arranges them and rearranges them, always coming up with the same odd number no matter how diligently she tries to fit them in. One of her friends tosses a pair of washed out baby overalls her way, and advises her to stuff the spaces. None of the others volunteer a hand. She has been first to lay claim—now she must find a way to carry them back to wherever she lives.

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There is camaraderie, cooperation, there is also the unspoken rule that, whoever is first to lay a quick hand on an item, owns it.

“You better call a taxi,” one of the other au pairs says, in a tone of satisfaction.

I reckon it will cost her 200 crowns to get back home. That is far more than the cost of the drinking glasses at a charity shop. Will the other au pairs pile into the back seat, then, giggling, elated at the prospect of a car ride? Who, in the end, will help her with the tab? Pride keeps her head resolutely lowered as she struggles with her packing. Should she give up, turn her back on her treasure, the other girls will partition it up in seconds, each the proud bearer of three or four pieces of mismatched glass.

I do not really blame her for her doggedness, and perhaps I envy her somewhat for her find. In such a situation, I would simply pull out my mobile phone and half-beg, half-order my husband to pick me up. He will be annoyed, and tell me in a deep and resigned voice to wait, and after an hour, will swing into the deserted parking lot and rescue me and my fragile burden, a burden heavy with cultural meaning.

Sure, but one man’s junk is another man’s culture. A thing acquires cultural capital through people’s interpretations of it; isn’t the thing special in itself, because it comes all the way from Europe?

Cultural capital. I picked up that phrase reading Bourdieu. My husband might turn the glasses upside down, check their bottoms, announce the absence of any distinction-bearing mark. See, he tells me time and again, when at glaziers and curio shops my hands reach for some pretty novelty. See, there is nothing on the bottom to identify this piece with this particular workshop. It might as well be made in China. It probably is, given the price, something they import in to attract visitors who aren’t really looking to buy. He suggests, rather gently, that I put the piece back on the rack.

Sure, but one man’s junk is another man’s culture. A thing acquires cultural capital through people’s interpretations of it; isn’t the thing special in itself, because it comes all the way from Europe? Doesn’t a set of used glasses mass-produced in Poland or China acquire a bit more cachet because they are secondhand, have previously been owned by a Scandinavian family of some means?

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So here’s another story. One sunny day I decide to join the small crowd filtering patiently for treasures, right at the foot of the dumpster. I don’t normally think of myself as a scavenger, but today there are a bunch of white people amid the usual immigrant hoard—nice-looking Danish family-types and a couple of American women—and somehow their presence rescues us from the status of riffraff. We are now officially recyclers, and it is good to be green.

I don’t normally think of myself as a scavenger, but today there are a bunch of white people amid the usual immigrant hoard—nice-looking Danish family-types and a couple of American women—and somehow their presence rescues us from the status of riffraff.

There is a black man, too, impressively tall and large, domineering. He has laid claim to everything for himself. He’s got four sacks behind him, stuffed with abandoned clothes, which he protects with his legs, planted firmly before them. He has a knack for bending at the waist, his long arms out- stretched, to grab something, while his legs retain ownership of his patch of earth. Two Filipina women, older, not au pairs, circle him coyly. They’ve got sacks of their own. They twit him in their fractured English and amiably he answers back, his accent West African–Ghanaian or Nigerian. English, three voices, disparate accents, rising about our ears. It sounds to me like the women may be interested in something in one of his sacks, and are deploying the kind of feminine wiles perfected back home but hardly put to use in Denmark, where, frankly, in the sexual arena, they aren’t even contenders?

“We need to send things back to our families,” one of them says in a wheedling tone. “Yeah?” says the black guy, unimpressed. “Well, I have my family too.”


Four sacks. How many backs to be clothed in that family? It niggles at me, that he has appropriated our collective excuse for being here, to justify his greed. He’ll sell them, I know. He’ll transport them in giant cardboard boxes back home, where the girls in his family will dutifully launder and iron them and sell them at near-retail price. From time to time, he looks down, decides a shrunken linen blazer or some other piece of crap is not worth it, and tosses it over to the waiting crowd. “I don’t want that.” Instantly dark heads bend and the garment is passed from hand to hand, disappearing in someone’s Føtex bag.

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One of the American women, more assertive than the rest, reaches for some trivial thing—a lamp, a picture, perhaps—on the ground in front of him. His head whips around.

They look like tourists, or people visiting friends for a spell. It amuses me that they have wound up at a flea market: I thought only immigrants of color like myself were interested in Danish cast-offs.

“That’s mine,” he rumbles. “I got it first, and it’s mine.”

She freezes, retreats. “It’s no use,” she says to her friend, sotto voce. “He’s the boss here, he decides what to keep.” They turn in dismay and walk away. They are authentic American, I can hear it in their accents. They look like tourists, or people visiting friends for a spell. It amuses me that they have wound up at a flea market: I thought only immigrants of color like myself were interested in Danish cast-offs.

Some family man comes up with a flyttekasse filled with paperbacks, which he lays tenderly on the ground, as it happens, in front of my feet. I bend. They are nearly all in English. The complete Harry Potter series, some Twilights, some Isak Dinesens...

There are treasures here for everyone, stamped with the cachet of having been owned by a Scandinavian household.

I cannot recall what else was there, however, because just as my hands close around a book, the flyttekasse is borne into the air, in the long arms of the West African man, and is flung into the depths of the dumpster. A booming voice above me says in English, “I don’t need these.”

I don’t protest. I have “the audacity of hope”. Who would come to my defense anyway? There is an atmosphere of quiet cooperation in the aftermath of a flea market. There are no arguments. If a voice is raised all activity halts and heads turn to the source: it is indeed a great transgression. After all, there are treasures here for everyone, stamped with the cachet of having been owned by a Scandinavian household.

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