Tuesday, August 03, 2004

Swedish Culture Shock

Saturday we drove up to IKEA to confront the furniture issue. Basically, when buying an Italian house, the only things that stay in the house (that the previous owners don't take with them) are the bathroom sink and the shower. Everything else, including the entire kitchen (sink and all) are hauled away, leaving Antonello and me pretty much forced with the task to shop. Couches, tables, desks, beds, everything--we are starting from scratch here.

If you don't know yet about IKEA, you soon will I'm sure. It must be the largest furniture company in Europe, and it's making its way to the states one big city at a time. We went to the one in Chicago--this massive three-story department-style store complete with every type of furniture you could ask for, plus a cafeteria--and as we were leaving, my mother said, "That was a real cultural experience."

Those words are probably the best way to describe IKEA, actually. FIrst off, the store, Swedish in origin, is practically a giant travel ad. In Bologna, Antonello and I ate Swedish desserts at the IKEA cafeteria (where you could also order Swedish meatballs) and sat across from a huge mural of the city of Stockholm, lit up like a postcard with a paragraph paying tribute to the Swedish capital. When we went to pick up our furniture at the distribution building that evening, there were poster-sized travel ads everywhere about regions in Sweden, and one even had a little poem paying tribute to a region in southern Sweden that was known for its fishing towns. If you don't know anything about Sweden, a trip to IKEA will fix that.

But I don't think that is what my mother meant when she made the cultural experience comment. Instead, she must have been talking about what IKEA is doing as a business. People come to IKEA from all over (we drove 3 and a half hours up to Bologna on a beach-goer's traffic Saturday morning) because they hear that the prices are low, really low, and the quality, relatively speaking, is good. Contemporary furniture designed by top Swedish designers fills giant showrooms, and the people just pour in.

The stores are huge too. That one in Chicago--3 packed stories of furniture and Swedish nick-knacks--is not too uncommon. Bologna's was a little smaller, but the confusion level was the same--we spent half an hour following signs around in a circle until we arrived at the same place where we started. There are escalators designed specifically to carry your cart to the next level, and each level is distinctly different--a furniture level, a nick-knacks-and-other-accessories level, and a warehouse level. It's like going from one Swedish town to the next, and, in fact, the size of each floor probably exceeds some Swedish towns.

But their prices are so low in part because you don't actually buy that well-put-together cast-iron bed or that nicely-assembled glass table. After buying the stuff, you go to a distribution center to pick up everything in pieces--you can buy a kitchen and get 3 dozen pieces of wood and plastic to put together all by yourself, with little instruction sheets written in tiny print. And, as you are loading all of this stuff into your car, you begin to wonder when the last time you assembled your own bedroom was, and if that bed will look like a bed or a kitchen table, and if maybe it will actually make a NICER kitchen table than a bed. And then, as you are driving away, your van shaking with the different pieces of kitchen in the back of your car, your fear reaches its height. And you think, it can't be can it? The instructions won't ONLY be in Swedish, right?



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