American in Spain

Vested Interest

May 1, 2007

Today is a holiday in Spain. It's Labor Day, or Workers' Day. Somehow, it got conveniently placed right on an ancient Pagan holiday celebrating the begin of summer. The Spanish are clever, and often, when a holiday falls on a Tuesday or Thursday, they say, "Aw, what the heck? Let's make it a four-day weekend!" This is called, quite reasonably, a "puente" ("bridge"). So most people didn't work yesterday.

On Sunday, I was informed that I wouldn't be working on Monday either. Marga's sister (with boyfriend), aunt, two cousins, and parents took me shopping for a vest (and shirt and tie and shoes) to go with my suit for the wedding. Marga's employer doesn't do puentes, so she had to work. The first stop was a store halfway to Santander. It was in an old three-story mansion that was extremely well cared for. The gardener was out in the rain with the leaf blower when we arrived. There was a beautiful garden, a stables, and a pond with swans, and an area with peacocks and waterfalls. If the weather hadn't been so gray and drizzly, it would have been absolutely gorgeous. It reminded me of some of the palaces I've visited as a tourist. But this wasn't a palace; it was a "Nuptial Villa", a high brow tailor shop that specializes in weddings and idyllic backdrops for wedding photos (at that link, click on "Cantabria" to see photos of the place). Up on the third floor, the woman that attended to us pulled out a pile of shiny silky vests, and placed them on the stylish billiard table for us to peruse.

Because my suit is dark gray ("charcoal", I'd say), we thought it important that the vest and tie have some color. After trying on a few, we settled on a dark red that those present said went well with my definitely-not-mediterranean skin tone. I'm a moody shopper. I have to be in the right mood to buy something, and even when I'm in the right mood, if I like something, I want to buy it so that I don't have to keep shopping. But the family had a whole day planned with three more stores to visit, so we asked the woman to hold that vest and shirt that I liked for a day or two and that we might be back.

We ran into traffic in Santander, and it took us two hours to go the 25km into the city center. By then it was lunch time, so we found a restaurant. The wine was so bad that we expected the waitress to bring us some salad and olive oil to eat with it, and the waitress spilled three different kinds of sauce on me throughout the meal. Needless to say, I didn't leave the restaurant in the best of moods.

We walked back to the car to get my suit, and then set off to find a store that one of Marga's coworkers had told us about called, and I quote: "'smart' or 'stark' or 'stock' or something". After three calls with Marga and coworkers and entering four different stores to ask for directions, we finally found a store that was called something completely different, but had the word "Smash" written very subtly in a tiny font on the floor just inside the door, a word that they used on all their packaging, and thus was "remembered" as the name of the store.

But Smash was still closed for lunch. When I tried the door, a man came and unlocked it and let us in as the first afternoon customers. They weren't quite ready for customers yet, though, and we had to wait while the employee that later attended to us finished packing some boxes. In the five minutes that we waited, twenty other customers entered the store, and they had to lock the doors again to stop more people coming in. That's how popular this shop was. The contrast to the first store from the morning was incredible. The morning store had carpet, chandeliers, and elaborate gilded molding, very traditional, very elegant, very royal. This place was stark and modern with a huge arch that you had to walk through on entry made of shiny red plastic. The guy brought out 20 vests and a few shirts and put them down on the table in the middle of the store for us to see. He then proceeded to dress up the clothes hanger that I'd brought my suit in on...first the shirt, then the vest, then a tie, then the suit coat, which is called "la americana" here, I learned. I told him that it looked good, but that the hanger wasn't even engaged to be married yet. He finally let me go try the stuff on. I had to make my way through the crowd to the dressing room, put it on, and come back out, ask people to clear away from the mirror so that I could see myself, and try to evaluate how I looked with a crowd of impatient people staring at me judgmentally. We thanked him, but said that we were looking for something else, and asked for the door to be unlocked so that we could leave.

The next store provided an experience that I will not soon forget. It was full of name brands, prominently displayed. Gucci, Prada, D&G... We found the suit section and waited there patiently for someone to come ask if they could help us find something. Store employees walked by us every 20 seconds of the five minutes that we stayed there. I didn't really understand what had happened until we got back out on the street. That's when the word to describe the experience hit me: invisible. When we were in the store, we were completely invisible. We had been judged to not be the right level of clientí¨le for the store to bother with, and had been completely ignored. And it's true that, looking back, the people that were being attended to definitely were of another social status, but still... The only contact the store employees made with us was when they politely opened the door for us to leave. The experience was very degrading, but I'm glad that I had it. I completely understand the motivation of the store clerks. It's in their best interest to go to the customer most likely to make a purchase first. And it was also humbling to be on the receiving end of the invisibility treatment that we all, consciously or not, give to people that we judge to be below our social class.

The final store that we went to was quite well hidden down some alleys that we wouldn't have found if we hadn't been directed there from another store. They had a whole area of the store laid out for exactly what we were doing. There were little 3m x 3m (10 ft x 10 ft) cubicle areas set up, each with a full-length mirror on one wall, two comfortable chairs looking away from the mirror towards the place where a person would stand to look at himself in the mirror, a chair with a shoe horn on it, plush carpeting, and a little curtained off dressing area. It was specially designed for families to come and help choose wedding outfits. I was so impressed with the thoughtfulness of the design that I didn't mind waiting 15 minutes to be attended to. I was also impressed with how the employees were so dedicated to the customers that they were with, yet would take a few seconds while their client was changing to come tell us that they'd be with us as soon as possible and to bring us extra chairs to sit down while we waited. During our wait, we overheard, from the next cubicle, a woman exclaim, "It's so hard to decide! He's so handsome in everything!!" followed by the store clerk responding in a loud homosexual voice, "You must be the mother, no?", which sent the rest of us in the store laughing.

When we finally got our turn, a woman came over and asked for information about the date of the wedding, whether it was a morning or evening ceremony, and where the wedding would take place. She eyed me head to foot, handed me my suit pants, and told me to put them on and that she'd be right back. She gave me a shirt, which I also put on, and when I got out of the dressing area, she pulled out some suspenders. It has been years and years since my shoulders have helped my pants fight gravity. It was a very strange feeling. But she logically explained how it avoided wrinkles in my trousers that would have appeared if I'd used a belt. Then a vest and a tie. It was the third time that day that I'd had a tie tied around my neck for me. The feeling of being dressed by an expert is very opulent. You feel very important. The vest that I most liked from this store was the first one. It was very elegant, it felt much more elegant than the vest I liked in the morning. The morning vest was more playful and colorful. The woman in the afternoon also commented that she would tailor my "americana" a little more, so that it was closer to my body.

So, in the end, I'm torn between the vests at the first and last store. Throughout the day, I learned the one-hand-in-pocket pose which opens the suit coat, thus exposing the vest, which everyone told me is the standard groom photo pose. I also learned to not think, "Look, it's a restaurant waiter!" when I saw the good looking fellow in the mirror wearing a vest. I also learned that they won't let you take photos of yourself in the nice clothes...hence the entirely textual nature of this post.

When we finally got home, I was pretty beat. Marga got various versions of all of the above from the different witnesses. So I didn't buy anything, but I successfully got my feet wet in the river of wedding clothes shopping.