How I flunked the World Class Shopper's Test

June 20 2011

     When my brother was transferred with his family to Venezuela, then England and Germany, my childhood dreams of seeing the world began to come true.  Eventually, I got to go along on some of my husband’s business trips as well, and I was hooked.  I loved seeing Big Ben and Parliament, Notre Dame and the Eiffel Tower, the Parthenon and the Sphinx, the Great Wall of China and the Roman Forum.  Even now my list of places I hope to visit never seems to shrink. 

In each country I discovered shopping for souvenirs could be easy, once I had brushed up on basic vocabulary and had memorized the exchange rate for each country.  (The Euro now makes this simpler.)  After my early successes, I began to brag I could shop in any language. 

A few years ago (before the euro), my husband’s company hosted a meeting in Seville, Spain, which included the spouses. I was thrilled.  During our tour to Cordoba, the capital of El-Andalus in its glory years, we visited the magnificent mosque that had been converted into a cathedral. 

As we strolled through a cluster of souvenir stands along the narrow lanes outside the mosque, I noticed some silk shawls and checked the prices.  In Spain the simple formula everyone used to calculate the US price was to eliminate the last three digits.  All the shawls were priced around 100,000 pesetas, or $100 US, about right for my souvenir.  But the bus was waiting, and I obediently hopped on.  During our five-day visit, I found no down time for shopping in between the group lunches, dinners and bus trips.    

Finally on the last day, I noticed a gap in our schedule between breakfast and the group photo and headed for the nearest shops.  Within minutes I’d found a lovely creamy white shawl with long fringe, just what I’d hoped for.  The price was 150,000 pesetas.  I eliminated the three zeros and decided $150 US was a bargain.  In my best shopper’s Spanish I said I’d take it, produced my credit card, and careened back to our hotel in triumph, with moments to spare before the photo.

The rest of the day was filled with a visit to a bull-training ranch, lunch, product demonstrations, and the farewell dinner.  By the time I finished packing and climbed in bed to write in my travel diary, my husband was sound asleep. 

So he missed what happened when I opened the receipt from the shawl and read the amount.  And counted the zeros.  And counted them again.  And couldn’t breathe.

There was one too many.  Just one.  Like Mercutio’s wound, it wasn’t as big as a church door, but it was big enough.

I assume by now you have figured out that I spent $1500 on the shawl, not $150.  In my initial panic, I nearly stuck my finger in my husband’s ribs to broadcast my idiocy, but stopped myself. Waking him to confess was nearly as big a mistake as the one I’d made at the store. 

The next day we left at dawn to take a train to Madrid, so there was no way I could return the shawl.  The sooner I came clean with my husband, the better.  Once we were settled on the train, I began my announcement with, “I did a really dumb thing yesterday.”

Because he’d heard that sort of introduction before in our marriage, he took a deep breath and closed his eyes. “What?” he said, slumping in defeat like one of the poor bulls we’d seen the day before. 

I gave him the blow by blow and waited for him to growl, “Didn’t you even LOOK at the receipt before you signed it?  Didn’t it seem like too small a price for a big silk thing?  You do realize it’s going to cost even more with the duty you’ll have to pay?”

But all he murmured was, “I can see how that would happen.” 

My husband the bill checker, the man who began his career as an accountant, was telling a very generous, very sweet fib.   

The expensive incident soon grew to legend. Whenever I wear the shawl, which is quite gorgeous (as it should be), and someone compliments me, I tell the tale.  Wives who hear the story drag their husbands over to hear it too. The wives are delighted with me, since I have done something vastly more foolish than they ever have. The husbands are equally entertained, since it wasn’t their wife who missed the important zero.

These days my husband says the price of the shawl was worth it, just in story value alone. 

You got to love a guy like that.