x Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 22 July 2017

Everyone speaks Ikeanese, but who’s fluent in Assembly?

People living away from their home countries, all around the world, speak the same language. Hint: it's a bit like Swedish

Heading into my third year as an Abu Dhabi resident, I have learnt what may be the only truly global language: Ikeanese. I now converse fluently in the language of Hemnes, Ektorp, and Billy; I can make myself understood in Expedit and Solsta.

You can see the whole world in Ikea – although in Ikea, you could be anywhere in the world. Only the display wardrobes reveal cultural specifics: in Abu Dhabi, abayas and kanduras drape over Ikea hangers; in New York, Yankees and Mets baseball jerseys jostle for space. I imagine that in Paris, soigné scarves hang from the display hooks.

I expect, however, that by the next century, even these few particularities will have been erased. There will no longer be cities or countries, or even tribes. We will all have been herded into big blue-and-gold enclaves: the living roomians and the kitchonians, the bathroometi and the bedroomites. We will live in modular colour-coded pods, happy to clear our own trays.

We will all carry tiny pencil stubs in our back pockets so we can jot things down at a moment’s notice. And of course, when we travel from one pod to another we will carry our belongings in blue Tyvek satchels.

Those bright blue bags (admit it, you have at least one stashed somewhere) mark us all as Ikea speakers. Ikea is the great leveller, the lingua franca that everyone speaks at least a few times in their lives. Sometimes, if it’s been a particularly long morning out there in the land of the meatball and the weirdly shaped chicken nugget, I feel a tinge of pathos in this language: it is the language of the transient, the just-arrived or the soon-to-leave. It is not the language of permanence; it is not a language that gets handed down through the generations.

We reside in Ikea-land in the “just until we work things out” moments, when the shipment from home is three months late, or when we realise that good furniture for the soon-to-arrive baby would be really expensive. She’ll just grow out of it, we think, so why invest in Pottery Barn Kids? Just grab the Henvik crib and be done with it.

But perhaps you really want to splurge on the Pottery Barn crib, with its adorable carvings. Surely, you think, your child deserves the absolute best that money can buy. Your partner might mutter something about “college” or “orthodontia”, and then you might respond with terms such as “selfish” or “bad parent”. That’s when you need the one thing that Ikea stores do not yet have: a fight room.

The fight room idea comes from a wise friend, who says such a space would complement the child-minding room that Ikea already offers. Imagine: rather than modulating your annoyance at your spouse’s desire to ruin your child’s life with a cheap crib, you could book 15 minutes in the soundproofed Anger Chamber. (In extreme cases you could book a double slot.)

Then you could have the “why on earth would you buy that?” conversation, which might turn into the popular (and frequently loud) “it’s not my fault your mother is staying for an extra three weeks” discussion, all without the hissed whispers and gritted teeth that go with having a private fight in the public eye.

Emerging from the fight room, you would be ready for another round in the Market Hall, where you would realise that your life is not complete without a wall-sized poster of Paris’s Champs Elysées or New York’s Central Park. When you get home, of course, you’d realise that you don’t have a space big enough for this poster. That’s what happens in Ikea-land: the umlauts and diacritical circles numb you about the realities outside the blue walls.

That numbness sometimes leads to the moment known as the Valley of Ikea Despair: there you are in your front hall, having just lugged in your flat-packed purchases, or having received delivery of the it’s-not-great-but-it-will-do Ektorp, with everything smelling vaguely of meatballs, and you’ll realise that you forgot to buy an essential component. Maybe it’s the table legs, or the back of the bookcase, or the doors for the cabinet – and now you have no choice but to return to Ikea-land to collect the missing pieces.

On the other hand, maybe that oversight wasn’t such a bad idea. After all, the longer you can wait to attempt Ikea-assembly, the better. Because no one, no one, speaks fluent Assembly.

Deborah Lindsay Williams is a professor of literature at NYU Abu Dhabi

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