Don’t waste time shopping on your travels; enjoy the destination instead
The one question you are guaranteed to be asked when you come back from vacation is: “Did any shopping?” Or perhaps: “What did you buy?”
In my case, the answer is always a resounding: “Nothing at all!”
Frankly, the last thing I feel like doing on holiday is shopping. Why would I want to spend hours in some poky shop or a soulless department store or even a tony boutique when I could be pounding the streets of a new destination and getting to know it better? Why would I try on yet another linen shirt in a badly-lit changing room when I could be out there, downing a drink while getting my fill of an amazing sunset? Why would I want to browse through endless racks of shoes when there are restaurants to check out and museums to visit?
Short answer is: I wouldn’t. I have never really seen the point of shopping when I am on holiday. And now, even more so, when thanks to the homogenization of our world, no matter where you go, the same brands and labels thrust themselves in your face in city after city.
It doesn’t matter whether you are in London, Paris, Rome, Lisbon, Johannesburg or Buenos Aires, the same luxury brands – Chanel, Hermes, Louis Vuitton, Armani, Versace – crop up again and again. It is much the same story in the mid-market segment, or on the high street. Zara rubs shoulders with Marks and Spencer; H&M sits cheek by jowl with Topshop; L’Occitane chugs along nicely with Body Shop. And when it comes to liquor or perfume, the same labels are available all over the world (though the duty-free zone after you’ve checked in for your return flight is still your best bet).
So why waste time shopping on holiday when – no matter what your taste or your budget – you can buy pretty much the same stuff in your own city? In fact, some of the brands are actually cheaper back home than they are abroad – with the added bonus that you don’t have the palaver of finding space in your suitcase, and then worry about the excess baggage fees you will have to cough up at the airport.
I can see some of you shaking your heads sadly at this. Surely, you say, there is so much more to shopping in foreign parts than just clothes, bags and beauty products. There are, for instance, indigenous arts and crafts that I should be hoovering up and bringing back home to serve as mementoes of my travels. Those lovely silk cushions from Bangkok; that landscape portrait the roadside artist painted by the Seine; wooden carvings from Africa; the list goes on and on.
Well, thanks but no thanks. The truth is that there is nothing I find more dispiriting than the ‘souvenirs’ that are on display for the benefit of unsuspecting travellers in every great city of the world. More often than not, they are not even made in the place they claim to represent, having been mass produced in some factory in China. (On a recent trip to Venice I discovered that the face masks on display around St Marks Square and the glass that purported to come from Murano were actually the work of Chinese manufacturers, who can knock them off at a much cheaper price.) And while they may look nice and exotic while hanging in the shop window, they look cheap and nasty when you bring them back and grant them pride of place in your home.
The only shops I make an exception for in my travels are those that sell food and groceries. I can spend an entire afternoon in markets that sell fruits, vegetables and flowers. I revel in the colours – the bright red of the apples, the shocking orange of the tangerines, the green of the asparagus. I inhale the wonderful smells – of everything from the narcissus blooms to the heaps of dried lavender. I may not buy anything more than a few persimmons and a bunch of tulips, but just feasting my eyes on all that plenty is enough to keep me satiated.
The other places I love browsing through are the food halls at supermarkets across the world. Just looking at all the stuff on display – the endless varieties of sausages, cold meats, cheese, yoghurt, bakery products, chocolates, etc. – and watching the shoppers fill their trolleys makes me feel as if I am part of the tapestry of everyday life in the city, a local if you will, if only in my own mind.
In fact, it is only in food shops that I relax my no-shopping-on-holiday rule. There is a special pleasure in coming back to your hotel, laden with local, ready-to-eat delicacies, and fashioning an impromptu picnic in your room. And sometimes these treats are so delicious that you can’t resist buying a few more to bring back home, so that the taste of the holiday lingers in your life for just a little bit longer.
The Sachertorte from Vienna; the musk melon from Bangkok; the chorizo from Barcelona; the egg tart from Lisbon; a tiny truffle from Piedmont.
Now these are things it is worth making space in your suitcase for. Tourist tat? Designer brands? Perfume and liquor? Not so much.