Sugar girl (Sara Van Der Valk) by Corina Moscovich

Warning: I start with a flashback: (((((Long long time ago, I can still remember* my own hobby. I used to be a tin collector. Specifically I used to collect old and arty tin containers for tea, mints, cookies, etc, etc. I took my hobby so seriously that I reached a point where I had to make a decision. It was impossible to keep them all. At a time where it was more about spreading the word and not sharing on social networks, I was fortunate enough to be able to sell my collection. Probably those were the first euros I have saved in my entire life! )))))  Back to the present my dear readers. Let´s say near present or recent past, as that was when I found out about Sara´s hobby. This smart, curious and smiley Dutch girl showed up one day at uni (of Luxembourg) with an album of her sugar packets collection. Like bees, in an instant we were all around Sara; asking her lots of questions, wanting to have that album in our hands, promising her to enlarge her collection. I remembered that wonderful feeling of getting/receiving/finding/etc a new tin and sharing the collection whenever I had the opportunity with different kind of people. Eventually, I had the chance to interview Sara VAN DER VALK, the “Sugar girl”. 
C.M: How did you start to collect sugar packets and why? Sara: I started in 2006 at age 14 when I was living in Colorado in the US. I remember sitting in the Pizza Hut and looking at the sugar packets. They were pretty so I decided I would keep them and look for more.
C.M: When did you start calling it a collection? Sara: It has been a collection from the very first packet onwards. My mind was just completely set on the idea of collecting them. When I was a teenager of 16 years old I wanted to attend a trader's fair in a small village in Hungary all by myself, but my mother handily prevented it. I do still want to attend one sometime, just to see what other sort of madmen would have such a hobby.

C.M: How does this hobby make you feel? Sara: I think the spirit of collecting is a sort of need to order and categorise the world around oneself, to put things with other things that are like them. Maybe it is a sort of organised hoarding. Maybe it is the feeling of idiosyncrasy and quaintness that I enjoy about collecting sugar packets, I don’t know. 

C.M: Did anybody in your family collect a specific item? Sara: My great-grandfather, my grandfather and his sister, and for a while my father, also collected sugar packets. It was a very common hobby in the Netherlands in the 1950s. Looking at these sugar packets one comes to understand a lot about how people spent their lives, because the packets have images of cafés and restaurants, shops and companies. It was common to have an image of the restaurant on the front of the packet, along with the company’s name and address. A person’s sugar collection was therefore a sort of picture book of the places where they had been.
C.M: What about yours, then? Sara: In comparison, the sugar packets in my own collection more commonly bear the logo of the coffee brand served in the café that distributed the packet. The collection thus shows a transition from a society based on independent businesses to one where branches become more monopolised and franchises are the norm.

C.M: Which is the criteria for your collection? Sara: They have to be sugar packets, not creamer, honey, salt or sweetener. Other than that the focus is pretty broad, maybe too broad in the long run – all periods, countries of origin, shapes, materials and sizes are welcome. Most other collectors seem to focus on completing series of packets. Not so for me, I am fascinated by the individual packets. Nevertheless I do somewhat categorise them when sticking them into albums – for instance on coffee brand, country, shape or colour; whatever sticks out to me when I am inventarising recent additions to the collection.

C.M: You are about to finish a Master in Multicultural and Multilingual Communication and Learning at the University of Luxembourg. You have plans to write your Thesis about your collection... Sara: What I want to look at is how the language choices on sugar packets differ from place to place and from time to time. For instance on the historic Dutch sugar packets, there is a pretty much total absence of any other language than Dutch. Yet on modern Dutch packets, sometimes there is only English. The Dutch sugar packets are only one example, but another interesting case is Luxembourg, of course, where some of the packets have jumbled-up mixes of partially translated bits of information in four different languages. Then there are some multinational sugar and coffee companies that make a point of having hyper-multilingual packets (ten languages or more). I would like to show that through quantitative analysis, and then talk qualitatively about the causes and implications of such changes.  
C.M: From a social perspective then, what is a sugar packet? Sara: I think sugar packets, like any other object, are a snapshot or a momentary result of the power balances in society. The language choices on the sugar packet are a result of the understandings that the company owners and designers have of the way language is used in the society, and of what they think their customers will like or expect. The sugar packets themselves also contribute to the everyday life linguistic experiences of people - in a small way, they shape, challenge or confirm people's expectations about the positions of different languages in society. 
C.M: Who are the main contributors to your hobby? Sara: There is a division in my collection between “modern” packets and “historic” ones. The modern ones I have partially collected myself, of course, when I was having coffee somewhere or simply taken when passing a self-service sugar packet hand-out point. The next main collector would be my mother, who travels a lot and who tirelessly brings me pursefuls of packets every time.
A substantial part of the collection consists of packets given to me by dozens of friendly souls – teachers, family, friends, and since I’ve announced my thesis topic, also lots and lots of classmates. 
C.M: How about the historic ones? Sara: Of course I couldn’t have personally collected first-hand, because I didn’t exist yet at the time that they were distributed. Some of these I inherited from the aforementioned family members – a big photo album with a bunch of them stuck in and two tins full of emptied packets. Then there’s a small notebook with loads of packets from the area around Steenwijk in the Netherlands, which is where I bought it, at a flea market.
C.M: Tell us figures… Sara: It's hard to say exactly how many packets I have. If I have about 250 sugar packets in each album, my own collection is around 600-700 packets (I'm halfway the third album). That is not counting doubles (to the extent that I have succeeded at avoiding sticking doubles in the albums). The "historic" collection is way bigger, I would guess 1500 packets - 100 in the notebook, 100 in the photo album, 100 in each of the tins, 600 in the organised books and another half thousand at least in the bag, but that might contain a fair few doubles. 
C.M: Can you share an anecdote? Sara: I put my e-mail address on a website for Dutch sugar packet collectors, and it is through this channel that an elderly man contacted me who had been an avid collector as a young man, but now the packets had been sitting in a box in his attic for many years. He offered that I could pick up the box for nothing. There are two albums with a total of hundreds and hundreds of packets, organised on placename alphabetically. It is an awe-inspiring opus.

  *Don McLean: Bye, bye Miss American Pie
Corina Moscovich