Tag Archives: shopping

Went to Sweden, found Mississippi

The Anglo-American Experience will be a Swedish-American experience for the next week or so.

A mannequin wears one of Veronica's designs for Mississippi in the Visby shop.

A mannequin wears one of Veronica’s designs for Mississippi in the Visby shop.

A couple of days ago I got lost in an unfamiliar city and stumbled across a shop called Mississippi.  That might not have been too surprising, except that I’m on an island in the Baltic.

I’ve lucked into 10 days of vacation (UK: holiday) in the World Heritage town of Visby, on Gotland, Sweden’s largest island.  Vikings lived here in the 12th century, it was a hub of international trade through the middle ages, and today Visby is the best-preserved of the fortified trading cities of Northern Europe, full of medieval stone buildings and surrounded by a 13th century city wall.

Peach-coloured summer dresses, which the English would call frocks.

Peach-coloured summer dresses, which the English would call frocks.

Inside that wall—all 3.6 kilometres, or about 2 ¼ miles of it, largely intact—lots of trading goes on to this day.  Pedestrians and (a few) cars share stone-paved streets lined with any number of boutiques and shops, with many of the shops selling hand-made goods you won’t find elsewhere.  Lots of these only open seasonally, because the population burgeons in the summer as Scandinavians come here for the beaches and cruise ships stop in, until it all culminates in an 8-day festival called Medieval Week, with jesters and jousting and—well, if this were a tourist brochure, I’d have to come up with a third item beginning with J, jollity or some such, but as this is a blog about finding Mississippi in the Baltic, I’d better get back to the point.

Staffan himself, in front of some of the merchandise at Mississippi

Staffan himself, in front of some of the merchandise at Mississippi

I went back to the Mississippi boutique today—on purpose this time—and spoke to Staffan, one of the proprietors, who had only opened for the season a couple of days before.  He was suffering in the cold, having just arrived from Bali; he and his wife, Veronica, designer of their clothing lines, live in Indonesia in the winters and have a second shop there.

They’ve been in business over 25 years, and never intended to call the place Mississippi at all.  Veronica’s mother came from Mississippi, and Veronica holds a US passport, though she’s never been there.  Staffan told me how, when they were first opening the shop, they were on the phone (presumably to some official in charge of registering new businesses) and found that the name they’d planned on using wasn’t available, so they had to come up with something else, right there and then, before they even hung up the phone.  Mississippi simply came to mind; Mississippi it has been ever since, although they’ve played around with other names, including Mrs. Hippy (say it out loud and you’ll get the connection), which I rather like.

Dresses in the doorway of the shop

Dresses in the doorway of the shop

I loved their clothing, though they don’t make it in a size for the likes of me, and I have to admit I’m a bit too old for the styles; Mississippi’s creations are for younger Misses.  The items are so distinctive that customers can recognize each other; if they happen across someone wearing a similar sort of dress as they walk along in Stockholm, they’ll say “I see you’ve been to Visby!”

The shop itself -- if you hurry, you can get 50% off last year's styles!

The shop itself — if you hurry, you can get 50% off last year’s styles!

So Mississippi’s brand-new styles change hands inside the medieval city walls that have seen centuries of trading, and I sit here—I’m in the public library, which doubles as the university library—and write about it for you to read wherever you are.  This is globalization, I suppose, but in a good way.  If you get as far as Visby, stop in and do some Mississippi shopping.  Just remember to pack for the climate; this ain’t the bayou.  And if global warming keeps upsetting the weather patterns, you may need a cardigan over your beautiful summer dress from Mississippi.

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Winter Blunderland in a Nation of Shopkeepers

The weather has disrupted much of the United Kingdom’s normal traffic and services, so why make this blog an exception? I’m interrupting the series of posts about accents, planning to pick it up again after a few holiday-themed pieces.

Animatronic figures in a seasonal display at the Wellington Shopping Centre, Aldershot, Hampshire

Snow and ice began to shut down much of Great Britain again on Saturday. The post (mail) didn’t come, but the milkman came early, before the snow fell; we woke up to several inches of snow unmarked by any footprints, so it seemed like the sack of bread and cheese and milk must have been delivered by magic—or possibly by a milkman with a jetpack, though I don’t think the local dairy distributor has that kind of technology.

Feeling smug because our groceries had come and we didn’t have to go out, we switched on the radio to hear that Gatwick had reduced the number of flights going in and out, Heathrow had cancelled all flights, and the Brent Cross Shopping Centre in north London had closed early. Huh?

This is the national news. Okay, it was the last weekend before Christmas in a recession year in which much depends on what is spent, as they say here, “on the High Street” (which means the major retail chain stores that appear on the main streets of most towns), but it still seemed odd to put the closure of one shopping centre right up there with cancellations of flights at some of the world’s busiest airports.  If a shopping center in Washington DC or in New York were to close, I don’t think it’d be national news, but it’s different here. The British may comment negatively on American consumerism, but from where I sit it seems the British themselves put significantly more emphasis on consumption than do the Americans I know.

