I have no use for luxury products. I have never spent more than $300 on a handbag, shoes, jewelry or clothing. Someone once gave me a gift card to Tiffany’s and I tried to sell it on Craigs’ List as there is not one single thing in that store that I want. Given the beauty of the Italian landscape, culture, people and cuisine, it stands to reason that Italian luxury goods are in a class by themselves. In buying a house there, we chose the landscape and the fig trees over the fancy stuff– and leave the Buccellati’s to those who can afford them. So what made me buy a Prada bag?
It was the first time I’d been to our house in Italy without my husband. I traveled with my friend Opal who was temporarily out of work and had reminded me, “Hey, don’t you have a house in Italy, and hey, aren’t we both not working?” So we got airline tickets for a week in early December when the weather could be risky, but turned out to be unseasonably warm and pleasant. There were still lots of brilliantly colored leaves on the trees, the fields were still green with blades of new grass poking up after the crops had been tilled under. Most days were clear and sunny with temperatures in the high 50’s F. The sun went down early, by 5:00 pm, and the fog would start to roll in around 3:30 when the air began to cool. There were lots of towns to visit, country walks, and a trip to the beach for a lunch of spaghetti vongole. Two of our nearby towns had set up ice skating rinks in the piazze, which must’ve been hard to keep frozen with the warm weather.
Princess for a Day
It only rained one of 8 days and that seemed like the day to visit the outlets at the zona industriale in Casette d’Ete near the entrance to the autostrada. When we arrived late in the afternoon, it was dark and the sparkly holiday lights were lit cheerfully in Villagio il Castagno, a cute little shopping mall of leathergoods and clothing outlets with a marble courtyard and Prada at its centerpiece.
I will tell you that I walked into that Prada store and something came over me. The only time I’d experienced something similar was when I’d gotten engaged and tried on a white wedding gown for the first time. At that moment I felt like a highly entitled princess who should by all rights be carrying a wand with an entourage of kindly servants to do my bidding. In the Prada store, I was entranced by richly colored, beautiful leather in sophisticated, classic designs. The store was lushly carpeted, hushed and every item was backlit. Beautiful, thin, helpful young Italian women in flat shoes and black pencil skirts were standing by graciously to wait on me. That sense of entitlement returned, with little voices in my head reminding me I had worked full time for the past 38 years and deserved anything I wanted to buy. I was undone. I had to have one.
My friend Opal was happy to spur me along this devil’s path to perdition– “Every woman deserves a good bag– several in fact.” “You’ll use this bag for 20 years, at least.” She told me about the 2 Louis Vuitton’s she’d bought years ago for triple the price of these bags and she still uses them.
The Great Choice
I started to shake. “Let’s go look in the other stores. Maybe there’s something better at a better price. Or maybe everything’s worse and then I can buy one of these.” There were some fine Coccinelle bags in a neighboring shop. They were chic, pretty colors and half the price. My brain wasn’t having it. After our giro, we went back to Prada, drawn like flies to honey.
I picked up my favorite– a sort of doctor bag satchel with rich, pebbly leather. I walked over to the huge floor to ceiling mirror. With this bag in hand, my outfit of jeans and clog boots was instantly upgraded to well-heeled sophisticate. I agonized over size and color. The smaller one was potentially more practical, but cost more money. Black was too boring, but was the deep navy blue too bright? Should I compromise on brown? Would tan get too dirty?
Then I had to know if I was really getting a bargain. We punched the bag’s model number into our smart phones to see how much these things would cost in real life. Triple the price! All right, it was time to get serious. I asked the commessa to bring down that navy blue one from the high shelf. She congratulated me on picking such a smart color, “Signora, questo colore e molto piu interessante che gli altri… e il prezzo e veramente buono.” She saw me waffling
and then brought out the heavy artillery– the VAT tax refund. I’d sort of heard about the VAT tax refund but didn’t really know what it was since I’d never bought anything expensive enough to bother with it. Twelve and a half percent! Refunded to you at the airport! Making the price even more reasonable. “It’s like buying 2 or 3 pairs of shoes,” said Opal, “What’s the big deal?”
I looked at the commessa. “But, the crisi economichi, shouldn’t we stranieri be paying taxes in your country?” She looked at me with a slight ironic shrug and smiled sweetly. “Ma…?”
My selected bag was retrieved from the storeroom in a gigantic box and brought to the cassa, where documenti were prepared and folded into stiff white envelopes. Then I had another crisi of my own– again with the color. I’d chosen the blue, but panicked that it would be too bright, too young, a color I wouldn’t like after 6 months. I went back to the showroom floor to compare blue and brown one last time. I walked around with each bag on my arm, on my shoulder, carried in my hand, looked in the mirrors. The commessa smiled indulgently and urged me to take the blue. Opal shook her head in disbelief, rolled her eyes, and went to look at wallets.
I took the blue. I took it home. Opal didn’t even buy anything after all this exhortation to excessive spending. I couldn’t sleep that night. I worried I wouldn’t get the VAT refund. I knew my husband would be incensed. It was too big. I didn’t know where I’d even carry it. I was afraid it would get stolen. I cringed at the size of the Prada logo.
But the story ends happily. My Italian women friends all high-fived me when I told them what I’d done, as though I’d successfully crossed some important rite of passage; their husbands smiled knowingly. The VAT refund desk was in the Rome airport, conveniently located at the top of the escalator leading to the area embarchi where all the American, Russian and Asian-bound flights take off with package-laden passengers. I like my bag. It’s really pretty. I’m not sure exactly where and how much I’ll use it, but I am sure I will never do anything like that again. This was once in a lifetime.