Thursday, 17 April 2014

The culture of collecting

By Emily Prucha | Prague Daily Monitor |
25 May 2012

When shopping at Bila supermarket the other day, I took the stack of animal sticker cards the cashier handed me without a second thought. I knew the kids would go wild for them at home, comparing animals and sticking them to notebooks and furniture. After the newness wore off, I figured I'd toss them into a drawer much like I'd done with the Smurf cards from Albert a few months back. My mother then noticed the hardback animal album that accompanied the free stickers. She insisted we buy one for the kids. Although I hesitated, not really wanting a store promotion, the book itself cost only 39 CZK and we certainly already had oodles of other stickers we could place in them as well. We walked away with two books and two very pleased young collectors.

I think most children go through a collecting phase and some never grow out of it. I could understand why kids would want to have the books to better display their animal stickers. Stickers books were certainly popular in my grade school. Puffy, glittery or goggly eyed-stickers were the most prized. I also collected seashells, stones, arrowheads and fossils over different points in time and according to nature's bounty. Once, my German aunt sent me a book of European stamps to begin a stamp collection. I poured over the pages of foreign stamps she'd sent, and spent time trying to unglue pretty US stamps from birthday cards and letters. I saved the cards and letters, too, in shoeboxes and plastic suitcases that to this day still line the floor of my childhood closet. Each trip home my mother threatens to throw them out if I don't sort through them. I'm curious what the children would say about the stamp collection, especially since the stamps from Italy, Germany or Eastern European nations probably wouldn't seem as foreign to them as a US or Canadian stamp would.

Though my collecting interests gradually shifted to more fashion-forward ones over the years, like collecting charms for a silver charm bracelet, pretty string for bracelet making or unusual clips for my then-long hair. I never stopped gathering the things that I liked. I still keep postcards and letters as well as calendars. I'm not sure what I think I'll do with the odd wall calendar from 1999, but I hate to throw it away, especially living abroad where English-language printed material is often much more expensive than it would be back home. When a friend of mine said she was recycling a bunch of Runner's World magazines, I offered to take them off her hands. Radek took one look at the large black plastic bags and gave me a month to go through and then get rid of them. He is not one for collections or clutter. In the end, I went through each magazine and ripped out the articles I wanted to read and recycled the rest. I am still going through the stack in my spare time, but it gives me quite a bit of pleasure to pull a story out over lunch when the baby's napping and have a quick read.

Oliver is crazy about animals, toting an English encyclopedia of animals back-and-forth to preschool and on family trips, so I imagined that owning an animal sticker book would appeal to him. However, there are more than 200 stickers in the collection and they are a bit hard to peel, so the activity requires my intervention or else he quickly loses interest. He is more interested in having me read the printed text written about the animals and learning something new. Anna, on the other hand, can locate the correct number and has less trouble peeling than I do. She's motivated by friends at school who bring their duplicate stickers to share or trade. Plus, she simply loves collecting: seashells, leaves, stones from vacation, pretty drawing books. She even wanted to start a lollipop wrapper collection because we'd visited our Czech friends whose 10-year old had a thriving sugar packet collection. Anna was duly impressed by the pretty paper packets although we decided such a collection wouldn't last long in our house. Two year-old Samuel saw the pile of sugars and started making a sticky mess by biting into the packets and spraying the sugar across the room.

When my husband's 81 year-old grandfather acquired a new bed, we discovered several unusual collections he'd been hoarding in his ancient wardrobe: miniature porcelain animal figurines, stacks of unworn dress shirts and all the eyeglasses he'd ever worn. Although we managed to pare down his collections and recycle a few items, Anna still made off with enough porcelain figurines to start her own collection. Děda isn't alone in his propensity for collecting and saving items, although being thrifty and reusing was more often a necessity than a quirky hobby for his generation.

Listening to my neighbors talk one night, it was interesting to hear the things that they remembered collecting in their youth. One Czech claimed to have collected serviettes (napkins) from restaurants when her family traveled. She said she never saw such pretty paper products back in the Czech Republic so she would bring them back from aboard. Her brother lined his room with aluminum drink cans that he'd gotten on their family trips. While I don't know any American kid who'd save napkins or soda cans nowadays, they'd probably think glass bottles of Mattoni mineral water or pint-sized Pilsner beer glasses would make excellent collector's items.

During the discussion about collecting, one neighbor went inside his house and returned with a gold coin in a protective plastic wrapper. He identified the coin as a rare Austrian piece that was worth thousands of crowns. We all carefully examined it through the protective wrapper and admired its beauty, then quickly passed it back to its owner. When we asked him why he was showing us, he told us a story about another friend who collected rare postcards. His friend reputedly carried several million crowns worth of postcards around in a cloth sack when he traveled to trading events or shows. Although he had amassed quite a valuable collection, he still regarded it as hobby and rather than keep his precious cards locked away, he wanted them close by.

Collecting things that are precious, interesting or unusual is a natural inclination that can sometimes lead to unexpected conclusions. A few weeks ago I found a friend to give Oliver piano lessons. Since we don't have a piano or even a large keyboard, I asked her for a trial lesson just to see how Oliver reacted. He liked playing the piano but we decided our play keyboard was too tiny to make the lessons worthwhile at this point, so I canceled the second lesson. A week later, the piano teacher called to tell me that she'd remembered a friend of hers who randomly collects keyboards. He has one particular one that he likes to loan to people who might want to play the piano. She gave me his number. Oliver has his second lesson tomorrow and if all goes well, we'll soon be the beneficiaries of one benevolent collector's enthusiasm for sharing his collection. I'm counting on the keyboard to be just as much of a hit as the animal sticker books were.

Emily Prucha is a Life Section columnist for the Monitor. She likes writing about bilingual and multicultural families.
You can reach her at emily@praguemonitor.com. You can read more of her stories here.