I had just got off the plane in Tokyo and I was exhausted—so tired that the town, always a little strange, seemed positively surreal—but what was the point of trying to sleep?Instead I headed directly to Loveless, which I had been told was the coolest of the hot stores in the Aoyama neighborhood. And indeed, with its magenta walls and massive chandeliers, its stacks of Goyard valises and racks of McQueen tutus, it was everything I dreamed shopping in Japan would be. Anxious to buy something, anything, I settled on a punk teddy bear, made of what appeared to be deconstructed nylon socks and rudely pierced with a collection of nails. He was charming in a disturbing sort of way; he seemed very Japanese; and his price, about $74, made him just the sort of souvenir I was looking for.
At least, that's what I thought. About a month later I got the shock of my life. Casually opening bills in my kitchen, I saw that Teddy had cost not $74, but $740! Alas, a mistake had been made—jet lag coupled with extremely poor math skills had caused me to misplace a decimal.
It took me a while to get over that disaster. When I told people about it they laughed, but with a little prodding they confessed to remarkably similar stories: the young starlet who bought $100 worth of tea in Indonesia, thinking she was spending $10; my own father, who many decades before had purchased an ice cream in Florence for $15, not $1.50 ("I was a millionaire for one day—in lire!" he liked to joke, back in the era before the euro.)
But it isn't only currency confusion that can lead to trouble. In fact, the more I probed, the more I came to realize that shopping while traveling resembles a high-stakes casino game—not only because this ostensibly pleasurable activity produces serious angst but also because there are actual odds involved: you have a one-in-three chance of buying something you love. The other two outcomes—you buy it and it's not quite right, or you resist temptation and subsequently pine away for it for the rest of your shopping days—are, sad to say, far too common.
Actually, there's a deeper reason why shopping on trips is so fraught: when you're on foreign soil, you really do feel like another person—more cosmopolitan, perhaps, or earthier, or more sophisticated, or more spiritual. Of course, that's the whole point of travel: to step outside ourselves and view the world through a wider lens than our everyday lives allow. In the glow of this enhanced perspective, we snap up items that suit our new personalities, only to find upon returning home that the sophisticated, spiritual person has vanished, replaced by the same old us, only now, as in the case of my friend B., freshly possessed of a pair of what we shall politely call bloomer-shorts.
B., a fashion executive too mortified to let us reveal her name here, bought this hybrid garment (plain, perfectly reasonable shorts with ruffled bloomers peeking saggily from the hems) on the Rue du Faubourg St.-Honoré, at Colette, a shop whose seductive spell—on my last visit Karl Lagerfeld was sitting quietly in one corner riffling through T-shirts—has caused shopping meltdowns in women far stronger than B. She went for the bloomer-shorts because, she says sadly, she thought they would look "so avant-garde, so cute with heels," but once home, they immediately joined the purple-leather Dolce & Gabbana pantsuit she purchased a few years before in Milan (in that fantasy, B. was a Donatella-ish blonde with attitude, not the soigné, raven-haired professional she is in real life), hanging dolefully in the never-worn-even-once section of the closet.