Wednesday, May 6, 2009

Shopping: a culture all its own

From malls to thrift shops, from boutiques to stalls, shopping can be a bane or a boon. Depending on the state of mind of the shopper and the reasons for taking the jaunt, the experience of going somewhere to exchange money for goods or services can take you to another world. On a recent trip down south (of Milwaukee, that is), we realized just that.

In the car, we talked about times in other countries when haggling became imperative and quality depended on the relationship between the seller and the buyer. We discussed differences between shopping in the US and shopping elsewhere. As the conversation became its own entity, so fascinated and engrossed became passenger and driver, we nearly missed it. But there it was, larger than life:

Yes, indeed! The famed 7 Mile Fair.

It 's always been very interesting to me that any mention of this marketplace to anyone native of Milwaukee that I know has always ended with either a snide remark or a dismissal of anything of value that the place could offer. I for one could never understand it, since places like this for a people watcher and amateur window shopper have been my constant companions since just about birth (my mother's favorite infinitive was to garage sale: I garage sale, you garage sale, s/he garage sales,etc.; although she always used the gerund: garage saling. As in, "Let's go garage saling today!")

When a friend and colleague of mine (we both call the Alliance Francaise de Milwaukee home) told me she had never been to 7 Mile Fair, I jumped at the chance to go again. It's not often that I meet someone who is willing to jump in the car and go to a sprawling indoor market that at some points resembles the world's largest Dollar Store.

Pulling off of the freeway and onto the off ramp, the excitement grew. At the stop sign before turning into the parking lot- now this is probably the largest parking lot you could ever see-we looked at each other one last time. As we turned our heads away from each other and toward the gravel-coated car storage area, I stepped on the gas and 30 seconds later we had entered the lot. Still early enough to find a fairly close parking space, I pulled into one a few hundred feet from the grand entrance. We got out of the car and started the short walk to the mouth of the building. As we were walking we noticed-you couldn't help it, really - a large banner:

We both thought it was at once poignant and ironic, since all of the signs in the parking lot were in Spanish and English. That was our kind of America. In our minds, though, the only America we could evoke was the one that wanted everyone to speak English and go back to where they cam from if they weren't interested in our 'official language' (in fact, English is not the official language of the US; we have none.) As we walked into the lobby to pay our $1.50 each to enter the bazaar, the American souk, the marché aux puces that is 7 Mile Fair, I told Beth that she would be feeling like she was leaving the US the minute she entered 7 Mile Fair soil. We had to wonder: was the "God Bless America" a way of telling us that we were leaving the US and were about to cross the border? We felt like taking out our passports...

Stay tuned for part two of "Shopping: A culture all its own".