Just give it away, tightwad
Living in Geneva and the areas immediately surrounding it is breathtakingly expensive.
The expats obviously help drive up the rents and the irony is that most UN workers would struggle to pay those rents if their salaries weren’t propped up by an added ‘because it’s Geneva’ allowances that takes the stratospheric costs of paying for a roof over their heads, health insurance, food and educating their children into account.
For eight years, we paid just over one third of a million swiss Francs (half a million dollars) in rent for an apartment that had not had a single thing upgraded or modified since it was built in 1974. The year-long challenge of searching for an affordable apartment to buy just across the border in France seemed worth taking. Most expats just accepted the crippling rents, but I was determined to see if we could pay what those who commuted into Geneva but lived just outside of it were paying. After twelve months of searching, being rejected by seven banks and crying in supermarket car parks, bank number eight said yes. We now have a mortgage on a small apartment. The difference to us is that we are buying now, not renting, and are paying 1,000 Swiss Francs less per month.
So unless you’re a Grand Poobah at the UN with the special ‘CD’ licence plates that gives you all government tax back on groceries, petrol, meals as well as free parking at the airport and admission to a special duty free shop I enviously call the Dip Shit Shop, money is often something to worry about.
That’s why the Genevans drive under the airport runway that divides Switzerland and France do so every Saturday morning to buy their groceries in France. Meat, cheese, vegetables, pantry staples, household linens etc are vastly cheaper. If the border control folk are in the mood, they can stop your car from re-entering Geneva and ask to see exactly what groceries you bought. Only 500 grams of red meat per passenger in the car is allowed before punitive taxes are added. No wonder these Genevans are called ‘Meat Tourists.’
Even so, I love brocanting, or second hand-shopping, flea-marketing. Vide Grenier (‘open your attic’ or garage sales) are often highly anticipated year events in suburbs and towns. Amongst the childrens clothes, toys, dodgy appliances and old fashioned furniture, some truly useful or entrancing items can be found. I have daschund-shaped spoon rests, cocaine-enhanced cough drop tins and a copper bed warmer as my found treasures.
We can not compare the joyful community atmosphere of an annual vide grenier with social media posts, unfortunately. These are usually placed on various expat Facebook pages when someone has ‘done their time’ at the private Swiss bank or in an NGO and wants to empty their apartment as soon as they can.
In Australia, when we had four weeks to empty our house before taking only three 23kg suitcases with us to Geneva, most of it was donated to charity, given to friends, or friends of friends with just a few items (big leather lounge, wooden bed frames, whitegoods) placed on GumTree to be sold at prices so low because the need to get rid of them was more important than the extra few bucks. It was those sales that took up the most time and emotional headspace. The haggling, not bothering to show up or, in one case, an elderly lady arriving alone to pick up our fridge, washing machine and dryer and being very cross that only Dean and I were there to help her and we didn’t have a trailer.
These days, when I see ads like, ‘Moving sale — IKEA malm queen bed, two matching drawers and bedside tables, black klippan sofa, white Billy bookcase and expedit shelving system,’ I’m glad to be disinterested for two reasons.
Firstly, I’ve been through the excruciating trips to IKEA to buy, pay for delivery, await delivery, drag upstairs and install the basic furniture needed to fill a three bedroom apartment. Secondly, all the nice extras like pictures, pot plants, funny little side tables, water jugs and books were found at garage sales. It was these that created the ‘home’ and the clutter that comforted us in that home.
Actually, there’s also a third reason. The sheer greed of these advertisers. The majority seem to think that if they purchased an IKEA Poang fabric armchair for 75 euros SEVEN YEARS ago, then it’s perfectly fine to try selling it for 50 euros and tell the purchaser that they must come and collect it. From their sixth floor attic apartment that doesn’t have a lift and the buyer usually is brand new to Geneva and has barely got their brains around a bus timetable, let alone purchased a car with enough space for a couch in the back of it.
