Become aware of the moral implications and potential consequences of your future actions.
How much is a cup worth? How much is a birth worth? How much is a book worth, or the view from the top of a demanding via ferrata, or a hug from your youngest son, or a class reunion? Or spring? How much would you pay to get rid of that pesky pain in your tooth? How much do you think your rival would pay to see you fail, or your friend to see you succeed? How do you put a value on these things, how do you compare them to each other? And what if you can’t?
We went to town today, my still very pregnant wife and me. Walked slowly, occasionally stopping to take a much-deserved break. For the first time in months, I could feel the sun warming my face and bird chirping in the trees. A boy walked past us in a T-shirt, we shuddered, he must be cold, crazy kid — and yet it made us happy. Spring is coming, after all. It’s been a short winter, and yet this spring is like any other spring: priceless.
After all, how could you put a price on spring?
When we got downtown, we went to Illum, an upmarket shopping centre, my wife had to pick up her mother’s watch. At least I think it’s upmarket. At least I hope it is.
While my wife asked about the watch, I wandered around, looking at watches and jewellery, perfumes and soaps, men’s clothes and women’s clothes. Scantily clad female mannequins dotted the aisles. A sweet, soft smell hung in the air, soft Muzak came from hidden loudspeakers, soft light came from everywhere and created soft shadows on the soft colours.
So this is where one buys presents.
I am not a fan of shopping centres. I have never been to Illum before, and in Prague I never went to a shopping mall unless circumstances forced me. (Like their ubiquitousness.) I go shopping like a man: quick in, find something suitable, quick out. I often end up with half-fitting trousers and sweaters in strange colours, but I still think it’s better than the alternative: the endless hunt for bargains, the never-ending story of new sales and new models, the eternal roaming from shop to shop to get exactly what you didn’t know you were looking for in the first place.
I am especially not a fan of fancy shopping centres. You know, the places where shopping itself is made into an experience. Where sweaters hang is if they’re valuable pieces of art and mugs are presented with down-lights and tasteful, tasteless signs: NEW DESIGN! NOW IN WHITE! LIMITED EDITION!
It doesn’t make me want to buy. It makes me think about how much money they have poured into this kind of presentation, how much money I have to spend to buy stuff here, how much money the product could have been sold for without all the extras. Sometimes, I makes me sorry for the people working here: imagine having a job where you’re supposed to pretend that this stuff matters! Imagine spending your days in this nauseatingly soft ambient! Imagine making people spend a lot more money than they should have just because you subtly coerce them into some kind of belief that this shopping centre is different, is exclusive…
My wife took some time with the watch, it wasn’t fixed after all, or should be fixed anew, I wandered off again, upstairs, perhaps things were different there.
There were cups and plates and spoons and knives upstairs. Cutlery. Kitchen stuff. A woman eyed me suspiciously. Must have been because of my rucksack and frown. I got rid of my frown and started walking around like a normal costumer, admiring cutlery and nodding every now and then.
Wow, this fork was beautiful. And the knife, too. What a beautiful set. Perhaps I should buy one for my aunt? It’s her birthday in just three weeks, after all. Yes, that would make a nice present. Or perhaps this set? Stunning lines on that fork, really amazing. I would love to eat a… sandwich with that. I wonder how much they cost?
Do you know how much one fork costs? One single fork, like the ones you have lots of in your kitchen drawer? Like the ones your mother will give you ten of when you move to London to study or like the ones you can get for free at a flea market if you just buy the ugliest lamp you ever saw?
Around 100 Danish crowns. You need a piece of metal, or plastic, or even wood, just something to make it easier to get your food into your mouth — you get if for free, or almost for free, at any flea market. You want it to have a “modern design” as well (whatever that means)? 100 crowns, please.
My frown came back, I could feel it slide down my forehead and settle just above my eyebrows. I could easily get enough food for a day with 100 crowns in Denmark. (Not to mention how much I could do for those money in poorer parts of the world.) 100 crowns for a bent piece of metal because it’s design?
OK, they last a long time, I told myself. They might last 100 years. And if you use that fork 100 times a year, then it’ll cost you 0.01 crowns per meal. That’s almost nothing.
That’s not too bad, eh?
The woman eyed me even more suspiciously, I put down the fork and moved along the aisles to the cups. Coffee cups, tea cups. Hm, less than the fork for this one, not too bad, perhaps the fork was overpriced?
But then I found the Royal Cup.
How much is a Royal Cup worth? When it’s not even a cup, but a tealight holder? How much do you want to pay for two light, small, badly hand painted porcelain cups for tealights?
Yep. 350 crowns for two. They’re even so expensive that the shop had to put some of them behind locked glass doors. I frowned even more, held up one of the tealight holders and took a picture with my phone. 350 crowns for this?!
As I took the picture, I noticed that the woman was standing just a couple of meters away from me and eyeing me even more suspiciously than before. I put the cup, sorry, tealight holder down and hurried towards the stairs. She didn’t follow me. Phew.
How much is a piece of ugly porcelain worth? How much are you willing to pay for something you wouldn’t have bought if you saw it in a flea market? How much should you value shopping experiences? How much more money are you willing to pay if the ambient is soft and cozy enough? And what does that reveal about you?
I walked out on the pavement with my wife. Fresh air. If I buy one of those hideous porcelain things for someone as a present, it would not make me wiser. The moral implication of buying luxury goods is that I am a bad person: shallow, narrow-minded and superficial. You can do good in the world, get some proper food, or repair your neighbour’s car, or get your grandmother new fake teeth, or buy some books for your children’s school, or give money to any number of charities, even save a life somewhere in the world — and you choose to spend it on something you don’t need, not really like, and something you’ll use three times before you put in a cupboard and leave it for future generations. (They’ll give it away, you know.)
350 crowns to hide your tealights? Any old glass would be better!
The potential consequences? None. If I have thousands of crowns to spend and spend them on luxury goods, nothing bad happens in the world. I might even save a business from bankruptcy or make a shop assistants day when I tip him. It’s all good.
Except, that is, for two things: I could have done so much more good with the money. And I become the kind of person I don’t want to be.
We walked back in the February sun, slowly, now and then taking a well-deserved break, me in my green jacket and my wife in her not so cheap zero-drop shoes. When I bought that jacket, she thought it was way too expensive; when she bought her shoes, I thought that she might as well save all her money and walk barefoot instead. But I love that jacket, I wear it all the time — and it’s perhaps enough to have one barefooter in each family if you don’t want the neighbours to avoid you.
This is not luxury, I said to myself, this is something else — although I have no idea how to make that distinction.
The sun went behind a cloud, a cold wind swept the street, a sudden flashback to winter.
How much is spring worth? Less than a tealight holder.
And yet infinitely much more.