Number one: the Prada Bag. I had owned two Prada bags, both of them gifts to me, that I never really loved. Okay, they were Prada, but they weren’t something I would pick for myself.
A few years ago, my husband and I made our first trip to Europe together, and spent most of that time in Italy. On our very first day we were in Milan. We went into the heart of the city, exited the metro station, and found ourselves looking at a gigantically gothic and impressive cathedral. Which was mostly closed, for renovation. But we wandered around the square on a cold, rainy November day, and my husband (who doesn’t always make the wisest choices) said, “What’s that over there?”
That turned out to be the Galleria Vittorio Emanuele, reputedly the world’s oldest shopping mall, and named for the hero-king who united the various Italian states into one country in 1871. I’m good with that. I fully support celebrating national heroes with temples of capitalism. Anyway, we wander in, dazzled by the architecture and the busy Italians and the Christmas tree and the lights and the crowd gathered around the bull in the floor—and the Prada store. I had accidentally found the mother ship. There was this moment when my heart was in my throat and I could only think “uhhhhhhhhhh” or something like that.
First of all, this galleria is full of luxury stores. Not little boutiques: full-on stores. My husband asked me if I wanted to go in to the Prada store. (He was still not making the wisest choices; must have been the jet lag) I was a little intimidated, because if you have experienced the cold disdain and outright rudeness of clerks in high-end stores anywhere in the world (Los Angeles and New York especially, but not Las Vegas—for some reason, they’re super nice in Vegas), you will have trepidations about taking your lowly self into their vaunted domain. But my husband wasn’t dragging me away across the mosaic floor of that mall. Well, he really only has himself to blame at this point. He asked me if I wanted to go in. So I grasped my courage and we went inside.
They were perfectly pleasant in that store. Helpful, courteous, but not in your face. And they spoke perfect English. To be honest, I wasn’t that impressed. I thought there would be more. I thought it would be bigger. Well, I had gone in, but I wasn’t drawn to anything in there. Then my husband (poor man, at this point, had clearly lost his good sense) said, do you want to go downstairs? I said, it’s probably employees only. He said, I don’t see a sign, and so we wandered down the stairs.
Italian real estate being what it is, the basement portion of the store was expansive, roughly ten times the square footage of the store on the street level—massive layout, with many different departments, including the clothing, the shoes, the men’s department, all nicely laid out and perfectly lighted. My husband was taking pictures of me (the clerks politely pretended not to notice), wandering the retail garden like it was Willy Wonka’s special chocolate room and everything was edible. And there was table after antique table, laden with bags. Handbags, backpacks, purses. I even thought we broke one at one point, but the very helpful clerk pointed out the magnet under the buckle and was awfully kind about it all.
And then I found it—the perfect black lambskin bag, hobo-style with short handles and separate outside pockets—and I knew it was true love. I wasn’t leaving the store without that bag. In fact, I asked the bag out loud if it wanted to go home with me. There’s a picture of me doing this; I swear this happened. I hadn’t even been in Italy for twenty-four hours at this point, and I blew my wad, my entire vacation budget for shopping, on my first shopping excursion, my first store, my first purchase.
This led to two interesting situations. I say interesting, because now they’re sorta funny, but they certainly weren’t at the time. First of all, I had to have a little discussion with WaMu when they subsequently cut off my card. Yes, I had called all the banks and credit card companies and explained where I was going to be and for how long. I even gave them my cell phone number. So on a subsequent shopping trip in Venice, I had the fun of screaming at WaMu on my cell phone about the charges in Milan (it was 3:00 a.m. in the U.S. at this point) in the middle of a bridge over a canal while several gondoliers tried very loudly to sell us a ride. (They reinstated my card, by the way. WaMu only charges a 1 percent foreign transaction fee, while the other guys like Citibank, Bank of America, Chase, and Wells Fargo charge 3 percent.)
The second interesting situation had to do with the VAT tax. In order to get your VAT back, you have to not use your item (wear it, cut the tags, take it out of the wrapper) and get it inspected so your paperwork can be approved for a refund when you, the non-European, exit the European Union. This has to be done at the final stop, which in our case was London. So I had to drag my little purse as is, all the way through Italy, without using it or packing it up.
At the airport in Rome, and I did not know this beforehand, they have a massive selection of stores. There are stores around the open areas before you go through security. There are stores after you go through security. And out on the concourse, yet another selection of stores. Once again, high-end luxury stores. And there was the newly-installed Prada store. It opened at 6:30 a.m. I had to check. I took my rumpled shopping bag with my precious and only slightly travel-bashed purse into the store, and asked if they had that one purse in stock. Why, yes. Would I like to buy it? No, but I would like to cry. I could have bought my little purse at the airport, saved myself the whole VAT experience, and the fun-fun-fun time I had safeguarding it and lugging it from place to place. Except then I wouldn’t have had this one epic story about this purse. Lesson learned.
The story doesn’t really end there. Actually, I was at the VAT refund counter in London, getting my paperwork filled out, when the disbelieving British woman who was helping me scanned the receipt in disbelief, said, did you buy a watch? I resisted the urge to bean her with my precious bag (and I didn’t need to be arrested at the airport either, I’m not Naomi Campbell), and said NO. It’s a PURSE. Apparently she didn’t know that purses can cost that much. But I did get my refund. And after all that, I got my darling purse home, my favorite souvenir of a great trip, and now it lives in its dustbag on my dresser.
Don’t judge me. I love that purse. But I can’t use it. I won’t. I can’t use it for the work day because it’s not large enough for what I want to haul around, and besides, I live in terror of it getting damaged or swiped. I can’t use it for special occasions, because there aren’t many places I go to any more that require dressing up. I don’t want to use it on the weekend, because it so clearly says Prada and I don’t want to seem pretentious. When I can come up with a reason to use it, I probably will. But until then, it’s safe. I take it out and look at it every now and again. I smell the leather and sit with it for awhile. But it mostly lives on my dresser.
Our friend Chuck was giving me a very hard time about this whole ordeal, the expensive purse that I dragged around and still refuse to use. He teases me relentlessly. So much so, that on our return trip to Italy, I went purse shopping again. For Chuck. I went to Carpisa in Florence on Christmas Eve, and got him a really cool guitar-shaped purse. I got a great deal of joy out of buying and sending that purse to Chuck. Here ya go, an Italian purse just for you. I may even make him wear it at some point.
But that’s only the one purse. I have four more handbags I covet, that I want to talk about. And I swear, I don’t have a problem, this is not an issue, I can stop any time, and the anecdotes aren’t nearly so long …
Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3