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GratiFeria Barcelona at Parc de la Ciutadella.
GratiFeria Barcelona at Parc de la Ciutadella.
Julie Liardet

GENEVA - People strolling, music, smiles, bursts of laughter. Customers walk between clothes and trinkets, homegrown zucchini and children's games, spread on tables or on the ground. A neighbor has brought his electric razor; another has just found a book by French sociologist Marcel Mauss.

This kind of flea-market-with-veggies could be coming to your neighborhood soon. With a twist: here everything is 100% free.

The gratiferia (free fair) concept originally comes from Argentina and then expanded to neighboring countries and all of Latin America. The idea was quickly taken up in the U.S. and Canada, and this year, it has arrived in the Old World. Sales and swaps are completely forbidden at gratiferias. Everything must be in good condition, and of course, a bit of civic sense is required. Do not show up with a van and load up everything in sight. This free fair aims at "liberation from materialism," with the goal of leaving behind "the oppression of the economic system."

Ariel Rodriguez Bosio, the brains behind the gratiferia, has posted a YouTube video entitled "gratiferia, expand=1] una economia de la nueva era" ("gratiferia, an economy for the new age"). In the video, where he appears as a sort of philosophical/spiritual guru of the no-growth movement, the Argentinian explains that he started the first market of its kind in his apartment at the beginning of 2010.

The gratiferia arrived in Europe mainly through social networks. The idea of anti-materialism engaged people, for example Céline, 39, who coordinated one of the first such fairs in France, at the beginning of September in Châteauneuf-sur-Charente. The goal is "to pass along things we no longer need, that can be useful to someone else," she says. Each person can come and drop off or take all kinds of objects, divided into categories. Céline's sister Isabelle, 43, who organized the event with her, estimates that 1,500 people came to the fair, which took place on land lent by the municipality.

"We didn't expect so many people, because the concept was unknown here. There were people of every social class, families... Some people came out of curiosity. The atmosphere was very relaxed." For the organizer, the day was very emotional. "There was a lot of joy, of interaction between people. When you give, you also receive a lot. It's not only one-way. People were thanking us all day."

Isabelle hopes to "sow a few seeds" so that gratiferias start popping up elsewhere in France and in the world.

Will the gratiferia change Europe? In antiques fairs and garage sales, everything has a price. Gilbert Montigaud is organizing a (paying) antiques fair this month in Barbezieux-Saint-Hilaire, 20 kilometers from Châteauneuf-sur-Charente. "I didn't go to the gratiferia myself, but I have heard about it. It's not at all competition for us, because it is very different. We will still have just as many clients."


The experience of giving

Gratiferias now exist in Argentina, Spain, and France, among others. What is happening in Switzerland? As far as we know, there have not been any events with that specific name, but several similar events have taken place. On Facebook, many groups offer bargains. For example, there is a Facebook group called "Giveaways in Lausanne and nearby," with 3,000 members. You sign up, post a photo of the object in question, and anyone who is interested can then make contact with you. Among things to be given away are, for example, children's raincoats, a Buddha lamp and a ticket for the thermal baths in Val d'Illiez. The Unipoly association at the École Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne also organizes free bazaars. In Gland, a town in the Vaud, similar free fairs have also been organized for many years, although these are reserved for local citizens. Like the Argentine fairs, this has the goal of letting inhabitants give away things "that can be used again and help others," says Didier Christen, Gland's head of infrastructure and environment.

However, the goal of a gratiferia is not just to get rid of your possessions, but to have the experience of giving them up and donating to others. Céline, who already exchanged things with friends, is happy at the notion that this "innovative concept" could "shake up European thinking, because it's free."

Christine Muller, a member of the green Ecolo party in Hannut, Belgium, shares her feelings. The party organized its first gratiferia in July. "We wanted to give a real meaning to "free," and show that not everything is about money," she explains.

But isn't there a risk that giving things away for free will encourage more consumption? "Some people were surprised that everything was free, and held back, while others wanted to take everything, for the same reason," Christine Muller remembers. "It's exactly the same as with buying and over-consuming in stores," Céline says.

Sabine Kradolfer, an anthropology and sociology researcher, says swap exchanges were set up in Argentina after the 2001-2002 crisis. While the gratiferia may be a cousin of swaps, Sabine Kradolfer says that these free fairs do not arise from that crisis nor from the current economic situation, which is more stable in Argentina than in Europe. "But there is a vision of society that underlies all these movements," she adds. "It is the idea that humans are not selfish individualists, alone and separated from society, as expected by neo-conservative economics. Instead they feel part of a vast group, the local and global community. By giving, people feel that they are linked."

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