Tuesday, May 11, 2010

First trip to the Mall

What a novel concept to shopping - the Mall! I liken it to the Sunday Promenade in Europe minus the shops. Every Sunday afternoon, we dressed up in our only good dresses and shoes, and took a bus to downtown's Republic Boulevard, flanked by beautiful old chestnut trees. At one end was the main train station terminal, at the other end, the Art Museum, the Marriage House, and a Parisian like bakery with tasty confections of chocolate that we could only afford once in a very long while. Families dressed in their Sunday best paraded their children up and down or stopped if a bench was available. We admired or envied each other in a sad display of people watching in place of going to church. Church was "verboten" by the communists and priests barely made enough money from donations and a meager state stipend to keep the church open for baptisms, weddings, and burials. I am not sure how many people would have gone to church instead of the weekly promenade up and down the gorgeous boulevard had God worship been allowed by the communist state. Come to think of it, since we had state sponsored marriage houses, I think the only reason the communists kept some churches open was to bury its dead. We did not have funeral homes so the logical location to place the deceased in state was the church. I say this because the regime had no qualms about demolishing beautiful old churches, 300-400 years old some of them, to make room for gaudy concrete buildings, headquarters of the local chapters of the communist party or the unions (syndicates as they were called).
You can imagine my glee to be introduced to the Mall. I did not have any money to shop, but it was fun to look. I was surprised that shoppers could actually try things on in a very cozy dressing room, helped by polite ladies and, most shocking of all, could actually return things if you changed your mind. I was used to the communist central planning when they would produce half a million white boots when the market demanded 10 million pairs of black and brown boots. People would fight in long lines for the white boots anyway, sometimes grabbing the first pair on the rack, not knowing whether that was the right size or not. Not that it mattered, you were not allowed to try them on, you might get them dirty. Neither were you allowed to return them if they did not fit. Once you bought them, they were yours to keep. No returns, no exchanges, no credit. I can only imagine that there were many customers with sore feet and bunions. Romanian shoes were not exactly made for comfort or durability.

Cultural differences crept along the way in my daily existence and a trip to the mall was no different. I had to apologize to a poor girl who was politely trying to sell spoon rings, silver rings wrapped around the finger made from the end of a spoon. Coming from such a poor country, it seemed excessive to me to destroy a perfectly good spoon in order to create such a gaudy ring. I wasted no time telling the girl the truth, after all, Europeans are very blunt, not necessarily schooled in the fine art of tactfulness. Needless to say, I brought the girl to tears and was forced to apologize. My husband insisted and I complied, although I did not understand why I had to apologize for expressing my opinion and telling the truth.

Speaking of being truthful and blunt, you never ask an European how they feel, unless you are prepared to listen exactly to what ails them, why, and what they are going to do about it.

I was shocked when few people were paying with cash, mostly with checks and credit cards. I could not understand the concept of paper checks or plastic credit cards very well. At that time, department stores did not have an instant connection with a bank clearinghouse for checks or credit cards. They were mostly accepted on faith and in some instances, by making phone calls. My Egyptian friend, Lula, used to laugh that the country was run on paper and plastic, not fiat money. She had no idea how true her jocular statement was.
I loved the colorful department store bags and was amazed that they were given free of charge with each purchase. I saved them for a while, hoping to find other uses for them. I did the same with Styrofoam containers, plastic forks and spoons, I could not throw them away - I washed them over and over until they broke. My husband chided me that I was McDonald's bag lady.
I found the mall to be very peaceful, a place to meet friends, a place to relax, not necessarily to shop. Back in the late seventies, there were no restaurants inside the mall or a food court and no coffee shops. If you wanted coffee, you had to percolate it yourself. The biggest department stores inside the mall in Tupelo, MS were Sears and Roebuck and J. C. Penney. There was a McRae's but rather small. I was sad when the mall was destroyed by a tornado a year later and abandoned.

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