Buying Culture

One might think that families with moderate incomes would stick to strict budgets, right? Nope. Persons living overseas who spend significant cash on travel would not have the resources to buy frivolous items, right? Nah. Military folks who move every two to three years would not want to accumulate many breakable or irreplaceable objects, right? Negative.

To the contrary — military spouses living overseas get caught up in a veritable rip tide of shopping frenzy that belies all tenets of common sense and logic. We travel long distances packed into uncomfortable busses or jammed into crowded mini-vans to spend money we don’t have on unnecessary European-made artifacts that are usually breakable and often irreplaceable.

We head to Boleslawiec to experience polka-dotted Polish pottery purchasing pleasure. We scurry to the Czech Republic like ferrets in search of glittery crystal objects to hide in our dens. We trek to Soufflenheim, France to explore the myriad of poteries for the least-obnoxious glazes to adorn our dining tables. We endure sleepless bus rides to peruse the rich colors of Italian ceramics in Nove.

We rummage through piles of French country table linens, oblivious to the scent of fresh-baked macaroons in charming Ribeauville. We relentlessly haggle for Italian leather handbags in chic Florence. We don headlamps at 5:00 a.m. like miners digging for priceless gems at the Belgian antique fair in Tongeren.

In the meantime, we drain our bank accounts and pack every surface of our homes with stuff. But why?

Despite my vast Polish pottery collection, I went to Soufflenheim, France the other day with a friend who moving back to the States in a month. She was on a mission to acquire more of the characteristic Alsatian ceramics and nothing was going to stop her. As she deftly negotiated her SUV through a tangle of road construction on the Autobahn in the pouring rain, I asked her why we submit to these irrational shopping urges.

She thought a minute, then produced a guess: “In the military you don’t acquire much wealth, so you have to buy stuff from the places you lived to show that you are culturally rich.”

Another friend recently returned from a trip to Tuscany, where she said all 10 women in her group were acutely engrossed in senseless shopping fury. She witnessed fits of unbridled acquisition she had never seen before, such as one woman clearing a grocery store shelf of all the bottles of a particularly tasty Italian wine, and another hyperventilating upon entering a leather handbag store. My friend kept her cool, but splurged on a Deruta ceramic platter with matching oil and vinegar cruets for almost 100 Euros. She told me that, even if she uses it infrequently, the platter will serve its purpose by communicating, “Look! I went to Italy!” 

One might say that the acquisition of all this stuff is nothing but an ostentatious display of accomplishment designed to impress people. Are we all a bunch of shallow, pretentious phonies trying to use materialism to get ahead socially? A gaggle of women knocking each other over for a polka-dotted plate may look like superficial greed, but is there a more positive aspect to this widespread gluttony?

As the sign says, “Home is where the Army/Navy/Air Force/Marines send us.” To some degree, what makes our home look like our home is the stuff we put inside, right? Undeniably, “home is where the heart is,” but what if that heart is ceramic and you bought it in Soufflenheim for 13 Euros? If we can’t take pride in the woodwork, walls and windows, then we should be able to delight in our teacups, tapestries and tables, for goodness sakes. After all, every piece we purchase has a story to tell, an experience behind it, a foreign place explored.

Eminent persons throughout history have pondered the topics of what makes a home and the morality of shopping, but even their famous musings do not resolve this debate. Ralph Waldo Emerson ruminated, “But it is a cold, lifeless business when you go to the shops to buy something, which does not represent your life and talent, but a goldsmith’s.” However, Oscar Wilde astutely observed, “Anyone who lives within their means suffers from a lack of imagination.”

Whether we are materialistic charlatans or worldly travelers, Erma Bombeck had it right when she said, “Shopping is a woman thing. It’s a contact sport like football. Women enjoy the scrimmage, the noisy crowds, the danger of being trampled to death, and the ecstasy of the purchase.”

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Comments: 5

  1. Essie August 14, 2010 at 10:45 am Reply

    just stumbled upon your blog trying to find out when the Soufflenheim Pottery festival is this year!
    we’re stationed in Germany too, 3 years so far, with at least 4 trips to Souff. and 3 to Poland (nice photo inside Andy’s shop btw!)
    i think you’re friend hit the nail on the head…the army won’t make us wealthy, but will fill our lives with the riches of many happy memories, and yes…perhaps a little culture!

    • Lisa Smith Molinari August 17, 2010 at 10:58 am Reply

      Thanks for clicking in, Essie! We’re off to Lake Como, Italy for Labor Day . . . what should I buy there??

  2. Maz June 19, 2010 at 3:48 am Reply

    OK, I know what a baby is…but what is a Schrank? Whatever it is…I WANT ONE! I envy you the unique shopping opportunities there in Europe. Enjoy yourself.

  3. Ann Marie @ Household6Diva May 23, 2010 at 1:00 pm Reply

    I LOVE your writing! And I completely relate to the ambivalence of this topic!

    For example – I have heard it said – When you move to Germany you either bring home a Baby or a Schrank. And my comment to my husband has been – Well! If we do another deployment over here I want a Schrank too!

    I stumbled onto your blog via your MilBlogging profile. (We are also stationed in Germany courtesy of the Army.) I look forward to following your blog!

    • Lisa Smith Molinari May 23, 2010 at 9:19 pm Reply

      I must admit, that I already have my Schrank, and I still have at least another year to go! The kids’ college funds will just have to wait….

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