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Garage sale: lost in translation?

A long time ago I had a friend who was the daughter of educated French parents who’d transplanted themselves to Canada. They loved their adopted country.

When they first came to to Canada they marveled at the verdant and lovely quality of Canadian Spring. After the long harsh winter it was truly a blessing, a time of happiness and renewal and rebirth. Everything was so joyously fragrant and green, a sight for sore eyes, especially after so many months of so many shades of white and grey. There was one odd thing they couldn’t understand about Spring in this new country. As they drove through their neighbourhood they couldn’t understand why so many homes had signs on their lawns advertising the fact they had dirty garages. It was shocking. And odd. They couldn’t figure it out. Who would do such a thing? And why?

They didn’t figure it out until an Anglophone friend explained that “Garage Sale” doesn’t mean “Filthy Garage,” it just means that the people are selling their old stuff. You see, in French, sale translates to something that’s dirty, nasty, foul, and unclean.

Translation issues aside, garage sales, or yard sales, or whatever you call them, don’t mean the same thing for everyone everywhere. This is something I’ve always wanted to explore. I’ve always wondered if people in other countries have garage sales too or if it is largely the invention of our own society. Is the garage sale a product of the crazy style- and gadget-driven consumer-oriented part of the world we live in today? What do you think?

When I was 18 I was travelling in the Czech Republic. One evening I was having a few beers with a friend. (Because that’s what you do in Prague, where beer is big.) I don’t know how we got on the topic, but we got to talking about garage sales. At first she didn’t understand what I was talking about.

“What do you mean you sell your stuff,” she asked.

I could see that she wasn’t kidding. She’d really never heard of a garage sale. In fact, she appeared to be astounded at the very idea. I continued, grasping for the right words to explain.

“If you were hosting a garage sale you’d sort through our things and decide what you didn’t want.” I said, slowly. “Then you put little price tags on each individual item, and put it all on a table in front of your house.”

“The house where I live?”

“Of course.”

“And who buys this stuff?” By this point she was totally flabbergasted. “Do you sell it to your friends and neighbours? Your neighbours go through your old STUFF?”

I mulled this over. I could see what she was getting at. “Well. Yes.”

By this time my friend was laughing so hard she could hardly breathe. In fact, she was practically hyperventilating. “Your … neighbours … buy YOUR … old… things… BWA HA HA!”

She nearly fell off her stool, unable to speak. People were beginning to stare. Seriously. And I swear it wasn’t the beer talking. I think she was imagining a table full of raggedy old underwear and broken dishes. I was mildly offended at the time but I now understand where she was coming from. My friend was born in a former communist country at a time when people didn’t own a lot of things. As a result, their relationship with stuff was different than ours.

That’s when I learned that garage sales are a rather unique, and a rather new, cultural phenomenon. Perhaps they are limited to people on this side of the ocean? I’m still not sure. If anyone is reading this from far away I’d sure like to know.

Mother of two imps and wife of one. Writer, photographer, pro blogger, adventure-seeker, Ottawaholic, social media evangelist and lover of STUFF. Also known as @missfish on Twitter.

9 Responses to “Garage sale: lost in translation?”

[…] at the UsedEverywhere blog today I’m writing about the cultural phenomenon that is The Garage Sale. Is this practice exclusive to North America? I’d love to hear your […]


Actually, Garage Sales are an event that originated in the United States.
Now, many other countries practice this idea of recycling something useful, which is no longer needed by its original owner. Awesome concept. If we practiced it more, perhaps we could stop over-producing everything that ends up in landfills everywhere, polluting the planet. Why, Oh Lord, do we require SO MUCH STUFF? Amazing, really. Garage Sale, Yard Sale, Rummage Sale. Whatever you call it… whoever originated the idea… it just makes sense!!


In England, they’re called “car boots” and everyone gathers in a field and sells their old stuff from the trunk of their car.


Coming from France, I can relate with the first part of your post 🙂 And yes, this concept was new to me when we moved in Canada about 10 years ago. The closest thing to this in France would be a large flea market some big cities once a year (like Lille’s “Grande braderie” –, but when people get rid of old stuff, it usually means that it’s either good to give or to trash 🙂
Signs of our integration though, we held our first garage sales this year 🙂


As I’m in the middle of trying to get ready for my first garage sale ever this weekend as an adult to sell off my own things, I truly love the fact that North America revels in garage sales. I grew up going to them in Ottawa with my mom and perhaps that’s where I get my cheap and penny pinching gene from but it does help the family budget. I still remember helping her get ready for our first garage sale as a kid and I’ve helped organize my children’s nursery school’s “mom to mom” sale to raise money but this is the first time I’m hosting my own in front of my house. We’re moving houses and I’m done having babies so I have many things that we just don’t need anymore but I loathe the thought of just putting them into the garbage. I donate as much as I can typically but some of the baby stuff is worth some money still and well, being a single income family of 6, any extra money can always help! I’m looking forward to seeing how my sale goes since I’m usually the one out looking for a good deal.


We are hosting a 17yr old exchange student from Norway. We have seen all the “must do” sites in Ottawa and this past weekend we wanted her to experience the real Ottawa. Part of this experience was the Great Glebe Garage Sale. Malene took photos of facepainting, people walking with chairs on their heads and the purple toilet that was for sale. Malene has travelled world wide in her adventures and has only seen this in Paris and the Middle Eastern Countries. She loved her Ottawa experience.


Garage sales are definitely not done in Finland. They also do the flea markets (very popular) in large indoor and outdoor places through the summer, but no selling stuff from your own property. They also do the charity used shoppes, such as salvation army stores. And some cities have their own recycle stores/depots. Some apartment buildings have give/take shelves where people share stuff.
I love the convenience and community connection of garage sales here in Canada. Thinking of having one this weekend. Love it for used kids stuff. Not clothes so much, but all sorts of stuff and pretty treasures. For me it is not about commerce as much as avoiding stores, going outside, having fun and connecting with neighbours.


Coming from Eastern Europe I completely understand your friend from Prague. Stuff used to be reused and stored forever.. For family mainly. You may land stuff to neighbours, but not sell it to them, it just belonged to you. If it got broken.. It had to be fixed somehow.

I was a bit puzzled at the concept of garage sale when I first arrived in Canada. +I had a friend who loved them, so I got to see lots!

Fun topic. Thanks:)


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