’m not one of those women who spend lots of free time shopping for clothes. To me, it’s a solitary activity best completed before the weekend, like getting the oil changed. In fact, I’ve been known to make a list of clothing I need before leaving the house. The reasons for this are many: I get cranky, my eyes get dry from all the searching, my feet ache, and I don’t really need anything. I like fashion and being in style, but I’m easily overwhelmed. There are usually too many choices and I if I’m left to flounder around on my own, I’m easily tempted to give up trying to find the perfect pair of jeans. And yet, as in so many other fields, the Italian version of the same activity is (almost) always a thrill.
First of all, I love Italian salesgirls. Not the way Silvio Berlusconi probably does, but in a — “I’m always willing to love them, and constantly hope they’ll at least like me back” way. Basically, I just want to become friends with them. More times than not I get very well taken care of by cute, hip, attentive salesgirls. They’re always impeccably dressed, and give excellent advice. Plus, I get to play the straniera card, which always makes me seem cooler than I really am.
It could also be the unpredictability factor that keeps me coming back, because it must be said that the Italian saleslady experience varies widely. There is definitely a bizarre side, for example, once in a glasses shop in Rome a woman sold me a pair of sunglasses, while she herself wore gigantic black ones the entire time. I was pleased, because she was saying very complimentary things — “Oh, these were made for you” — but I had to wonder if she really knew what she was talking about.
In general there seems to be a bipolar approach to customer service: you’re either their new best friend, or you don’t exist. It’s an all or nothing proposition, and sometimes I prefer the latter. Because there is one aspect I cannot come to terms with: why are the mirrors in Italian dressing rooms almost always exclusively, or incalculably, better outside the fitting room?
You have to present yourself out there in front of everyone regardless of both desire to do so and fit of clothing. The humiliation is crippling. If something looks terrible, the last thing I want is an audience. I prefer to handle the situation like an adult, which is to say, pretend it never happened and move on to the next item. Meanwhile, the commesse start calling “Esci! Fatti vedere!” and I want to yell back “Non mi va!” The only thing that does “va” at that moment is my desire to curl up in a corner of the fitting room, disappear, then be reincarnated as a 100-pound, 5-foot-3 Italian girl, on whom everything looks perfect.
Can I possibly be the only one who hates that? I think it’s a wonder the entire population doesn’t stay at home, cowering under their beds. Actually, perhaps this is why many Italians tend to wear the same clothes repeatedly. The ideology seems to be “wear it to death, then buy new.” This phenomenon can best be observed in an office environment. I once interned for a summer in Rome and all my Italian colleagues wore the same exact clothes every single day. Only the gay guy alternated. Once I noticed, it was one of those peculiarities you report home about: “Hey, Mom, you’ll never guess…” but over time it just became weird.
And although I’m traditionally a skeptic, I always believe the salesgirls’ compliments. Are they lying in an attempt to score a big purchase? Are they being truthful? Who cares! Their observations make me feel accepted into that exclusive club — the Italian woman. Now that’s something money can’t buy.