Last week, in a particularly delightful class I teach to a group of bright law students, we somehow began discussing American shopping habits around the holidays. In particular, I described the regrettable phenomenon of Black Friday and its attendant cut-rate bargains, all-night campouts, and homicidal stampedes. In some regards, I felt kind of bad that I described it in such vivid terms – obviously, most Americans I know don’t shop on Black Friday. Moreover, I don’t like to be complicit in the ways that the French feel smug towards Americans (and vice-versa, I won’t pick a fight over much these days, but the Republicans in my family can consider themselves on notice if they want to argue that people die in the streets here as a result of socialized medicine). Anyway, while my little Frogs were indeed surprised to hear that people have actually died in the pursuit of a bargain DVD player in the United States, they corroborated my sentiment that the French are just as bad when it comes to holiday shopping madness as those of us from the other side of the pond. My own neighborhood here in Paris, the Marais, is testament to this very fact. We live just a stone’s throw from BHV, one of the largest department stores in Paris, and our street has become atherosclerosis personified with blank-eyed exhausted shoppers with lugging huge bags of god-knows-what.
My own family has seriously pared down our Christmas gift giving habits in recent years, much to my relief. If I’m being totally honest, I’ll admit that I’m not particularly into Christmas. I find the mandatory gift-giving holidays rather oppressive, and find meal-centric holidays far more to my liking (I’ll take a Thanksgiving dinner or an Easter brunch any day over a Christmas morning). I’ve also always been stuck with the rather lousy situation of having a mid-December birthday, resulting in many childhood years of Happy Birthday/Merry Christmas presents from my more distant relatives. And while my parents always went all out on Christmas when I was growing up (perhaps in compensation for all the double-dipping presents I received for my birthday), we’ve definitely scaled things back to a bare minimum in recent years. I suspect I’ve always been rather difficult to buy presents for. My only recollection of receiving a Christmas present that I genuinely wanted was the year that I asked for a coconut, which my parents obligingly stuffed into the top of my stocking. Enthralled by my good fortune, I ignored the hundreds of dollars spent on toys and spent Christmas morning fondling my coconut. My father is relatively easy to buy for and seems psyched about whatever he receives as a gift. My mother, on the other hand, is a nightmare. I can’t say whether it is because she genuinely doesn’t want anything (a late capitalist anomaly if there ever was one) or if everyone in the world is just consummately terrible at buying gifts for her. Either way, I can’t think of anything that I or anyone else has bought her that she’s ever really loved. Anyway, what I’m trying to say is that my immediate family has finally come to grips with the fact that we are relatively lousy at giving one another presents. My father comes over on Christmas Eve for a big dinner and we swap small gifts (in recent years, he purchased me a dearly beloved apparatus that holds books open and a travel mug for coffee). My mother has gone the practical route, carefully wrapping up socks, sweatpants, and printer cartridges that she has purchased at Costco for me and placing them under the tree, much to my pragmatic delight.
The stakes have changed, a bit, with the introduction of B into my life. B loves giving gifts and is quite good at it, much to my dismay. He began planning for Christmas in the beginning of October, prodding his family and friends for ideas and compulsively making lists of possible presents. While it’s nice to be the beneficiary of such carefully plotted giving, I do feel woefully inadequate. Gift giving is not my forte and the gifts I give are always leaden with expectation.
That bit of family and personal history aside, I’ve been toying with the idea of doing a shopping related post for a while. I’ve been reticent to do so, mainly because I am already a bit uncomfortable about the level of consumption already chronicled in this space. It seems that the most popular blogs, or at least those ones written by women my age, are little more than a compendium of spending. Artful spending, sure! Well-styled spending, of course! But it does seem that many popular blogs are entirely devoted to providing an account of the lovely things that the author buys and how she chooses to wear them or display them in her home. Don’t get me wrong – everyone is welcome to do whatever they please in their own corner of the internet, and I’ve spend more than a few hours thumbing through these types of spaces, green with envy that my own object world is not nearly so well-curated. But I didn’t want this to become that, perhaps because I already feel guilty about how much I like many of the things I buy and how much time and energy their acquisition occupies in my consciousness. I can feel smug about the fact that I don’t write about my quest for the perfect handbag, but that quest still exists. I already write far too much about the quest for the perfect slice of truffled foie gras, which I’m sure makes many people think of me as an unethical monster.
But it’s the holidays, and if the holidays do anything they make people act against their better judgment. So, over the next few days I’ll be posting a Paris shopping guide, a list of places I spend my money over the holidays and during the rest of the year. Feel free to skip it, if voluntary simplicity is more your bag. In any case, should you be jumping into the madness this season, may your holiday shopping be joyous and stress-free, dear reader.