Thursday, November 29, 2007

Black Friday

I made it almost a whole year without once returning to my home country for a visit. And the fact that we are coming home for Christmas and New Year made a trip stateside in November seem a little excessive. Was it the pull of a home-cooked turkey dinner that drove us to endure two eight and a half hour plane rides in order to spend Thanksgiving weekend with family in New York? No, Mickey's family doesn't prepare a traditional American Thanksgiving feast so our motive wasn't a longing for comfort food. Last Thanksgiving weekend I was seeking a different kind of American comfort usually enjoyed post-turkey and I don't mean pumpkin pie... ever heard of retail therapy and Black Friday? Sure I was excited about being with family, but it was ultimately the sales that got me skipping all the way to the airport.

Black Friday isn't for the timid. Named for the Friday after Thanksgiving when sales supposedly boost retailers "into the black" (the point at which they begin turning a profit), Black Friday is one of the busiest shopping days of the year. Most of these retailers open their doors early and entice shoppers with incredible deals for those who brave the chaos of jam-packed parking lots and long lines. On the Black Fridays of years past, I kept as far away from the mall madness as possible, but this year our circumstances are different.

When I was in seventh grade, my English teacher asked us to list the five most important things that we had learned from our parents. Four of my life lessons probably mentioned 'hard work' or 'true friends,' but the one I remember writing is 'never pay retail.' By the age of twelve, I knew the joy that comes with treasure hunting at TJ Maxx or Marshalls. My mom taught me that Nordstrom offers the best customer service, but that the best deals and best selection of shoes are at Nordstrom's Rack. I discovered Loehmann's as a young adult and Century 21 on a trip to New York City and have been happily bargain shopping ever since. That was until I moved to Switzerland.

Switzerland and most of Europe it seems doesn't have discount clothing stores at which you can purchase top brands for less. I've heard of some supposedly great outlets in southern Germany and others outside Florence, but I'm doubtful that they're really as good as the ones in the states. I went to one Esprit outlet here in Zurich and was terribly disappointed by the selection and quality of the merchandise. Of course shopping at regular stores is just as bad because prices are high and sales are few and far between. So I decided to do what any discount-loving Swiss person would do when the dollar hits an all time low: fly to NYC for a shopping vacation. (Remember, the official purpose of our visit was to spend Thanksgiving with family and that's all anyone, especially US and Swiss customs officials, need to know :).

Having never trained myself for a Black Friday, I started to feel pre-trip anxiety about the crowds. Would my desperate need for a new pair of black leather boots help my nerve last longer than the line at Cole Haan? Had a year of Saturday mornings spent hiking and touring instead of waiting in line at Costco made me soft? I knew Black Friday would require every ounce of strength I could muster and I wanted to be ready. I began preparation by memorizing a list of the outlet stores at the Tanger Outlet Mall in Riverhead, NY, downloading a map of the mall and then planning my route. Then, I browsed the websites of my favorite retailers to get ideas. This particular outlet mall and probably many others throughout the US were running an insane Midnight Madness promotion; the stores open at midnight on Thanksgiving night/Black Friday morn' and stay open all day, a full 22 hours until 10pm on Black Friday.

Mickey was willing to take me shopping and his uncle lent us his car, the only question was when we should hit the stores. My plan was this: we arrive in New York on Thursday afternoon jetlagged but still kicking. We spend some time with the family, have a meal and pass out at 7:30pm eastern time (1:30am to our bodies). Then, wake up at around three or four in the morning eastern time (nine or ten to our bodies) and rush to the outlets. Believe it or not, this is almost exactly what happened. We were backing Mickey's uncle's Pathfinder out of the driveway when the clock on the dash said 4:00am. My thinking was that midnight shoppers would be gone by four, but that daytime shoppers wouldn't show until after six and we'd have an easier shopping experience, but we couldn't be sure.

