Friday, May 20, 2011

Foreign-Mall Rat With A Metric Montenegrin Bra

“You got the A, B, C, the D.  
That’s the biggest.”
Frank Costanza, Seinfeld, 
Season Five, Episode Four

I feel like you can’t know a city and its people unless you go to the mall.  I don’t mean the touristy mall in the city center.  I mean—The Mall—where the real, local people go to hang out, handle errands, and maybe catch a flick.  Sometimes it takes a long ride to the ‘burbs to get there, but the spying opportunities are always worth it.

In Athens, The Mall is actually called “The Mall.”  I freaked out the moment I walked in, thinking somewhere along the way I'd been dusted with some Harry-Potter floo powder and suddenly transported back home.  It wasn’t The Gap, or the Starbucks, or even the Ruby Tuesday’s that threw me.  It was the Hooters. 

Hooters?  In Athens?  Makes sense, though, given the owl is an ancient symbol of wisdom in Athens.  That, and--as we now know--Greek men can't get enough of the tatas.

I guess I shouldn’t have been that surprised by the Hooters.  Malls around the world, I’ve found, tend to have the same brands, the same stores, the same restaurants, the same movies playing.  They’ve got food courts, nail shops, jewelry stores, and photo finishers where you can have a picture calendar made while you look for new shoes.  You can pretty much bet there’ll be a McDonald’s somewhere.  In fact, in all my travels, I don’t recall a foreign mall in which I saw something oddly out of the ordinary.  It was always:  same thing, different country.

You see the same stuff with the people too.  Men standing around bored, holding their wives purses.  Boisterous teenagers.  Screaming children.  Old people shuffling.  Your basic mall rats.

Chinese fast-food in Russian food court.

Pictures with Santa in Johannesburg

Man in Mall of Sofia holding wife's purse, bored to death.

Fashionable Skopje mall rats.

Back in 2007 in Johannesburg—in waiting for my return flight back to the States—going to the mall was practically compulsory.  I was told, by a local in-the-know, that if I were to walk in Johannesburg by myself down any street, anywhere, even in the daylight, I was sure to get jacked, or worse.  So, each day, for a small price to cover gas, my hostel host dropped me off, and later picked me up--like a teenager--at the East Rand Galleria. 

I remember the East Rand mall like I was there yesterday.  I spent two long days hanging out, just biding my time after a long year around the globe.  I saw probably two of the worst movies ever:  Fred Claus with Vince Vaughn and the Heartbreak Kid with Ben Stiller.  Awful.  I bought a Time magazine and sat in the food court reading every word from front to back.  I think it had Rudy Guiliani on the cover, back when he was still a contender for 2008.  I ate at Sbarro, or a rip off of it.  And I treated myself to a pedicure, since it was my birthday on one of the days I was trapped.

On this journey, I had the chance to visit a few malls across eastern Europe and the Balkans.  I often used the new Galeria in St. Petersburg, Russia as a safe haven from the freezing snow and treacherous ice; indeed, it was the only place in St. Petersburg where I could walk at a normal place and remain vertical.

Sometimes I would go to the mall and write.  I wrote some of my forthcoming book, and portions of this blog, at the Ona Coffee Shop inside the Mall of Sofia, the La Luna Café in Skopje’s Ram Store Mall, and at the Soleil Café in Kotor’s Galeria.

Also at the Kotor Galeria, I bought a new bra.  I simply could not hold out another five weeks.  The underwires in my America bra snapped somewhere back in Ukraine or Poland, from the wear I suppose.  By the time I reached Kosovo, the thing had generally lost its efficacy altogether.  Coincidentally—or perhaps not—I received a lot of male attention in Kosovo, looking, as I did, like I wasn't wearing a bra.

So, in Montenegro, I headed to the mall for a new one.  The problem was—it dawned on me—I had no idea what my bra size was under the metric system.  The cup sizes are the same—from A to D and beyond—but the other essential measurement was stated in centimeters.  I had no idea—and no reason to know, until that point—just how many centimeters make up an inch and, hence, my own metric bra size.

The woman working in the bra store didn’t know the inches-to-centimeters conversion either.  But, she was good at her job.  After just seconds of eyeballing, she presented me with four choices—both pretty and industrial—each of which fit well or pretty close. 

I wanted to buy a pretty bra in Montenegro.  But with five more weeks of backpacking on the horizon, I went with the industrial choice.  It was the sensible thing to do.  

Apart from the metric sizes, something else revealed a stark difference between bras abroad and bras at home.  I noticed it in the fine print on the back of the box—printed both in English and Montenegrin—which I just happened to have the time and inclination to read.  It said that the “inner side of the cup was designed to cover the breasts fully” and “reduce them optically.”

Wait.  What?

Do they know how many clams are shelled out each year in Los Angeles by women attempting to augment these puppies?   And, now, I’ve just paid 17.40 € for some sort of optical-bizarro-Wonderbra-trickery designed to make them appear smaller than they are?

If this were America, I would have marched right back down there and gotten myself a refund.  But this was Montenegro, and who knows what the return policy is on an undergarment?

It’s hard to believe that in just a matter of days, I’m going to be crawling a mall at home.  I can see myself right now:  looking for shoes; getting a pedicure; hitting the cinema; making my food court selection.  I’m thinking Hot Dog on a Stick.