Written in 2008
I recently went to Plovidv, the second city of Bulgaria. Arriving late in the evening with 2 hours before meeting my children from the train, I wandered aimlessly around the lovely old streets and then found myself on a pedestrian street lined with shops. This is probably to be expected in a city centre but I’ve been living in some degree of hibernation in a small village in northern Bulgaria and I was rather startled to see the clothes, the colours, the shoes, the window displays –all that normal stuff. The happy hand of shopping beckoned to me – fortunately the shops were closed but hey – window shopping is a good second best.
I began to feel nostalgic about shopping. That is not to be confused with “spending money”. You know the conversation – usually, maybe always with women friends, where you both agree that a bit of retail therapy is the only realistic course of action. We would never say, ‘lets go and spend some money’ – indeed that would probably have the opposite effect and will make you feel more depressed. Of course, one of the advantages of using a piece of plastic is that it isn’t really money and actually retail therapy doesn’t work in quite the same way if you have a load of notes in your purse because each time you hand some over, you are conscious of the pile getting smaller and its going to have an eventual end – your purse doesn’t usually have an overdraft facility.
I stopped a moment and pondered those last two words. They are words that you hear regularly and frequently in life in Britain – I wonder if I know anyone there who doesn’t have an overdraft. When I lived there, I suppose I wholeheartedly threw myself into my role as a member of a consumer society – it would seem anti social not too.. I can’t imagine any of my neighbours right now in this village, lamenting a lack of shopping opportunities. There is no disposable income flying around here and people go to the shops to buy stuff that they ‘need’. I have often ‘needed’ a truly gorgeous pair of sparkly, strappy sandals but nowadays, when I walk to the shop, I usually need bread and the only shoes on offer are galoshki.(invincible wellie type shoes).
There are three shops in Voditsa – the First Shop, the Little Shop and the Secret Shop. I had been here almost two years before the Secret Shop revealed itself – the other two are relatively obvious, usually because there’s always a bunch of men sitting outside drinking beer. A volunteer called Jennie was here from England and I send her off to the Hardware Shop which used to be a secret shop but I had found it last year – it’s not very obvious. When she returned, she hadn’t found the Hardware Shop but she mentioned the ‘big shop with the green canopy’. I had always thought that this canopy was just something rather ostentatious above the door of a regular house on the ground floor of a block of flats. But Jennie, being a Girl Guide, had bravely explored and I was astonished and a bit disbelieving of her description.
Next morning I went, hot foot to the shop – the Secret Shop. It was like walking into Santa’s Grotto when you’re a child – just a normal door, then you step inside and there is another world. How could I have missed this smart, big, well stocked shop – with the bright green canopy? And how can this fairly small village maintain 3 shops? I explained this to a Bulgarian friend and he told the people in the shop. They thought it was hilarious that I had just found the shop. I suggested they actually call it ‘The Secret Shop” but nobody thought that was funny.
So a ‘shopping opportunity’ here is about first finding the shop. Then there is the problem of browsing. The idea that you might wander into a shop, maybe to buy one or two things, and then look around and perhaps then buy three or four other things, just doesn’t work here. The shops in this village are not supermarkets; you have to wait to be served and you are expected to know exactly what you want. If you pause and start looking along the shelves, the shop assistant gets agitated after 20 seconds and other people in the shop start looking at you. I’ve tried to say that I’ve forgotten what I want and I need to look around and I don’t think its my dreadful Bulgarian that is the problem here – its that concept of ‘looking to see what I might want to buy’.
Its not that I have loads of money, its just that I find the things on sale in shops fascinating – especially when its in a foreign country or culture. I found a Chinese supermarket one day when I was about 17 – this was Newcastle in the 70’s so it was also a bit of a secret. It smelled like nothing I had ever known before. I think it’s the 1000 year old eggs that give Chinese shops their peculiar and sometimes awful smell but then it was just fascinating. Walking along the rows of shelves, past the dried ducks, trying to figure out what all these things were, I had to turn my head permanently at a 90 degree angle. The labels were printed in Mandarin and English but positioned for the benefit of their customers who of course were mostly Chinese. I sometimes bought things just to see what they were but as I knew little or nothing about Chinese cookery, they often went mouldy in the fridge.
Shopping in India had two extremes. The cities were full of wonderful, colourful, glittery places selling silk saris, beaded shawls and jewellery made of everything beautiful you can imagine. In Jaipur, the Pink City, where everything, including the train from Delhi, is Pink; the random element of shopping is removed. There you have the Street of a 1000 Spice Shops, next to the street of a 1000 bangle shops and round the corner will be Gold and Silver shops up to the horizon. I’m not very good at this type of focused shopping – I much prefer ‘Ooh, look at that cute shop – I wonder what they sell’. But there is no denying the delight in going into a gold shop and trying a few things on and then going next door and doing the same.
