E-mail from Berlin

To: Departures

From: Susanna Moore

Re: Tiergarten Flea Market

When Chip Kidd, the New York–based writer and graphic designer, heard I was planning to be in Berlin for five months, he said one thing: Tiergarten flea market. Officially known as the Berliner Trödelmarkt, it is where he goes when he’s in the city to comb through the trunks of images and ephemera—photogravures, cartes de visite, travel brochures, postcards, menus. And he is never disappointed. Kidd knew I would quickly find my way to Sans Souci Palace and the Pergamon Altar and the Bode Museum, but flea markets the world over have suffered in quality what they have gained in popularity.

I did as I was told. I was on a fellowship at the American Academy in Wannsee, but like most adventures in Berlin, the trip was a swift and easy train ride away. Located on the Strasse des 17 Juni, on the edge of the kaiser’s former hunting park, the long line of tents and stalls erected each weekend are bursting with treasures and trifles.

I’d been advised to look for an extensive collection of old Burberry men’s coats from the fifties through the nineties, in every style and shade of khaki. There were dozens of them—lined, belted, with epaulets or not. Literally generations of trenchcoats. Did Berliners entertain fantasies of Orson Welles in The Third Man and George Smiley in the novels of John le Carré? Unable to resist my own fantasies, I bought one lined in tattersall. Now each time I wear it, I wonder about its previous lives. Was it worn by a banker? A schoolteacher? A master spy?

This being Germany, after all, the flea market has many vendors selling Meissen and KPM porcelain, the latter founded by Frederick the Great in 1763. Some of it is from the early 19th century and very good. There are vases and trinket boxes, reticulated fruit plates and tureens, tea sets and chocolate pots, and mysterious little bowls with a hole in the center of the lid. These, I was instructed, were used to hold the strands of a woman’s hair. Other people offer country linens: coarse cotton towels, tablecloths, and pillowcases of Battenberg lace. In my imagination they have lain these many years in an unopened painted wedding chest, the bride’s initials embroidered on the hems in red Gothic stitchery.

Stalls teem with amusing toys that were crafted in East Germany before the wall came down and are now considered a kind of folk art. Because of the dearth of materials in the East, toys were crafted from used soda cans, old brooms, socks. They have a primitive, joyous charm, causing one to wonder what an East German child made of his little robot contrived from a tomato-soup tin. There is a seduction in this sort of nostalgia, sometimes called kitsch. At nearby stalls the Rus­sian soldiers’ greatcoats, weighty and voluminous in a dark pea green, do not evoke such charm, although they would keep one awfully warm in Siberia.

One can still find the occasional precious object—perhaps a piece of 17th-century Augsburg silver, an Art Deco lacquer desk, or a Meissen shepherdess with her lambs—but it is not for rare prizes that one haunts the flea market. It is an old-fashioned, lively, friendly place. When you need a refreshment, snack stalls serve up delicious hot chocolate, beer, sausages, and potato pancakes. The market is open every Saturday and Sunday from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. As it is in the open air, it can be cold in the winter. Wear your Russian greatcoat. 49-30/2655-0096; berliner-troedelmarkt.de

Address Book

When next in Cairo, take a cue from Issey Miyake: Stop by Atlas Silks, at the Khan el-Khalili bazaar, for hand-appliquéd off-the-rack and custom-designed robes and djellabas—all made from exquisite silks hand-loomed in the Nile Delta. At 15 Khan el-Khalili St; 20-12/317-4952.