Many things in Poland and Canada are similar, even the weather. But garage sales are new to Irena Rodziewicz. The idea of selling her used items seems shameful to her. Though she earns money from her first garage sale – and promptly spends it on a new pair of shoes – this is a custom that will take time to get used to.
With my strong Eastern European accent, I always attract attention. People are curious how Canada is different from Poland and if there is any cultural shock to deal with. Those questions make me wonder. Food and clothing are pretty much the same. Even the weather is very similar. Then eureka! Garage sales!
The first and only time I took part in a garage sale was just two days after I had arrived in Toronto. My landlady was eager to introduce me to Canadian culture and our neighbours at the same time. She told me she would have a street sale. I had no idea what she was talking about, and when I found out, I was shocked. The woman wanted to sell junk from her garage on Saturday afternoon when everybody would know and see us doing this shameful activity! Back home, only people from the fringes of society, such as alcoholics and the unemployed with no education, did this. Never teachers or librarians! My countrymen love to show off, brag about themselves. If you are not rich, you have to pretend you are. Otherwise, you are not respected. The book is always judged by its cover. I had worked at a vocational school, and I knew that my co-workers even took bank loans to buy new and fashionable clothes and shoes.
In Poland, everybody believes that American people are well off, more beautiful than us and live longer. I perceived my new neighbourhood as rich, as everybody owned a home. Suddenly, these privileged families decided to remove the clutter from their garages and sell it! I thought they should have enough money to buy everything they wanted. It was beyond my comprehension.
We started to prepare for our street sale early in the morning. I helped to dust off the old stuff from the garage. We attached price labels and arranged cups, saucers, books and clothes neatly on the tables and hangers. We offered very old and out-of-fashion coats that smelled of mothballs and mould. The purses we were selling were leather and good taste, except one that was imitation crocodile skin. There were pointy high-heeled shoes with worn-out heels. Also offered were all sorts of home décor items and garden furniture, a garden set consisting of a table and four chairs—greyish with a rough surface penetrated with dust and dirt. The price was exorbitant—100 dollars. The set could be purchased with a collection of garden gnomes and concrete statues for an additional 25 dollars. To my surprise, all of those pieces were sold within one hour. Our customers were also very interested in our collection of old horror and science fiction books. Female shoppers praised the quality and unique style of the woollen coats. I learned a new word: “vintage.” Our customers used it frequently to express their interest in our wares.
I was sitting at the table, very uncomfortably answering questions in English. I remember I saw the Woodbine subway station entrance. It was irrational, but I kept looking toward it, hoping that nobody from my school back home would exit from the station and see me. If they knew what I was doing, my colleagues would gossip about me forever. Obviously, they couldn’t. They were thousands of miles away.
Late in the afternoon, we folded up our stall. We took unsold items back to the garage. There were two heavy old armchairs. One of them had a big tear at the back. My landlady claimed that she had seen identical chairs on TV—on “Antiques RoadShow,” and those were sold for one thousand dollars each! She said her chairs were only a little bit dusty. I would say filthy, but I kept that remark to myself.
I earned 50 dollars from my landlady for helping out. I spent that hard-earned money in one of the shoe stores on Queen Street East. They had a big seasonal sale on summer shoes, and I had enough money to buy a pair.
Three years ago, we moved to our own semi-detached house when one day I noticed an announcement about an upcoming street sale. It seems almost a social obligation to take part in these events. Of all the neighbours, only one Russian family and I did not participate. I still need time to adapt to this new custom.
IRENA RODZIEWICZ was born in Poland. As a certified teacher and librarian, Irena worked for 15 years in a school library. In 2010, she moved to Toronto and became a permanent resident of Canada. She enjoys improving her language skills and exploring Toronto’s physical and cultural landscape.