Annalisa Barbieri: Woman About World

Me and Cary. Shopping was never like this

My Christmas shopping fantasy goes something like this ... aside from the obvious fact that I have unlimited funds, I shop, someone else carries the shopping to my car and someone else does the driving. Actually did I say car? Better yet if it's a horse-drawn sleigh and it's snowing, but I am all cosy, wrapped up in my travelling rugs. Have I mentioned that I am also Ava Gardner and I go home to my massive New York apartment where a porter greets me by name? I get dressed and everything fits then, later, Cary Grant calls for me and I mix him a martini, only we never get to go out ... (Hmm, for that last bit can I substitute Marilyn Manson or that blond guy from Green Wing since Cary is more for looks than action?)

My Christmas shopping fantasy goes something like this ... aside from the obvious fact that I have unlimited funds, I shop, someone else carries the shopping to my car and someone else does the driving. Actually did I say car? Better yet if it's a horse-drawn sleigh and it's snowing, but I am all cosy, wrapped up in my travelling rugs. Have I mentioned that I am also Ava Gardner and I go home to my massive New York apartment where a porter greets me by name? I get dressed and everything fits then, later, Cary Grant calls for me and I mix him a martini, only we never get to go out ... (Hmm, for that last bit can I substitute Marilyn Manson or that blond guy from Green Wing since Cary is more for looks than action?)

The all too horrible truth is that shopping, even Christmas shopping, just isn't like that. But I have found that one can lessen the sheer red-faced, achy-armed, very ordinary slog if one just shops Somewhere Else. Things don't grate as much when you know that you won't have to put up with them every day. This is why shopping abroad is such a good idea because one shrugs on a mantle of make-believe. Extortionate prices? Pah! You don't understand the currency rate anyway. Bad service? Well, you don't have to face it on a regular basis.

The best and the worst service I ever received were both in the same city - Paris. One Christmas I went to Versace with three friends. We were young and all seemed to be wearing the uniform of the disaffected - long, shabby coats that we left unbuttoned to flap along behind us.

No surprise to see the shop assistant's eyebrows rise, as one, upon our entrance. We were followed round but, instead of being challenged, we were charmed. Did we have one of these, asked the glowing assistant as she offered up a Versace brochure, each one of which must have cost at least £20 to produce. No we did not. So we were given one - each. We were handled with such sensitivity and grace that three of us bought something, and for a moment, in the Versace Atelier (the really, really expensive bit) I narrowed my eyes and imagined myself in a cat-suit sewn over entirely with sequins. It cost £20,000, but in that wonderful moment, it seemed like a bargain.

Some years later, I was in Zara in Paris in early December. On a Christmas shopping expedition I had bought way too much and was looking for a bag to help me lug it home (home at that point being the Hotel Crillon - I guess my life isn't so bad). Because I refused to be panicked into an unco-ordinated buy, I asked the assistant whether I should buy the plum or mustard-coloured leather holdall. Her top lip ruffled in a snort. Did I wear a lot of black, she asked. Well then, the plum. It is impossible to fully convey the sting in this exchange because it was all in "the look" - as so much Parisian derision is. I bought the mustard.

Should you find yourself in Paris, and many people do, the department store Bon Marché is my top tip for present-buying. The food hall is glorious. A mere packet of biscuits, from another country, printed in another language, makes a great little present. My travel companion was far cleverer than I, however. She had them box up all her purchases and get them to the Gare du Nord to meet us on the Eurostar; it worked very efficiently.

* * *

More Continental shopping tips ... never, never buy black underwear in a southern Italian town. All independent shops in Italy involve the assistant pulling out the merchandise for you to see - not very much is on display. I was buying a La Perla set for a girlfriend and she had requested that it be black and involve only bra and suspenders (no pants, for reasons I did not think to ask). But because I thought it too convoluted to say it was for a friend I said it was for me.

This was in my mother's home town where everyone knew me as "the London girl". La Perla, then, was just about the most expensive underwear you could buy; but the pathetically weak lira (RIP) helped make it a more affordable gift. Anyway, to cut a very long story short, the underwear was kept in the back and the whole family, nay half the village, had joined in my purchase. "No pants?" the wife-owner asked me. No pants, I confirmed. "No pants??" queried the husband-owner in a slight panic. "No pants," I stuttered. "No pants???" asked the son with more than a twinkle in his eye. "No, just suspenders," I replied, leaning forward ever so slightly more than necessary (I had always had my eye on him). "Black???" I was asked 100 times. Yes, black - not white, not cream, not Virgin Mary blue, not that nice purple or the "champagne". Black.

By the time I left I had sweat patches on my ankles. By the time I got home - a mere five minutes away - my mother had heard that I was a prostitute.

* * *

Perhaps my most original experience of Christmas shopping abroad was in the lovely city of Dortmund in 1985. For reasons we need not go into here I was stationed at the army base there. In the Naafi there was nothing much to buy for Santa's sack save for some Haribo chewy shapes and the 7in single of Bryan Ferry's "Slave to Love". I bought both.

The closest I've ever come to my fantasy was Christmas shopping in Canada. Banff, Alberta, to be precise. The idea seemed perfect: mountains, snow, a glorious-looking hotel, but the reality was different. What the pictures can't tell you is that some places really have no character. Moreover, some places can give you the creeps. There is something about Banff that is unsettling. The high street was like some Wild West town (nothing over one storey high), so it looked like a façade. There was nothing, anyway, to buy that wasn't a) fleece, b) stamped with a maple leaf or c) didn't have a glycemic index of over 100 (ie maple candy).

My best "buy" was lingering over licking stamps in the post office where I picked up the local gossip. Melanie had left a pie by the window and the elks had had it. Bob was going to Calgary to seek his fortune, as it was the fastest-growing town in Canada. I longed for the warmth and cosiness of Oxford Street, with its cheap, sponsored lights reflected in the dirty puddles, the choke of buses driven by would-be Michael Schumachers, the pickpockets, and the stalls by Debenhams offering "Genuine Pushminas" [sic] that give you static just to touch them. Sometimes, there's just no place like home to do your shopping.

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