Friday, 16 August 2013

Week 8: the cabinet of memories

How often do strangers spontaneously invite passers-by to enter their homes? And then show them around each room, into each intimate corner of their dwelling?

I can't remember it ever having happened to me before.

Week 8 of Our Time of Gifts saw me and my children on a local street, inspecting a low, squat table with a slightly grubby applique design that someone had left outside their house, to be taken by a person in need of a shabby chic coffee table.

An upstairs window opened, and a woman's head emerged from the house. Soft, 50-ish, and a bit fuzzy around the edges. Did we want any more furniture, Gloria asked. She was moving, and the house was full of stuff she no longer needed.

Intrigued, I followed her into a place that was messy with memories. As she showed me round, two small, off-white dogs scuttled across floors strewn with clothes, papers and the occasional empty wine bottle. No room was left unexplored; we were even escorted into her bedroom, to look at a couple of cabinets she was hoping to exchange for a small amount of money. The religious iconography peppering the rest of the house - bejewelled Virgin Mary on the side of a bag, embellished cross hanging on the inside of the front door - was nowhere to be seen in this room. Instead, a portrait of Frida Kahlo hung on the wall, her level, wide-eyed gaze challenging us to stare back at her strong face; at the solitary tear rolling down her cheek.

Gloria shared Frida's sadness. Her eyes welled up and her voice cracked at least seven times while we were there. When I asked whether she was moving far away. In her bedroom, while she was proudly showing me the beautiful cabinet that I thought would be perfect for our own home. As she shouted at one of the little dogs for jumping up to the table and stealing a piece of pizza. While she explained that she was moving because of a break-up.

And she cried as we left, when I told her I would be keen to take the elegant, solid walnut bedroom cabinet she'd shown me. I'd be willing to pay for it; she just had to name the price. 'It's gorgeous.'

'I know', she responded, fanning the tears that had sprung up once again. 'I love it too.'

A couple of weeks ago, I was talking to writer Jane Moss, who is exploring the meaning that objects can have in people's lives. Over the years, we build up treasured possessions. Some mark certain phases of our lives; others stay with us, hanging in the background to wallpaper our memories. Rarely noticed, but always there.

Gloria's bedroom cabinet clearly meant a great deal to her, but she was being forced to sell it so that she could downsize. It seems doubly cruel that, at a time when bonds that previously held her world together were coming apart, she also had to sell her home and, piece by piece, dismantle her familiar surroundings.

This week, my gift was a bottle of wine and a card that I left at Gloria's doorstep, to say thank-you for showing us round her home.

Image copyright Francis Storr

Thursday, 8 August 2013

Week 7: the sunny day

Is it easier to share when the sun is shining?

For week 7 of Our Time of Gifts, I decided to chase up Wilhelmina, the Australian actress whose radiant demeanor brightened our rainy Spring day when she came via Streetbank to help weed our garden. I'd finally got round to finishing the job she'd started, and had uprooted a huge poppy plant, along with several aquilegia. It seemed a shame to consign them to the compost, so, on a baking hot morning, I dropped them round to Wilhelmina's house.

A gift that was easy to give, with a sunny smile offered in return.

Since starting Our Time of Gifts, I've been looking into the collaborative consumption movement. It's based around the notion of a sharing economy, where gifts, favours and goods are exchanged. Sometimes this is done for cash (like ride sharing, where people offer space in their vehicles through organisations like BlaBla Car); at  other times, something similar is offered in return (like a house-swap, where people go to stay in one city while giving their own home up as a 'free' holiday rental). And then there's the good, old-fashioned method of just passing something on for nothing. Through freecycle, for instance.

The 'sharing economy' movement seems to have taken its firmest foothold in relatively affluent countries; places where there is a lot of sun, like Australia and New Zealand, or the Western coast of America. All the people that I've met from these areas shared similar characteristics: an easy smile; a relaxed, optimistic demeanour; and - at least on the surface - an open interest in others. Even complete strangers.

Us Brits, on the other hand, are notorious for our "icy exterior", remarked upon by Shareable blogger Chelsea Rustrum when she visited London for the recent LeWeb conference on sharing.

We are a dour, sarcastic nation who complain when it's cold, then moan when the sun shines too brightly. Our cultural heritage foregrounds the kitchen-sink drama; our cinematic exports include the gritty, conflict-riven films of Mike Leigh and Ken Loach, and orphaned, misfit wizard Harry Potter, whose teachers and classmates have a habit of dying around him.

We are gloomy.

The free and easy road trip, with its hitchiking and sofa-surfing, has never featured greatly as a rite of passage in this country. It's just too damned damp and drizzly here. In sunnier climes, where the sharing economy is being touted as the next big thing, setting off with a small backback to roam wherever the road might take you, has long been the norm for young adults.

Does this make a difference to these people's ability to trust in the generosity of strangers; to throw themselves into the hands of fate, and offer unconditional help to others?

Or is the UK's manner of sharing just different to that of Wilhelmina and her kind?