The other end of the scale were my local shops in Lilipul in Himachel Pradesh. We lived half way up a mountainside, as do most people in the foothills of the Himalayas. The first thing about this shop was that it took an hour and half to get to it, so you needed to have confidence that it was going to have what you needed. Chamun Lal owned the shop at the bottom of our mountain and he did indeed have everything that you could possible need to survive. No sparkly shoes or pretty little oil burners, no scented candles or fluffy cushion covers – this shop was stocked for ‘life’. He didn’t mind people browsing. If you had just walked for half a day to get to the shop, you needed to be really sure you didn’t forget anything and he would happily continue with his chai, discussing politics and gathering news from whoever came by.
The shop was completely open at the front with the sacks of rice, flour and dhal ready for inspection or for lunch for the birds who also shopped there. I noticed that sometimes people would ask for something and he’d bend down to a magical place beneath the counter and produce something wrapped in a piece of newspaper. I’d wait till the customer left and then ask him what they had bought. I aspired to ask for something that lived in that magical place but that was obviously an advanced level of shopping that was beyond me. But whilst there was ‘shopping opportunities’ here, it was important to remember that I had a two hour walk back up the mountain and I wasn’t very good at carrying large loads on my head.
Shopping can come to your door in India. Before the monsoon starts, the umbrella seller comes wandering around. He also fixes old umbrellas and usually sits down for a cup of chai and a chat while he’s there. Then he goes of, up the mountain – presumably there’s an endless supply of broken umbrellas. I loved the bangle sellers. There are whole shops in India that only sell bangles – they come in all materials and sizes and you usually buy a set of 15 or 20 that you have to wear in the right order to make a neat pattern on your arm. But all the bangle sellers said that I was deformed because the mound at the base of my thumb was too big and I could never find bangles to fit. Sometimes a crowd would gather to look at my deformity and murmur sympathetically. At least when these guys came to my house, there wasn’t a crowd.
Lots of bangles were made of glass which always puzzled me. Life was very physical and they broke very often and I wondered how many women had cut their wrists with broken glass bangles.
Shopping was a bit boring in Malta where I spent a couple of years. It was either tourist tat or that peculiar type of clothing where everything is designed for wearing at a disco – tarty, lacy, usually black, very short and size 6 only. Actually clothes in Bulgaria remind me of that – not the disco stuff but the size 6. British Airways lost my baggage last year and I had to buy some clothes in Veliko Turnovo. If you want sparkly shoes and blingy handbags, this is the town to be. And if you are a size 6 and you want a couple of interesting, flattering T shirts, you’ll have no trouble. But if you are size 14 and you’re over 40, you’ve got a problem because now you need to go to the ‘older women’s’ department and conservative/boring is the tone.
China is a bit problematic when it came to clothes – I just can’t buy something that is size XXXXL even though I know it’s the only thing that will fit me. My family tends to be around the 6foot mark and when I first came to China around 2002 that was enough to turn heads – then they would see our feet and fall about laughing. No shoe shopping in China then. But the serving grace there, were the tailors. Take in a picture and the material, allow the whole street to come in and wonder at the reality of the numbers on the tape measure – could people be this tall…and this fat – and in 2 days you have a new Armani suit.
I recently discovered another aspect of shopping that I aspire to be part of. I was travelling in a Tibetan area of China in Gansu province and I was in a town called Xiahe. This town has a huge Tibetan monastery and it attracts a lot of tourists as well as pilgrims. But its also a regular place where really cool looking Tibetan guys gallop into town to get their supplies. First of all, I want to say that if I could choose who I would be reborn as, I’d like to be Tibetan – I would be able to ride a horse before I could walk and I’d be able to wear their complicated clothes with such panache. Anyway… some of the shops in Xiahe sold the most amazing things – they were amazing because mostly I had no idea what the things were for. All sorts of things for horses and for tending Yaks; mysterious silver things that hang from a belt – glorious, heavy silver and leather belts; things that might belong in a kitchen but possibly not. Tools, guns, knives, hats and even wonderfully painted tents. I wanted to have a reason to go into these shops and know what I was buying …. in another life.
There is one shopping opportunity that Bulgaria excels in – second hand shops. I grew up going to Jumble Sales at the local Church Hall, then graduated, naturally, to Charity Shops. I’ve found that in the posh suburbs, you might find a row of evening dresses but no real bargains, whereas in the really poor areas, you could just find a real cashmere cardy or a hand embroidered linen tablecloth. I was delighted to discover the second hand clothes market in Bulgaria and I love the idea of buying by weight – that’s so encouraging. My best bargain was a gold, silk, YSL jacket from a real collection (a special number on the label told me this) that fitted me perfectly and cost 0.50Leva -that’s about 25euro cents!
I’m a sucker for kitsch and I love the randomness of shopping in second hand shops – you would be foolish to go looking for something specific but if you are willing to always allow 10 minutes for a scan – a skill learned through experience- you will be rewarded eventually. I have often gone out for a tin of cat food and returned with a neat little jacket or a darling little milk jug.
Finding shopping opportunities requires you to be adaptable and flexible. How boring to only go to Harvey Nicks. Edina and Patsy probably already knew what was in the shop before they got there. Going into a second hand shop anywhere in the world, or going into the Secret Shop in my village is to accept and embrace all of the deliciously random element of retail therapy in all it’s forms.