Mickey and I were taking bets about the state of the parking lot when we exited the highway. At 4:20am there weren't yet any signs of Black Friday on the road. And then we got closer to the outlet mall... When I saw both sides of the street lined with cars haphazardly parked in the dirt and grass, I started to panic. "Mickey, just pull over and park anywhere," I begged. "We don't want to go into that parking lot if it's this full." But Mickey persisted and we were relieved to find the lot less than half full. It turns out that we had guessed right; the midnight shoppers were exhausted and packing up their cars with bulging shopping bags, but the daytime folks were still asleep. We left the car in front of the Rebok outlet and I practically ran to the Banana Republic outlet, giddily pulling Mickey along behind me. The salespeople yawned as they folded sweaters and jeans, trying to pick up the pieces after the tornado that was Midnight Madness, but we were fresh as daisies on Swiss time. While ringing up my purchases, they complained to one another about how much longer their shifts were. I smiled as I handed over my credit card and bid them goodbye with a cheerful "happy holidays!" thrilled that I could again communicate in public with ease. My shopping bags were full, the discounts were mine and I was home.

Thursday, November 15, 2007

Hans and Heidi

Are we:

a). trying to convince the SVP that we are the type of foreigners who integrate themselves with Swiss society?

b). doing nothing out of the ordinary; this is how we dress now.

c). celebrating Halloween, Zurich-style?

d). falling into one of those tourist traps where they dress you up in traditional clothing, take one photo and charge you 40SF?

If you guessed answer c, you'd be right! But if you didn't, don't feel bad because I've actually done answer d before and if we were staying in Switzerland longer I'd probably do answer a as well.

Mickey's office hosted a Halloween party at a Zurich night club last month, and though we've never done this in the states, we decided to go all out and rent costumes from a shop this year. Mickey and I visited the costume shop on the Saturday before Halloween and were delighted to find hundreds of costumes from which to choose. A Minnie Mouse costume caught my eye right away. Ever since I'd met Mickey I've wanted us to dress up as Mickey and Minnie for Halloween; I would don the round black ears and oversized white gloves and he would wear his normal clothes. I reasoned, however, that I have decades of Halloweens to do Mickey and Minnie but perhaps will have just one October 31st in Switzerland. Yes, we absolutely had to wear traditional Swiss outfits and go as an Alpine Hans and Heidi duo. I did my best to select a Heidi costume that was fun yet not trampy and hoped that people would assume were embracing, not mocking Swiss culture (okay, maybe we were mocking it a little bit).

My employer wasn't offended by our choice of costume, but he was a little confused. 'Swiss outfits? Why aren't you dressing like Americans?' he said. This response was funny for several reasons, but I tried to explain that though Halloween is an American holiday, the tradition allows you to dress up as anything you like. At least, this is how it usually goes at the Google Halloween parties in Mountain View where the engineers try to out-nerd each other by dressing up in obscure, internet-themed costumes such as a facebook profile, a Google ad or a computer virus. I guess nobody told the employees of Google Zurich this, though, because Mickey and I were the only ones at the party with non-scary costumes. We were surrounded by monsters, witches, mummies, etc. and felt a bit out of place.

Paola mentioned that marketers have unsuccessfully tried to "sell" Halloween to Switzerland in recent years. She said the stores were flooded with costumes, but it didn't really catch on. I was a little surprised to hear this because I feel that Halloween is one of the finest traditions American culture has to offer; what other day of the year allows one to carve a gourd, dress up in a wild costume and collect free candy from neighbors? But maybe this latter aspect of the tradition is the reason why Halloween didn't work in Switzerland. It's easy to get young kids pumped about dressing up as fairy princesses and power rangers, but how do you get the old crotchety neighbors on board with the candy idea?

Perhaps the Swiss don't need Halloween. Fasnacht, a holiday linked to Carnival in February, gives the Swiss an opportunity to dress up in costume, while Räbeliechtli in early November is a holiday on which Swiss children parade down the streets carrying carved turnips impaled on lit candles. Besides, Swiss parents and teachers are probably too smart and health-conscious to welcome a holiday that involves bingeing on processed sugar. Oh, well. If the Swiss ever itch to initiate a 'Dress Like an American Day' holiday, I hope my host family will celebrate with sweat pants, tennis shoes and cowboy hats. And it's okay if they do it mockingly, just a little.