I am in Thailand, browsing the Jim Thompson shop in Bangkok with Young John from product management. He has never been to Asia before but I, the seasoned traveler, will guide him through the murky waters of souvenir shopping in the Mystic East
Young John is a genius. He can build a computer from two pieces of string and some leftover chewing gum and does his own year end tax returns. I am rather less of a genius, but I know I can impress Young John. If it can’t be computers, it can be shopping. I’m good at that.
We are here for a technology conference with our South East Asian distributors. Our CEO cannot attend, so I am standing in as the corporate patsy. My job description is to wear my best suit and allow our customers to level all manner of complaints at me without retaliation. In my mind I am spitting at them or standing on their toes but in reality I smile and promise to get right back to them with the answer they want. All day long, people have talked about things of which I have a purely tangential grasp. I deserve some time off.
Yesterday, we held our Distributor Awards Ceremony. It was my privilege to make a speech (short) and hand out the awards (heavy). It was then my privilege to stand at the bar buying lots of whisky for many people. I think it might possibly be accurate to say that most of these are now my very best friends but I’m not entirely certain. I would like these new pals to contact me with their names when they have a moment. The evening did not end there, as it perhaps should have done. My new best friends and I hit the streets in an unsteady but convivial bunch, vying with each other to eat fried grasshoppers and drink more beer which was, in the cold grey light of dawn, perhaps not as necessary as it seemed at the time.
Today it will be different. There will be no beer, no grasshoppers and nothing resembling a late night. Anyway, today is a half day. This afternoon some are playing golf, and others of us are determined to invigorate the economy with a little injection of funding into the retail system.
Young John needs my advice. He is in love with a fashion designer from Los Angeles. She is tall, blonde, beautiful, cultured, socially adept, highly educated and a gourmet cook. Her level of sophistication is off the charts and she never, ever makes a fashion faux pas. He needs a fabulous present that will express the true extent of his devotion to the most wonderful woman in creation. I decide to steer Young John to the renowned Jim Thompson silk shop. Nothing there is less than divinely tasteful.
We wander round the shop for what seems like hours. Cushion covers, scarves, table napkins, curtains, shirts, handkerchiefs – Young John is doubtful about any of them. In despair, we head to the nearest bar and discuss the problem over a beer or two. By a horrible stroke of luck, we have chosen a bar where some of our new best friends are lurking. Dusk is falling, and we are persuaded to leave shopping till tomorrow. We all head out to a bar at the top of a tall building where – good heavens! – we can have a few beers and watch the lights twinkle at us from thousands of feet below. I suffer from acrophobia but I must not be a spoilsport. I am doing this for the corporate good. To anaesthetize my fear of heights, I don’t refuse any beer or wine or whisky, but I’m far too clever to have any grasshoppers tonight. I just wish I’d remembered to have dinner. The evening drags on forever and I dine at midnight on a chocolate bar.
The next day I am determined to make the shopping trip work for Young John. We head back to the Jim Thompson shop fired with retail zeal. I have a tiny little headache, and I am determined to cut the ordeal short. I pick up a fabulous, subtle print in shades of blue and green. “Take this,” I command. “All women love scarves. She’ll adore it.” Young John was in the bar last night as well. He is tired, and there is no time to dither before the plane leaves: resistance is useless. Still somewhat dubious, he buys the thing and we return to the hotel to pack.
I run into Young John again at a party about six months later. Our paths have not crossed much since Bangkok. “How’s the love life?” I ask. He beams at me. “Wonderful! We’re engaged.” “That’s great! Was it the scarf that did it?” I always like to take a little credit for the good things that happen in life.
John is slow to respond. “Um, yes and no. Um. She liked the colours, but ….” He is somewhat reticent, but I press him. “Well, if you must know, I gave it to her just before a big fashion event and made her wear it. It caused a few comments.”
I don’t understand. The scarf was beautiful, unique and expensive and I gave up many of my leisure hours to find the damn thing. “There’s nothing wrong with making a fashion statement,” I say, waspishly.
“Yes there is if you’re meant to be a fashion icon,” says John. “It wasn’t a scarf – it was a table runner.”
There are a few morals to this story. The most important lesson is that shopping is both a science to be practiced in sobriety and thoughtfulness, and an art best performed in solitude.