Thursday, July 28, 2011

Making cents of place: the connection of consumption

When I was recently traveling in Israel, I became aware of a certain phenomenon of travelling that I had rarely thought of before: the impact of buying and its capacity to connect you to place.

In Tel Aviv, I was forced soon after arrival through the disintegration of my sandals to search for a new pair. I had never been to Israel or any part of the Middle East before and thus had really no idea of the cultural conventions of shopping. After having been advised by hotel staff to search for sandals at the Carmel Market and knowing that markets usually imply either a closer relationship to the local culture or, on occasion a reconstruction of a touristic version of the local, I set out on my mission with a relatively open mind but a clear purpose.

Carmel Market is the largest "bazaar" in Tel Aviv and, in its main long passage-way and series of sidestreets, provides a mixture of stalls of food, clothing and trinkets. The food of course when one courses down a market often produce the most lasting impression; via its smells of butchers down one alley, the groceries of vegetables, nuts and dates on the main, the essences of decay of past days of the market transformed slightly by a residue of previous night's and early morning water-cleaning, the input of the emerging heat of the summer sun, the colognes and deodorants of the shopkeepers, and the more tender smells of cloths and leathers the nose is treated to an intriguing and enduring workout.

I had a clear purpose as I walked and I systematically eliminated each of these shops unless they had some element of footwear. When I finally found an open stall with shoes and sandals I was relieved and asked the shopkeeper if he had the appropriate sandals for me. He indicated that he had the "best" and that I "would never complain about these" for their comfort and durability. "In fact," he said, " if you break them any time in the next two years, come back here and I will give you another pair. You will be very happy with these sandals."

Of course I tried them on and my desperation made me one of the easiest sells I am sure of his day. I hesitated for only a second after asking the price - partly to determine whether I should barter not really knowing the conventions of the market - and then indicated that I would both take them and wear them home. I headed out of his stall in triumph.

But something else happened in that exchange, something that is simultaneously more meaningful and mundane. I had crossed a threshold into a culture. The act of buying drew me into the communicative exchange world of one to another and one culture to another. There was the obvious effect that I had passed my shekels to the shopkeeper and I had new soles to protect my feet. There was also the more ethereal "affect" that I experienced through the exchange. It emboldened me to the place, to this market and my capacity to be a player, a participant because I had entered this world of consumption and was taking something from that world away. The immediate effect of this affective feeling was a greater assurance that I could enter another shop, engage with the merchant and buy something else. In a very real sense, it made me - however weakly - a part of the community of the market.

The act of buying makes a place come alive. There is no question this has been commodified and recommodified into the routine of buying that we experience whenever we travel and inhabit the space of the tourist. Airports revel in this sense of providing the last point of connection through their many shops with their touristic trinkets for sale. Nonetheless, this does not diminish the sense of connection that is put into play by buying something wherever you are.

Although slightly different, eating at a restaurant pulls you into that orbit of place. In Tel Aviv, we regularly experienced the wonders of the Israeli salads as they were combined with fish and even other vegetables heaped and arranged in impossibly large quantities. The affective move from surprise to expectation over our days there produced that sense of connection- however temporary - to our place.

Place is never as simple as it appears. It is layered with affect and meaning as soon as we move through its space. There is in the act of exchange, of consumption, of buying - a making real and material our location and our place within a community.