Free for All?

by Ant Stone on June 4, 2010

in Features

I was shuffling through central Wellington yesterday when I came across a concept-store called FREE STORE. If the words FREE and STORE have got you giddy, and you want to rush off without reading the rest of my post; you’ll find it at 38 Ghuznee Street. Be quick. It closes its doors in two days.

The Shop

Yes, it closes its doors. It’s not permanent; but while I’m confident it’s a viable solution for the food-waste generated by large supermarket chains, the underlying fact is, it’s an art project. It’s designed to make an impact on our lives, then be stored away in a book about art, and then bought by art lovers to fertilise our global confusion about — what else — art.

Lettuce

Still. It got me thinking about travel, and how I believe travellers and tourists see certain regions as metaphorical FREE STORES. As I stood in Wellington’s FREE STORE guiltily clutching a bag of salad, I chatted with the female storekeeper about how the concept was going. If I’d left without having had this conversation I’d of been mortified. I figured it would somehow, have been akin to shoplifting.

The Shopkeeper

She seemed to be feeding off an underground well of resentment. Resentment that these hoards of middle-class creatures were coming in and taking liberties, despite the fact they weren’t doing anything wrong.

Because after all, this being art, the word spreads much quicker among the middle-class than it does the needier factions of society, not least because the middle class in 2010 are an upward spiral of viral communication.

I immediately likened the shopkeeper to Thailand. A country I’ve never visited; which seemed fitting to me as I’d never met the shopkeeper. While talking to me she was watching people come into the store and paw over all the best items and produce, while she could just stand there, and smile, and make conversation with anonymous writers who try and create an excuse for standing there holding a bag of salad leaves.

The Shoppers

I’ve long-believed there’s a global hypocrisy amongst today’s travellers. We expect things in Thailand, for example, to be cheap. We expect cheap beer. Cheap accommodation. Cheap drugs. Cheap food. Cheap travel.

The moment it’s not cheap, we flail our arms in the air and berate the condemned Thai because: “You’re ripping me off! No one fucking rips me off! This would never happen in my country!”

Two weeks later these travellers board the over-priced international flight, land back in their over-priced country, quietly buy an over-priced takeaway coffee, jump in an over-priced car filled with over-priced fuel, and travel back to their over-priced flat.

No. Questions. Asked. They neither scream blue-murder at their compatriots for charging them 10 pence too much. Nor do they scowl at every other native who dares to sell them anything with a profit margin. They just accept it.

The FREE STORE in Wellington is an interesting concept. When I told my girlfriend, Reb she simply rotated the words “weird” and “strange” until I mock-throttled her. Later, gasping, she questioned why I didn’t take more than a simple bag of salad.

Mono Lettuce

The Shopped

The truth is, it felt so alien a concept to me: that everything should be completely free. By taking just one bag of salad, I was testing the water. By speaking to the storekeeper I was looking to authenticate my experience. By observing other customers opening their backpacks and placing in three or four small items, I was judging them.

I thought back to my time in Asia, a continent I spent fourteen-months swirling guiltlessly around. It was a series of small gestures, while I tested out the water. A collection of authentic conversations. A period of unbridled observation and judgement of others’ cultures.

Suddenly, that bag of free salad was a metaphor, a portal, to my life as a traveller. A trivial gesture, with a powerful resonance.

While I accept most aspects of all cultures, I still expect all cultures to be acceptable to me. By challenging my expectations, my levels of acceptance are almost always heightened, and this is one of the fundamental reasons why travel appeals to me. It’s a combination of challenges and expectations, fuelled by an inherent shift in what I find to be acceptable.

Free salad wasn’t acceptable to me. But I took it.

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