It is perfectly natural for us to want to get some of our hard-earned back when we move or change circumstances, but the petty avarice in trying to get almost full price for used items really bursts my blisters. It’s IKEA furniture, not an Arne Jacobsen original. After a couple of years with your now no-longer flat-pack Extorp sofa, kallax open shelves or lack coffee tables, you’ve had your money’s worth and you know it.
But expectation partnered with grift is big here. I’ll share some recent ones. A woman had recently arrived in Geneva for a UN job and had six large cardboard packing boxes to get rid of. A normal person would put up a hand-written note (if permitted in Switzerland’s rather minimalist foyers), saying she has some boxes to give away or, if she’s got time on her hands, put up a note stating that she’s got boxes to give away and they’re welcome to come and she’ll hand ’em over. But no, this woman took the time to take and put up five photos and was selling them for five francs a box, pick up at her place. What a fun thing to do to settle into a new country; hang around like a miser for a few coins instead of getting out and discovering the city. She would barely have made the price of a single home delivered pizza in Geneva.
Most of my books have been found via the English Book sale held a few times a year at a repurposed church on the outer edges of seedy Paquis. I was once happily strolling down there with my nanna cart and was propositioned for sex at 10am! Animal magnetism aside, these books are always never more than three or four years old as they’ve been bought by expats, read and then donated to the library, so to find some decent reads for 2 francs a book is worth bringing my nanna cart for. Once read, I give these books to friends, or re-donate them back to the library for further sales.
On expat Facebook marketplaces, single books sell for ten francs each. The French and Swiss have many goodwill-style donation bins all over the city and suburbs — couldn’t these people have put them in so that the charity benefited instead? No, a recent bloke needed to put up two photos, a written description and then have the sad determination to wait around his home to receive twenty francs to spend on maybe a small McDonald’s meal deal.
Now, this is not about shaming those who are unemployed and/or selling off their most valued possessions for food or shelter. A lot of the photos seen of the items are in very nicely furnished flats in very good parts of town. The exhaustion and unrelenting expenses of setting up life in Geneva is a fact, but does every single franc have to be wrung out?
In the army, there’s a ‘pay it down’ attitude when it comes to bullying, humiliation or ‘jokes’ at the expense of those lower in rank than you. The expectation is that those victims will have the opportunity to do the same to their minions in the future. Busy kitchens are like this too. The swearing, insults, unrealistic expectations and knife throwing would result in a court case and instant dismissal if it occurred in a small town cafe, but in a London restaurant, it’s known as your ‘apprenticeship.’ Again, if you survive, it will be your turn to treat the sous chefs and waiters under you like shit.
But why do well paid, highly qualified and now even-more-experienced expats think that every single item they’ve bought and used for several years needs to have a far-too-high price attached to it? IKEA is the furniture store of choice here and pretty well everywhere else in the world and it is exceedingly easy to compare the new price with, say, the one suggested by an owner who’s sat on it, eaten on it, slept on it or drank out of it for six years.
Here’s a classic for you below. An IKEA canape (sofa, not a pre-dinner snack), owned for a couple of years. Yours for a complete bargain of 150 Swiss francs if you come and pick it up and don’t mind the ‘stains made by massage oil,’ pictured where the two sides join together. The mind rather nauseatingly boggles at why, when, who or what….. a stained couch — why not simply offer it to some students?
If you have another 150 francs, you can buy an advertising tarpaulin like the one pictured below. Designs vary and unless you have a Freitag bag-sewing machine and the ability to market over-priced messenger bags, I imagine that draping an old advert across your balcony during the summer months will not go down well with the concierge.
Here’s a trip down memory lane for all of us who had ‘music’ as an occasional distraction in primary school — a recorder! This one has been ‘used’ and is now tastefully displayed across the arse dip of an IKEA folding chair. Yours for only ten francs when it could have been thrown, javelin-style, into the open slot of a goodwill bin.
Two stainless steel rulers with both inches and centimetres on them. Ten francs a piece. Several photos and descriptions put on facebook to emphasise their fabulousness. Is twenty francs worth the time spent?
