My girlfriend Jet drove me, and our best friend Melissa, to New Haven, and I wished I’d brought my vape to ease my anxiety. I’d heard IKEA gets packed, and I don’t do well in those types of situations. We approached the Pirelli Building to our right on I-91. The brutalist masterpiece by Marcel Breuer eclipsed our destination. But at eighty miles per hour, the obfuscation lasted a second or two before the IKEA store revealed itself to us in big, bright-yellow letters in the front of a ginormous blue building. You could see them from space.
“There’s IKEA,” I said to the group as my girlfriend pulled up on exit forty-six.
The past couple of weeks were really hard for me. I’d been devoured by anxiety and dread, and fell into a terrible depression as I entered my 30s. I had heard about retail therapy as a possible cure. But I detested shopping. Stores were my kryptonite. They were filled with people, especially icky children. Things were expensive, out of stock, or not where they should be. COVID-19 and unruly customers created jaded retail employees, so employees were in de facto rude mode to everybody, all the time. But I had heard none of this about IKEA. In fact, people enjoyed coming to the store. Walking around and buying furniture to assemble at home, even if they did not know what the hell they were doing half the time. Then there were these Swedish meatballs, apparently the most delicious spherical vehicle to deliver meat in the universe. They changed lives. Shoppers didn’t just find bliss, they found a sense of peace. As if Odin himself exalted people’s lives. I planned to experience the store as a customer would. I figured that was how one attained upplysning and met the gods. That’s how I’d find my enlightenment in IKEA.
Cars, pickup trucks, and vans filled the parking lot from front to back. Jet didn’t bother searching for a spot and parked in the back. Walking towards the entrance, the blue and yellow building imposed itself on us, a gigantic depository, at least four stories high and the width of one and a half city blocks (as measured on Google maps). Big, red, bold letters on a brilliant yellow background welcomed us in. I found a sticker on the automatic doors that read “hej! That’s how we say ‘hello’ in Swedish!” Really charming. We were off to a good start.
But upon entering the store, the atmosphere immediately felt strange. Oppressively hot, humid air stuck to me, and a stuffy atmosphere hung heavy, especially behind the mask. A throng of people kept entering and just idled around me, making it a thousand times worse. I immediately wanted to leave. But, after having driven for an hour, we were at least having those meatballs.
Jet went to use the bathroom, which gave me some time to think. What did I expect, fresh air from the Baltic Sea, and the population density of Luleå? Of course not, that’d be asking too much. But a shopper almost ran me over coming in as if they were about to miss their T-Bana. And even though I’m hard of hearing, the cacophony of voices was unbearable. I spoke to Melissa to distract myself.
“What are you getting?”
“Shoe rack,” she answered with a smile.
“There’s a lot of people.”
“Yeah, it’s usually this packed.”
“Have you ever been here before?”
After what felt like centuries, Jet returned from her Viking expedition, and we began our excursion. A map on the entrance to the first section showed IKEA’s simple layout; customers went from point A to point B, and stopped in different sections along the way. There were “light” arrows on the floor that led the way forward. The store kept everything moving forward. Not only did this generate them money, but they manipulated their customers by turning the shopping experience into a simple game. It gave them a goal, to get from A to B. Every purchase was a step forward towards that goal, and in exchange, they saved money, got an item of relatively good quality, and a painless shopping experience. This was part of what made people feel good when they visited IKEA, the other being the food.
We moved forward to the first section: the living room showrooms.These were six-by-six-feet, and up to ten-by-ten-feet, mocked-up living rooms fully decked out with couches, accent tables, cabinets, and other accessories. They had various designs with many accouterments like stuffed animals and toys, books and journals, and games and puzzles to give the rooms a little more pizazz. There were distinguishable themes that made each showroom special. Each couch plopped uniquely; each rug dragged differently. Shopping areas surrounding the showrooms carried smaller items. Customers could carry these items for purchase in these yellow plastic bags found in big crates placed around the shopping areas. From there, we stepped into the actual furniture shopping room. Here, the couches sat organized into pairs by color and material, with the odd leather and suede pairing. People filled every corner of the shopping room, though, loafing or moving frenetically, throwing themselves on the couches, and almost yelling.
“To shop here,” Melissa explained as my girlfriend pulled me away from the crowd, “you gotta grab one of those yellow paper pads, and then you write the number of the furniture you want. Then you pick it up at the warehouse level downstairs.”
From the living room section, we went to the kitchen section, followed by the bathroom section. As we walked, I found it hilarious that the perfectly assembled furnishings concealed the meticulous construction process that they required at home. One very nice little detail about IKEA that I loved was that they had books spread throughout the store in English, Spanish, and, of course, Swedish.
My annoyance with the crowd peaked when we got to the bathroom section, however. All because a blonde woman dressed in blue jeans and a matching blue puffer jacket and no mask kept following me around with a shopping cart, kid and husband in tow. She was being obnoxiously loud the entire time by pointing out at things and yelling commands at the poor guy. I could feel hot globs of her moist breath down my neck. As if I didn’t want to exist and enjoy the store in peace.
