Brace yourself, Paris

ALTHOUGH we do sometimes publish articles about Christmas shopping in this travel section, I have to confess that going on holiday to shop always struck me as a contradiction in terms. Was not shopping after all a particularly painful form of work, and were not holidays supposed to mean an absence of work?

Souvenirs? What were all those people doing, trying to sell me alabaster sphinxes outside the pyramids (for example)? I was travelling to have a deep cultural experience, not to push supermarket trolleys around the Sahara.

It was the same the first time I travelled to India, where I found people constantly trying to sell me cheap watches and plastic birds with flapping wings that made tweeting noises. At the time I did not quite understand why.

My mates told me that the desire to shop in a exotic climate was indicative of being open-minded but the only times I ever bought anything I always felt, in some obscure way, that I had been conned.

There was my plastic flamenco dancer, my Arc de Triomphe in a snowstorm, my Leaning Tower of Pisa bookmark, my Acropolis made of pink sugar. And a lot of good money which could have been spent on bus tickets or breakfasts went down the drain.

Even when I moved slightly more upmarket things were little better. Buying a carpet in Istanbul I was so mesmerised by the technique of the salesman - who told me that bargaining was a vulgar habit - that I completely omitted to bargain. By the time it was delivered six months later I had gone off it. Then I got hit by a huge bill for duty and VAT.

In fact the passion with which people defend their right to duty-free shopping still strikes me as pretty odd. As far as I can see, that kind of shopping is largely about encouraging the abuse of cigarettes and alcohol. And what on earth of Spain (or France or Italy) can there be in a bottle of Red Label or a carton of Marlboro?

But putting those quibbles aside, I am now beginning to realise that my shopping problems were a matter of technique. Instead of trifling with souvenirs I should have been importing goods.

Instead of multi-coloured elephants and jingling ankle bracelets, I should have been seeking out Persian carpets made in the time of the Mughals or (and this is a hot tip from someone who claims to know about these things) the finest pashmina shawls woven from the under-belly hair of a mountain goat.

I've just started to jump on to this bandwagon and am beginning to enjoy it. Last week I grabbed a hi-fi in Singapore airport of the sort which British citizens will probably not be able to buy until some time in the next millennium. I also picked up a couple of oil canvases which could only have possibly been painted in the island of Bali. Even paying duty on these items has not dampened my enthusiasm.

Not only have I started shopping but I have gone the whole hog and become a serious shopping snob. Now I'm off to Paris where I plan to visit an 18th-century parfumerie to get a scent tailor-made according to my appearance, character, habits and taste.

I may also buy a Jean-Paul Gaultier suit assuming that I can find one expensive enough. And as a result of this, the lucky Parisians should expect to derive considerable economic advantage. Happy Christmas to them.

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