These empty plastic plant pots take the cake for tightwadishness.Some of them are still holding dirt. These nasty little buggers are the ones that your plants arrive in when you buy them but later discard when you’d like to put them in something either bigger, nicer or with a saucer to catch the water. This particularly special scrooge has put ‘price negotiable’ presumably depending on size and quantity sought, but as explained earlier, virtually every major street in Geneva has plastic recycling bins and these belong firmly in them.
Some other clown was trying to sell their rather stained-looking Nespresso milk frother for 30 francs. I checked online, and a brand new one costs 35! A 190cm fake and rather patchy looking Christmas tree had only been put up for three Christmases. It cost 99 francs new, but they’d accept 50 francs. What saints!
A size-six child’s pair of faded Zara trousers were up for four euros. FOUR EUROS. Why not get some fresh air during these never-ending lockdown restrictions and PUT THEM IN THE CHARITY BIN. It is children’s clothes that are sorely needed during times of lost jobs, uncertain futures and many ‘non essential’ services being forced to shut. For charitable purposes (and for lack of thorough checking), I’ll assume that the champion who was selling Sofitel hotel branded paper candle covers for 5 frances each was a different person. Or maybe that’s worse, because it means that there are more Greedy Genevans that previously assumed. And everyone has or has used, the IKEA Malm drawers. How about buying one that’s seven years old with several dark stains on the top and a ten centre gash across the top of one drawer? They’re 139 euros new (actually the larger size one is, the one pictured is smaller) but you can have this one for only forty euros (pick up, of course).
Amongst the belongings is a call for an after school nanny. His/Her duties will include picking the two children up from school, helping with their homework, taking them to soccer practice as required, cooking their evening meal and cleaning the house. For a country that recently made their minimum wage 23 Swiss francs, this benevolent butthole was offering the starvation rate of only 10 francs per hour.
It can be difficult not to feel angry and disgusted at these pages of greed. When we moved from Geneva to France, we gave our IKEA stuff away. We knew that each person would have to go to the trouble of collecting it from our place and how many newbies have access to a van or trailer? We also knew that some would need to be dismantled in order to fit through the door frame and that, yes, eight years had added a patina of wear and tear.
Putting ‘free’ next to those advertisements saved a lot of time. I remember a young Polish couple arrived. He had just started a job as an engineer at CERN and had a toolkit that enabled him to deconstruct our daughter’s triple-faced wardrobe, double bed, desk, side tables and drawers. I offered them coffee and talked while his wife and I watched him work. What did she do, I asked?
Her eyes filled with tears. She was a doctor in Poland, but her qualifications were not recognised here. Her French was at the rather impressive ‘advanced C1’ level but the health system insisted on the highest, advanced C2.
How was she filling in her time?
Rediscovering crafts and sewing, she said. Cushion covers and even designing skirts by hand as she scoured the second hand shops for funky old fabrics.
My daughter had a sewing machine. She was leaving for university and had not used it in months. I gave it to the woman, waving away her trying to reach into her handbag. She would be happy to know that you are using it and enjoying it, I said, hoping that my daughter would indeed feel that way after I told her.
Two weeks later, the woman sent me photos of the curtains she’d run up for their living room and a brightly creative cover for their bed. It was the right decision and yes, our daughter thought so too.
This last advertisement here intrigues me. A Victoria Virtuoso II accordion. New condition. Newly tuned. Still has the original cover and has ‘excellent sound.’ Slightly over one and a half thousand euros.
I’ll admit to doing no research into what a brand new Victoria Virtuoso II costs, but this seems to be one helluva lockdown hobby that didn’t quite pan out.
If there’s any moral to this, it’s just to give away what you can give away. IKEA furniture is cheap and instantly recognisable, so why try to profit more from it? Outgrown children’s clothing is what charity shops are crying for and if you want someone to look after your kids, pay them fairly. And if you’re in need, visit a charity shop yourself. A fair percentage of our flat is furnished thanks to bargain finds.
Felix is jumping at my feet reminding me that it’s time to for our afternoon walk. We’ll be lumbered with a bag of bottles to loudly crash into the recycle bins and some paperbacks to slide into the Emmaus slot. It ain’t hard.