Secondhand Treasures

Several months after I finished graduate school, I cleared out my apartment, giving treasures away, boxing up what I wanted to keep, and selling the rest at a yard sale. Not that I’d owned much, but possessing less felt refreshing, and I recalled a former roommate who owned only what he could pack into his green 1969 Rambler. I also recalled his favorite possession, something I’d found for him at a yard sale, a coffee machine with a clock. He could set it to brew minutes before his alarm went off. He’d step out of his room, hot coffee waiting. Another roommate in that same house had worked as a seamstress for the San Francisco Opera Company. She’d bring home sacks of clothing she’d harvested from the overstuffed racks at Goodwill and St. Vincent de Paul’s. Elbow deep in castoffs, she’d rip apart seams and reshape the old, removing bulky shoulder pads, shortening hems, or adding borders reminiscent of Seminole patchwork patterns. Sometimes, she’d tie-dye her cotton finds—or reverse-dye them.

Much of what I sold at my yard sale had been bought at yard sales. I prized a 1920’s floor lamp which a pleated silk shade. The owners had been given it as a wedding present, and they sold it to me with tears in their eyes. They were being moved into a retirement facility, downsizing. I’d transformed other pieces—a table, coffee table, and sideboard—with licks of paint and stencil work. We didn’t use the term “upcycling” then, but that was what I was doing. When I cleared out my apartment, I gave away my stenciled furniture to a friend who’d admired my work.

Sadly, the Swiss don’t hold yard sales. And they don’t really do bargains. Certainly not like North Americans do. The rare “flea markets” come closest to our yard sales, but the best places to find secondhand treasures in the German-speaking parts of Switzerland are the Brokis. The prices in these thrift shops would shock any bargain-hunting North American, but I’ve made peace with them. Had to.

When furnishing our first apartment, my husband and I trawled the Brokis. We found a pair of handmade beds made of Arve, Swiss pine. Most likely, they’d originated in the Alps. My father-in-law, an amateur furniture maker, claimed the set to be the handiwork of someone skilled but not professional. When we moved to France, we adopted most of the furniture that’d belonged to my husband’s grandmother. The family had planned to haul it all to their local Brocki until we stepped in. The grandmother’s father had been a furniture maker, and the household of furniture had been his wedding gift. Giggling like pirates, Markus and I made off with a booty: the dining and main bedroom sets. Solid oak.

The 1920’s family piece that I hope stays in the family.

Other treasures we’ve gleaned from Brokis include four paintings. Two were painted by artists renowned for their work as graphic designers, W. F. Burger, of a view to the Italian border on Lago di Lugano and a 1945 pastoral scene by Arthur Emil Bofinger. One is by K. Jordi, a skilled watercolorist I find no online information about, and another is a naïve work of a WWI German war scene. The naïve piece could hang in the Museum of Bad Art; nevertheless, I love it.

I’m certain former owners would be surprised to find their old treasures in my possession. Who knows where each will find themselves next? And our daughter in Los Angeles? She can’t wait to trawl LA’s secondhand shops with us.


On the last day of September, a sunny and warm day, I drove to St. Gallen to pick up a friend being checked out of the hospital there. He’d undergone surgery and had asked if I’d please drive him home so he wouldn’t have to navigate public transportation on crutches or call a taxi; he knows I like getting out and about.

Kantonsspital St.Gallen

A coffee aficionado, he treated me to an Americano and conversation at his favorite café. We caught up and resisted every urge to plan—jettisoning talk about Thanksgiving 2020 and forays to Turin.

Kaffeehaus in St. Gallen on Linsebühlstrasse.

At his place, in Liechtenstein, I pulled out a jar of Bols Genever I’d infused for four weeks with wild blackberries. He’s also a bit of a cocktail maven, and I’d considered throwing in an overnight kit in case I couldn’t resist being plied with drink—but there was work to consider, and I didn’t want to presume packing my laptop, so I didn’t. His mix, one part infused Bols, one part Jensen’s gin, and lemon tonic water, worked. It worked well. We nursed the drink, nibbled on slices of pecorino, and discussed at length what might take the mix to the next level, settling on a sprig of basil. Just as well, we didn’t have basil. I hadn’t packed that overnight kit, mind.

Liechtenstein, above Vaduz from an August visit. Looking at the Mittagspitz and the Rhine Valley, the highway running through.

Heading home well after it’d grown dark, I turned onto the highway onramp. A near full moon peeked out from behind the rugged and handsome Mittagspitz peak, and I gasped at the beauty and surprise of the moment. I wanted to stop and savor the scene and especially what it evoked in me, pleasure, appreciation, and thankfulness for the shores Chance has washed me upon.

Onramps are no place to stop. Only for an emergency should you separate yourself from a highway’s function. So, with a dose of regret, I found my place in the flow of traffic, set cruise control, and enjoyed my journey home as best I could. Highways may not be about pausing to connect or reflect on beauty and blessings, but friends are.