04/04/2012 10:47 EDT | Updated 06/04/2012 05:12 EDT

The Beginner's Guide to Ikea

Ikea is a wonderland. It's also a hellhole. Let's go together, yes? Wander upstairs. Grab a cart. Feel a creeping sense of despair that the Ikea showrooms are nicer than anything you've ever owned? Hang on to that feeling -- you'll need it when you attempt to put your new dresser together using only Allen keys and curse words.


Ikea! Or, if you're pedantic about capitalization (and in these times of Internet grammarian smackdowns, who isn't?), Ikea! I like to say it with a Swedish accent for added authenticity, but it really makes no difference. I also like re-enact their commercials by barking "You feel sad for the lamp? DON'T!" at unsuspecting family members from time to time. But actually shopping at Ikea? Ay carumba.

For those of you who have never been, Ikea is a wonderland. It's also a hellhole. Let's go together, yes?

Enter the gigantic blue building through double doors. To your right? A children's playground where the kids are being cared for. They are likely chucking ball-pit balls at each other or crying in the middle of the room. Don't worry! This is normal. That child is only crying because there's a five-foot-long stuffed ant hanging from the ceiling (the theme of this childcare is "forest") and it will haunt his dreams forever. You can check them in there while you shop! When they've exhausted themselves through playing/hiding from the ant, you'll be able to pick them up and take them to the cafeteria. Make sure they are crying by then, or else they'll feel left out.

Wander upstairs. Grab a cart. Feel your sense of optimism -- look at all these storage solutions! Be charmed by the faux-Swedish names of things. Oh, a Borgnine convertible sofa. Adorable. A chaise lounge woven from wicker and bamboo. Sustainable. A loft bed that will save space and also sway like a drunken pirate when you attempt to make love in it. Remarkable. Feel a creeping sense of despair that the Ikea showrooms are nicer than anything you've ever owned? Hang on to that feeling -- you'll be needing it when you attempt to put your new dresser together using only Allen keys and curse words.

As you pass through the displays, note that the stylish display clothes are bolted to the walls and the display books are all in Swedish. Idly pick up a book as your family members debate the merits of the Svang chair when compared to the Jagerstruedel rocker for 57 minutes. Note that "idiot" in Swedish is "idiot." This will come in handy in the checkout lines.

Coming to the bedroom section, look around you at the children's rooms. Wonder if Swedes have a notion that childhood should be as Seussian as possible. Become irrationally attached to the bed canopy that gives the appearance of a covered wagon. Fall deeply in love with the small-spaces display -- a daybed! A kitchen with little sink dividers! Fantasize about becoming an interior designer who specializes in treehouses and cruise ship cabins. Reject this fantasy when you realize how much school will be involved for what is probably a fairly specific market. Hate your day job.

Realize that you haven't seen a window to the outdoors in three hours. Or a bathroom. Realize none of the fake bathrooms have toilets.

Head downstairs to the small-items and pick-up zone. Pick up 13 different styles of vases. Reject six. Reject nine. Carry around four vases until you find your shopping partner, who will have been staring at knives for 10 minutes with a vacant expression on his face. Force him to carry the vases, and the tea towels, and the gingerbread men cookie cutters, and the 100-pack of candles, plus plates, plus a 17-pack of off-brand Tupperware. You will be dragging a rug behind you like an animal carcass; you can't carry the vases. Your hands are full.

Arrive at the warehouse. Consult the list you've compiled of items you want: dressers and beds and tables and entire kitchens, nay, entire apartments. You will see "aisles" and "bins" in your scrawled handwriting. Make sure you have been accurate! The warehouse is about the size of metropolitan Detroit and twice as depressing. The aisles and bins contain your choices. If you change your mind about colour, know that your alternate choice could be in another bin, in another aisle. Why? Because the warehouse has been designed by an algorithm written by a computer. Human beings would never do this to one another. The Geneva Convention would not allow it.

Once you've piled your new furniture onto your cart, go the checkout. If you've come on a weekend, you are a fool. Wait in line for 45 minutes. Weep softly, if no one is watching. On the other side of the cashier, there is a commissary with 75-cent hotdogs and pasta in the shape of caribou. Coffee and fountain pop will never be as sweet as it is today. Over and over, pick up and set down the same candle holder with the absentminded grace of a sedated nun.

The rest is challenging, but you can go at your own pace. Load your hatchback with heavy boxes and stuff the empty spaces with vases, frantically trying to get onto the freeway with zero rear visibility and weighing an extra 700 pounds. Setting up your new belongings will take three hours longer than anticipated and require, in addition to the Allen key Ikea has sent home with you, a cordless drill, a stud finder, a hammer, a square-head screwdriver, and the help of your least stupid family member. Know that what you have made can never be unmade, because disassembling Ikea furniture is a mission for only the foolhardiest of movers. It's easier to chuck it out and start again.

On the plus side, we can all agree that Ikea's 99-cent chocolate bars are second to none, and they sell lingonberry soda, which will lead to much quoting of The Big Lebowski if your companions are the least bit human. Maybe you can watch The Big Lebowski tonight, as you sit on your new couch and idly wonder if the whole thing is going to collapse.