When you move to a foreign country you have to start all over again: buy back your life, reconstruct your existence. Plates. Bedding. Pens. Cutlery. I didn’t want to go to Ikea. I tried the local shops instead.
‘Have you got a teaspoon?’ I asked in my crap Spanish.
The grocer shook his head with a little laugh, like I’d asked him for one of the roof-tiles from the Alhambra.
´No, we don’t sell those here. Try the beautician’s,’ he said, pointing across the street.
‘A tea what?’ they snapped, in the beautician’s. ‘No, we don’t stock things like that. This is a beautician’s. Try the butcher’s, they might have it.’
I gave up and went to Ikea.
The Ikea in Madrid is annexed, as it is everywhere, on the end of a tube line as if it might infect the rest of the city. I emerged from the Metro and blinked. Someone had made the city disappear. Brownfields scarred by piled garbage and half-built houses, a deserted six-lane motorway. The crowd who’d emerged with me were already moving off across the parched earth, drawn by some common purpose towards a cloud-high sign screaming CENTRO COMMERCIAL. I followed them as if they were pilgrims broaching the Promised Land. As we neared the breezeblock Mecca of the shopping mall itself – more a collection of malls, a city of malls – an armed guard stood above silently watching our approach, like a sentry lining the castle ramparts. I half expected him to let off a couple of warning shots into the air.
Inside was the usual nouveau kitsch of every single mall I’ve ever been in – Paul Smith jackets and Zara miniskirts set to a muddled hum of muzak, mobile phone bleeps, iPod burbles. I navigated my way through an Esperanto of brandnames until I reached the Ikea at the back.
Now, the first thing you have to realize about Ikea is that it’s not a shop. It’s so much more than that. Ikea is a work of retail art, and here’s how it works.
Visitors were made to ascend immediately into an upper floor showroom tellingly labeled ´Exhibition’. Skeletal scenes from modern life snaked their way through a gallery space: rooms with no walls, cutaway suggestions of a lounge, a kitchen, a bedroom. A snapshot of life in the early twenty first century, covered in a skin of price-stickers. The only thing missing was human beings. Every installation was eerily deserted, as if it had happened moments after some global catastrophe: the dinner plates freshly laid, the wine uncorked, the cat flap still swinging. The end of the world as designer furniture.
And it worked. The place was artier than MOMA. Everything felt stylish and desirable; here, a plastic salt-shaker seemed an indispensible recipe for happiness. In fact the whole place made me want to move right in. Against the soothing soundtrack of hundreds of shuffling strangers, I realized why there were no shop dummies, no mannequins: we were the mannequins, dumbly dreaming our way through the showrooms. Ikea’s inspiration is to make you a part of the TV commercial itself. ‘Here’s paradise,’ it says. ‘And look, it’s only 8.99 Euros.’ The teaspoon I plucked from one of the drawers wasn’t a teaspoon: it was somehow generic, unblemished. A Platonic idea of a teaspoon. I realized, grasping its handle (POKAL, 7cm, 1.53E, Des. Johanna Jelinek) that I was forging a personal connection to that teaspoon.
That was the art. Downstairs came the money.
As you descend to make your actual purchases the dream promptly evaporates and the supermarket kicks in. Ikea the Promised Land becomes Ikea the Pound Land as salivating customers clamber over an Escher puzzle of flat pack delights, stock towering above you, sideways, downwards, on the ceiling… I stood back with a sort of mild terror as shoppers swarmed around me. The eagerness was overwhelming. You’d see elderly ladies lifting entire walls, ripping toilets out from their fittings. I watched a frail couple staggering out with what looked like half a house.
Eventually, dry-mouthed and beaten, I heaved a blue sack large enough to house a family packed with duvets, bowls, cutlery, plugs, bowls, desk lamps and Platonic teaspoons, and emerged blinking in the desert haze. The sun was low in the sky, an oily grimace haunting the horizon. The heat of the day was over and the landscape was eerily noiseless. If Ikea had been a frozen still life with no people, then here was more of the same. Concrete shells lay empty like the excesses of a Soviet quota. This was a construction boom deconstructed, a Mayan ruin left to bake beside a silent freeway. A guy with scary eyes tried to sell me weed as he passed on the pavement. There was nobody else around.
Shielding my eyes, I glanced down at the receipt in my hand. Seventy three Euros, it said, in flaky till-print. Seventy three Euros to buy back your life. Not bad, when you thought about it… I heaved the sack back onto my shoulder as I neared the Metro. Somewhere, down in the depths of the enormous holdall, I could sense the shape of a teaspoon.
Then I got the hell out of there and staggered back to civilization.