Rewind to the end of a summer of bike rides and camping trips. It was New Mexico and the school year was creeping up like a sneaky ghoul. Kids like my brother and I would’ve flooded into stores for new school clothes, parents in tow. No matter that we could still wear the previous year’s clothes — it was tradition.
We didn’t grow up in the fashion capital of America, so it didn’t matter that mom toted us to a thrift store for “new” duds. In fact, I quickly became enamored with the scene. As a teenager, I started casing second hand stores just for fun. Years later, thrift stores became therapy: I’d retreat to one after a tough day waiting tables, or when life had me down.
Besides the childhood memories, what about thrift stores has me by the heart and purse strings? First, there’s the smell. It’s like a mix between old ladies, dusty upholstery and stale glue. Some people reject thrift stores just for this – but not me.
Then there’s the delicious disorder: shelves piled with wrinkled clothes, racks with hangers bulging from them like fat rolls. I can’t resist hunting for that weird, special something buried beneath what most people would honestly label crap.
And while this business is going on — for ten minutes or two hours — I was left blissfully alone in my quest for tarnished gold. This consumeristic independence isn’t only relegated to thrift stores. In America (excluding perhaps shopping for a car), the retail rodeo is a solo event.
In Italy, however, è un altro paio di maniche (or, it’s another story entirely). First of all, thrift stores are not at all popular; most Italians shy away from the mere idea of sporting something used.
The first time I entered a store hawking brand new goods, several pairs of meticulously made-up brown Italian eyes honed in on me. Even as I reached out to idly caress the nearest shirtsleeve, I was surrounded.
“Can I help you find something?” The nearest saleswoman asked. She did the Italian woman to woman thing, which is kind of like a judgy cyborg body scan that starts at your feet and ends at your hairline:
When I receive one of those, it usually ends with a look of:
A) Disapproval because although winter etiquette in Italy demands tasteful black, gray, dark brown, dark blue, purple and red, I am wearing bright yellow.
B) Disapproval because I almost conformed but I don’t actually own a black coat, so I am wearing a turquoise one with bright green trim.
C) Disapproval that I am wearing tennis shoes with a skirt because:
I don’t have a car.
High heels would really jive with my skirt but I can’t walk in them for more than eleven minutes.
Honestly, shoes aside I am wearing a flower-patterned skirt and striped tights in complimentary colors which in America would be considered “clatching” (aka matching + clashing). This is legit. Except in Italy, where it is not.
As I’m pondering all of this, I realize I’ve mistakenly entered a children’s clothing store and not only do I not have kids, but I don’t actually want them. By then, they’ve sized me up as the foreign, good taste-challenged individual that I apparently am. So, they steered me towards the tiny discount section in the rear.
Here, I perked up because the word “discount” is so dear I could have married it. Then I was bummed when I realized the heavily discounted corduroy trousers I was clutching were for an infant aged three months. Menomale (thankfully), the door opened — a new victim! — and I was able to make my escape.
Then, last week, I was on the hunt for a pair of Halloween tights. Happily, I ran into some friends who were engaged in the same chase. We took a left on Via Indipendenza, protected from the persistent rain by a long string of ancient portici. Our target was Calzedonia, all neat rows of socks, tights, leggings and stretchy, velvety pants. I could barely take all of this in before the cavalry arrived.
“Are you looking for something?” An impossibly slim Italian asked. I could hear this repeated in stereo to my friend by her cohorts. This one had lips as red as a candied cherry and inky black eyes, which really did make her cyborg scan rather creepy.
“I’m just browsing,” I said, and her eyes narrowed as my foreign accent surfaced. Deliberately, I misused the congiuntivo and was rewarded with news of a promotion: if I bought four pairs of tights, the fifth would’ve been free!
I turned and pulled out one of the little drawers under a plastic display leg draped in rose print. Whilst scanning a package for sizing information, I was approached by another saleswoman.
“If you want to look at sizes or anything else, I will do it,” she said curtly, sending a cyborg x-ray glare dart to the package in my hands. With a manicured nail, she pushed the drawer back in. Then she kind of glided back to the cash register without breaking her glare. It was really rather impressive.
Meanwhile, I was in a Catch 22 situation. I needed to gleen my size from the package, but the lady was shooting death glare arrows at me like I was a human bullseye. Did she really expect me to return the tights to the bin so I could ask her to pull it out (again) and hand me back the package I already had in my hands?
I know that Italy can generally be a bit backwards, but let’s not make a toy soldier into a world war…
I was rescued then by my own flock of friends. They’d asked one of the other saleswomen to bust open some tights at a counter. Joining them, I believe I subtly won the battle with the first saleslady because I got the sizing info I needed without doing anything. I also got to observe the exact moment in which her death glare shifted from me to her co-worker.
Abruptly, the casino (mess) of regurgitated tights and packaging turned into a macello (shit show) because of total chaos. Amongst us, we needed:
A) Either an XS or SM in black with built in socks. Or maybe the gray. Actually, maybe an ML…
B) Either an SM or ML in gray with built in socks. Or maybe the black, after all…
C) Either an XS or SM in black that was slutty but not too slutty.
Of course (even though the drawers were centimeters away) there was a third saleswoman that fetched everything. Obviously, this added to the disarray because she didn’t know who wanted what. Furthermore, the domineering saleswoman was glaring at everyone and making the other salesladies rather stressed.
I believe when we all finally bought our single pair of tights each, the entire city of Bologna sighed with relief. My co-workers and I laughed all the way back to the office (since we were shopping on our lunch break).
The next day, I stopped for a caffè macchiato at a warmly lit bar between the stazione and my office in Bologna. There, I witnessed something that shed a bit of light on retail experiences.
An old woman had approached the counter, just as the barista was turning away to start crafting my caffè. Let it be known that old Italian women are frankly terrifying. I’m not sure what happens between the slim, friendly twenties and the stocky, angry eighties, but one glare from these made up dames is enough to stop me cold — even if it’s my turn in line or on a bike.
Meanwhile, this old woman’s hackles had begun to raise after several moments of inattention from the (busy) barista. Turning back, he set hastily down my macchiato and began to shower the old woman with attention like a thirsty flower. Under this direct, personal attention, she transformed from a thorny nettle into a daffodil. To keep the nettle happy, the barista checked in on her regularly as she sipped her caffè demurely.
Could it be that some Italians expect this kind of over-the-top service in their retail establishments, too?
In no big hurry to arrive on time at work since no one else does either, I lingered as another woman floated in. She was middle-aged, with jet black hair and eyebrows drawn on like twin bridges. Without so much as a “ciao,” she proceeded to order one of the more creative coffees I’ve heard: an espresso, a bit long, in a warmed upglass cup (instead of the usual ceramic one) with cocoa stirred in and two fingers of hot water.
The barista turned again and started to craft her outlandish beverage like she’d just told him that dogs have legs. Mamma mia. What a country!