Britain’s reputation as “a nation of shopkeepers” dates back to the 18th century. (Napoleon famously said it, but the economist Adam Smith got there first.) It follows that England is also a nation of shoppers; it would have to be, since the nation of shopkeepers hasn’t yet ended in a country-wide going-out-of-business sale. A poll not long after we moved here seemed to clinch it: over 50% of British people surveyed listed shopping as their favorite leisure activity.

I do not consider shopping a leisure activity. I consider shopping a necessary evil, made even more trying by the fact that the cost of living here is remarkably high and I have to watch my pennies like never before. Put the high cost of goods here together with the fact that salaries tend to be lower than in the US, and it’s no surprise that consumer complaints and consumer protection are big topics. Anyone found “contravening the Trades Descriptions Act”—cheating the customer—is considered low-life scum by all Right-Thinking People. At least three BBC TV programmes expose fraudsters—Watchdog, Weekend Watchdog, and Rogue Traders—but the first line of legal defense for consumers is the Trading Standards Bureau, which investigates complaints and may eventually see that fraudsters are prosecuted.

And so the 2010 festive season brings the news that the court case against the proprietors of a Christmas-related scam from 2008 has just opened–or at least an alleged scam, as the owners of Lapland New Forest are innocent until et cetera.

First, for Americans, some explanation of that name: The New Forest is an area in the south of England which is relatively unspoiled—as much as any area can be in a country in which forest clearances began in the Bronze Age. And more importantly, you have to know that while American kids believe Santa lives at the North Pole, British kiddies believe Father Christmas lives in Lapland. In a grotto. (Why a grotto? I have no idea.)

So this time two years ago, the web site of a brand new theme park, Lapland New Forest appeared, touting the “magical tunnel of light”, “bustling Christmas market”, and “Hollywood special effects” to be seen. Elves would meet you at your car and escort you into the “snow-covered log cabins” where you and the kiddies could make ginger-bread houses, sample seasonal food, and see live polar bears. There was to be a nativity scene, ice skating, dog sleds, and—of course—Father Christmas in his grotto. It sounded stupendous, and those inclined to theme parks (our family isn’t) snapped up the £30 ($45) tickets, available only in advance via the internet, and in limited numbers so that ticketholders wouldn’t have to spend the day fighting crowds or waiting in queues (lines). (Tickets were £25 if bought in bulk; £10 for children under 2—yes, 2, not a typo for 12. A single parent taking a three-year-old to see Santa there would cost almost a hundred bucks).

Alas, it was a case of virtual reality–funny in hindsight, but not funny to families that paid as much as £300 to get everybody in for a big Christmas treat. The nativity scene was entirely without live donkeys and lambs or even a “Hollywood special effects” version of same, as it was only a painted billboard in a muddy car park (parking lot). There were a few huskies, true, but they were chained up to doghouses in the mud, where they sat, howling.  The polar bear was made of plastic, but the snowman was live, or at least the person inside a snowman costume was live, which was made clear when he stalked off saying he wasn’t going to put up with verbal abuse from the disappointed punters (paying customers).

The tunnel of lights consisted of a single strand of fairy lights (ordinary Christmas lights) strung on trees along the entry path.  The ice rink’s ice machine didn’t work, but at least that saved customers the cost of renting skates.  Entering the Christmas market turned out to cost extra and, when you got in, you found only four market stalls; the seasonal fare was the same burgers and sausages sold out of mobile refreshment vans at every event in the UK (perhaps it was “seasonal” in that they jacked up the prices). The gingerbread-house makers ran out of gingerbread after the first hour.

People queued for as long as 3 hours to see Father Christmas and then found that, unless they were prepared to pay another 10 quid (15 bucks) to have the official photographer take their child’s picture, their kids didn’t get to meet Santa Claus, but could only wave at him from a distance.

Disappointed parents at one stage attacked Santa; others settled for brawling with each other in the gingerbread house. And the elves, when they found they wouldn’t be paid until Christmas Eve, went on strike.

The press called it a “Winter Blunderland” or renamed it “Crapland”. (Note: crap is much less socially acceptable here, where it’s a much stronger term than the mild expletive it is in the US.) The management barred the press, so at first the only coverage of the story consisted of footage of the mud taken from outside the gates and at some distance—one of the few clips with any action showed an elf who’d sneaked around behind one of the buildings for a smoke. You can see what the comedians of the satirical BBC programme Have I Got News For You thought about it here; that footage is probably the best entertainment that Lapland New Forest’s management provided, and the jokes are all on them.

This year, the UK is in need of some seasonal entertainment, since the estimated half a million people trying to rebook cancelled flights and the thousands spending the night in Heathrow airport can’t even console themselves with a leisure-time shopping trip to Brent Cross. Our nation of shopkeepers is a nation snowed in. In some houses, I’m sure they’re cheered by seeing the Lapland New Forest management get its comeuppance. And we’re warm, snug, and smug at our house, as long as the milkman keeps coming.

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