Who doesn’t love a great flea market? (OK, probably a lot of people, but that’s really not relevant right now because WE love flea markets!) If you’re willing to put the time and the effort into the “hunt,” flea markets can be super fun, fabulous and fulfilling. I’m especially lucky because my husband, Mike, actually likes to go to flea markets (of course…we’re two peas in a pod, remember?) Together, we have seeked out flea markets all over the world, from Paris and Turkey to Brighton and London, where they’re called “boot sales,” referencing the British ‘boot’ or trunk of the car.
But right here in our neck of the woods, the Kane County Fairgrounds in St. Charles, IL are host to an expansive flea market the first weekend of every month as long as the weather allows (Kane County Flea Market info). Every summer, Mike and I make the trek out to St. Charles to see what irresistible gems we can find at the Kane County flea market. (Btw, if you decide to go, skip the fried fair fare and make a detour to the charming town of Geneva, just a couple of miles away, for a memorable lunch at the tiny restaurant with big flavors that is Preservation Wine & Bread. There are several good restaurants in Geneva, but we’re particularly fond of Preservation because the food is divine, they have a quiet back patio, friendly service and it’s off the beaten path, so it’s not mobbed with tourists. You’ll thank me, I promise!)
This year, Mike and I decided to make a challenge out of our flea market outing by channeling HGTV’s “Flea Market Flip.” If you’ve never seen the show, the basic premise is that each participant has a set amount of money (in our case $50) and is challenged with discovering the best flea market find. We added the ground rule that it must be something we would use or display prominently in our home. We decided that we would let our four girls select the winner of the challenge.
As we were making our way through the hundreds of vendors, we each secretly eyed possible winning finds. I had my eye on a beautiful African woven raffia textile and a 3-foot high welded pink flamingo for the garden. Mike called dibs on a vintage milk delivery box to be used as a mailbox (he would’ve won hands down).
But at the end of the day, we both agreed to call off the challenge and pool our money (and then some) to buy two amazing pieces from a vendor of African tribal art and artifacts. Mike, who lived in Capetown, South Africa for three years, has a true affinity for and appreciation of African art. Having traveled to Africa a number of times myself, I wholeheartedly share his interest and admiration. Through merging our individual collections and acquiring more pieces together over the years, we have accumulated a pretty nifty collection of interesting pieces. But these two new acquisitions might just be the most intriguing yet.
The first is an early-20th century Ethiopian chief’s chair from the Gurage or Jimma peoples. The 3-legged, high-backed chair, made from a single log of hard wood, would have been used by the village chief or visiting dignitary to signify a place of prominence.
The second is a carved wooden”freedom canoe” from the Congo region. This find is particularly intriguing to me because I’ve looked all over the web and can’t find another one like it. It has three carved passengers, the middle featuring a very flat, pig-like nose which is noticeably different from the others and, I was told, is representative of the Tsonga peoples. On either side of the canoe are finely woven rattan panels that can be raised to conceal the boaters and/or protect them from the elements. According to the vendor, a “freedom canoe” would have been used at the threat of any impending danger to secretly whisk the village chief away to safety on the other side of the river. However, the only reference to a “freedom canoe” that I can find online is one from a book on the “Historical and Social Dimensions in African Christian Theology” and describes it as follows:
“By working together, two men can cut and transport a log of wood which is too heavy for either of them alone. With it they can jointly make a canoe large enough to go further away from land than one made by either of the men alone. Through their cooperation each of the men will have increased his power to travel — will have enlarged his effective freedom on the earth.”
If anyone knows anything further about freedom canoes, please give me a shout. In the meantime, I’ll simply enjoy it’s innate beauty and mull over the possibility that it represents people of different cultures working cooperatively for “freedom” and a greater good. I think that’s an extremely poignant and timely message that we can all learn from right now.