Earlier this week, while shopping in one of our nation’s most beloved department stores, I had the following conversation:
Me: Where are the tights please?
Assistant: Oh, you're the lady looking for tights!
Me: Um, no… I’m just a lady looking for tights.
Me: Well… I’m not the lady looking for tights.
Assistant: You weren’t here earlier looking for tights?
The assistant glared at me, clearly not believing a word of it, but nevertheless pointed me in the right direction. I don’t know what happened to the original tights lady, and hope she’s not still wandering forlornly around the store, wondering why no one is helping her.
This hosiery-related trauma is one of a whole series of experiences I’ve had with shop assistants — all of which have left both of us with the bewildered feeling you get when you’ve been trying to communicate with someone who doesn’t speak your language.
I don’t really fit that certain Jewish stereotype of the zealous female shopper, all manicure and designer heels, expertly negotiating the fashion departments for the latest addition to her wardrobe. In fact, I seem to be a constant disappointment to sales people wherever I go.
When I do get to shop for myself (and it doesn’t happen very often) my method is to wander vaguely around, trying to work out where I am (due to having no sense of direction), pausing now and then to post wry descriptions of my trip on Facebook before buying what generally turns out to be the wrong thing.
Make-up is the worst, as can be seen from a recent experience in the same shop as the elusive tights:
Me: I’d like some mascara please.
Make-up lady (with a broad smile): And what sort of mascara would you like?
Make-up lady: Would that be black, as in the colour?
Me: Um… yes.
Make-up lady: And what would you like your mascara to do?
Me: I’d like it to turn my eyelashes black.
Make-up lady (smile wavers): But would you like it to be volumising, lash-lengthening, thickening, curling, or maximising?
Me: Which is cheapest?
The assistant’s smile has now vanished completely.
Shoes can also be a problem. The last time I was looking for some, I handed three pairs to the assistant and said: “Can I try these in a seven please?” “All three pairs in a seven?” he asked. I considered replying: “Actually no, what the hell… I’ll try one pair in a 7, one pair in a 4 and one in a child size 8.” But I didn’t, because that would make me a bad person.
The completely obvious solution to all of this angst is to shop online — and indeed I do, for lots of things. Despite everything, though, I do actually enjoy “real” shopping… if I’m not rushed, and it’s not too crowded, and I’m in the right mood.
On this occasion, after the tights debacle, I climbed up to the roof garden of the department store. It’s an odd place. Astroturf covers the ground and there are random woodland animals scattered around, constructed entirely from fairy lights. The sun was setting over the London rooftops bathing everything in pink, jazz was flowing out from hidden speakers, and shoppers were sipping overpriced hot chocolate.
It was a disorientating scene, utterly artificial… and yet somehow not unpleasant. At that moment, I was definitely happier to be there than at home shopping on my laptop.
The other end of the retail scale is the local craft fair. As we approach Chanukah, many of these spring up in synagogues and other Jewish institutions. They give rise to a whole different type of stress: how does one interact with the stall holders, the vast majority of whom will have created the merchandise, lovingly, with their own hands?
As I file past the tables covered in bars of soap infused with rose petals, and picture frames constructed from recycled lollipop sticks, I try to assume a demeanour that projects: “I admire and appreciate your work, and the fact that I’m not going to buy it implies nothing about its intrinsic value.” This involves a vague smile and partial, but not total, eye contact, and probably makes me look as though I’m suffering from some kind of hallucinatory illness.
Meanwhile, going back to the high street, my bottle of mascara ran out recently and I went to buy another one. “I’d like some mascara, please,” I said. “Certainly — these are the types we’ve got,” said the assistant, and took a deep breath to explain. I held up my hand to stop her. “Please don’t scare me,” I begged. “I just want an ordinary black mascara.” She gave me an appraising look, then silently handed me a slim box. “Thank you,” I said. And I think she could tell that I meant it.