Brace yourself, Paris
Sunday 20 December 1998
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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