From the bathroom section, we passed through the kids’ section and found ourselves in the restaurant. If IKEA was Asgard, then the restaurant was Valhalla. I could finally try the life-changing meatballs everyone talked about. We had yet to see half the store and Melissa hadn’t gotten her shoe rack, but it didn’t matter. My search for happiness, bliss, and peace ended here. The restaurant smelled of aromatics like cloves, oregano, nutmeg, and some Swedish spices that opened up a pit in my stomach. I grabbed a tray and ordered four meatballs with gravy and lingonberry sauce. The old man behind the counter grabbed a plate with one hand, and a ladle with the other. He made a pool of gravy on the plate and then made a pool of lingonberry sauce next to the gravy. Then, using tongs, he grabbed four lime-sized meatballs, one by one, and placed them in a semicircle. He placed the plate on my tray and squeezed his eyes together. I squinted back at him and smiled behind my mask, grabbed my tray, said “Thank you,” and turned away, legs moving swiftly.
I paid no more than a dollar per meatball!
After paying, only a short walk to the tables stood between my horrible depression and IKEA’s answer to it. Beef and pork, garlic and onion, breadcrumbs, eggs, and milk mashed into the shape of an orb were the reason trips to IKEA were worth it to people—putting up with the masses and their loudness, obnoxiousness, and stubbornness actually amounted to something. It was one extreme religious experience, like Odin lifting your soul. I was eager for my turn. I was looking forward to my conversion to IKEAstianism.
We sat underneath the glass structure, four stories high with puffy clouds and blue skies above. I took my seat, snapped a couple of pictures of the meatballs, and glanced at Jet and Melissa—who were on the edge of their seats. My Valkyries. I grabbed the fork, stabbed one meatball, dipped and swirled it around in gravy, brought it to my mouth, and took my first bite from the “glorious” meatball.
The hands of Odin did not part the sky and lift my soul out of my body, and I was no longer in Valhalla. The meatball was underwhelming at best, and disappointing at worst. Even with the gravy, to say it was bland would be a colossal understatement. The texture felt off, chewy and spongy, like a sea snail out of the Gulf of Bothnia. The gravy was fragrant, but had the consistency of chocolate milk powder diluted in water. I tried again, this time dipped in the lingonberry sauce. But the faint sweetness of the purple sauce did not mesh with the flavorless meatballs. I laid my fork down and stared at the table, deflated and sad. I didn’t finish the meatballs.
We walked through the rest of the store, much of it in silence. The lackluster beef and pork balls had sucked the little vibrance the store had. As we walked around towards the end, a few things stood out: a wall of mirrors of different fun shapes, a hanging lamp that closed into a ball and blossomed into a beautiful chandelier when opened, and a marble sink that had elevated walls and unbalanced ends. Melissa couldn’t find what she wanted anywhere, though. My wide-eyed enchantment for IKEA disappeared.
After ninety minutes, my stomach was in knots; either the anxiety or the meatball, or both, were working their number on me. Standing in the middle of the bedroom section for the third time that afternoon had driven me over the edge. I held my stomach with my arm and walked away from the group, gasping for air behind my mask. My girlfriend grabbed me from behind and led me through the mass of people. We came to a stop in some nowhere section of the store. It was relatively empty, meant to hold lost husbands, the disinterested, and the ultra-bargain shopper. I noticed that on the wall behind me were rugs and carpets of different materials like wool, cotton, and jute. I trudged my way to the wall and began stroking the different rugs. A coping mechanism I picked up in therapy. The feeling of individual strands through my fingers brought me a sense of comfort that eased the nausea. Melissa bought me an iced coffee. It helped settle my upset stomach. I couldn’t believe that I had come to taste the food of the gods and ended up with a case of the pukies and the runs. IKEA had failed me big time.
Melissa and I were ready to leave this place for longer than Leif Erikson had been dead, but Jet decided she wanted to buy two plastic plants. We made it to the gigantic warehouse where they stored the furniture to be purchased. It was like two gymnasiums put together. There were two queues that rivaled any Six Flags lines, and were only getting longer by the second, moving at a snail’s pace.
“There’s no way I’m waiting in line for these,” Jet said, stone-cold and defeated.
We left the store. On our way out through the automatic doors, I sarcastically read out loud the sticker that read “hej då. That’s how we say bye-bye in Swedish.” Definitely not as charming this time around.
I walked back to the car with tasteless remnants of meatballs still in my mouth. They lied to me; promised to be taken to Asgard yet delivered to Hel. “You must keep moving forward,” IKEA said to me. All I wanted was to experience the happiness and bliss and sense of inner peace others had. I entered your premises, obeyed your rules, took part in your customs, but all I got were some lousy meatballs, an upset stomach, and possible coronavirus exposure. I expected to meet Odin himself in Valhalla, but my experience took me out of your world and led me to Sterculius in a vomitory.
I had to admit, though, IKEA’s design was actually kind of great. The deftly put together showrooms impressed me. They each felt unique enough to entice me to want to get things for my home. Like the awesome ball lamp. And compared to other stores, the prices were pretty cheap. This all weighed heavily on my mind as I tried to formulate an opinion on IKEA. I looked back at the store over my shoulder. With futility, I thought of one more positive attribute that would’ve made this trip worthwhile, but I imagined all the bodies inside the store squirming, being served flavorless meatballs instead. Shaking my head, I erased the image from my brain and got in my car, tinged with bitter disappointment.
As we pulled away, I fixed my eyes on the blue and yellow monstrosity through the side-view mirror and vowed never to return.
Header photo credit: Danny Contreras
Danny Contreras is a Staff Writer for Blue Muse Magazine