I’m Not A Salesgirl, Especially Not In Finland

Helsinki, Finland (now) | Photo by bearinthenorth via pixabay
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I’m just using this event to illustrate that a black person can also be caught shopping while black outside the United States. Most of my African American brothers and sisters will nod in agreement when I say that we can be anywhere shopping – yes, just minding our own business in a department store, pharmacy, grocer, etc. trying to spend some money we made, usually working for the man – and get mistaken for the help. 

This happened to me a long time ago in Europe, before globalization made international travel, especially for Americans of color, more accessible to the hordes of tourists now seen globetrotting (in more ‘normal’ times at least).

To be precise, it was 1981 during my first overseas posting in Oslo, Norway as a Foreign Service Officer. I took a long weekend in October to visit a colleague assigned to Helsinki, Finland. Early winter had already begun to fall on the Nordic countries, along with brightly colored leaves. Accordingly, I packed a full-length coat.

One of the to-do things in Helsinki (for a woman) is to visit the Marimekko flagship store. The burst of color of its fabrics inside the shop (see below for examples), in a way, mirrored the vibrant tones of the changing and falling leaves outside. Oranges and reds and yellows abounded in the clothing and on the bolts of cloth that lined the walls.

I quickly eyed a blood-red shirtwaist dress printed with leaves in just those shades. I imagined how the abundant skirt would swish and swirl with my every step and decided that I had to have it. As I fingered the starched, heavy-duty cotton, someone interrupted my thoughts of making a show-stopping entrance in this frock and how I would accessorize it.

“Could you help me?”

I turned toward the voice and saw it attached to a white, 30-something, blond American woman. Mind you, I had on my coat with a purse on my shoulder.

“I need some help,” she continued.

I wanted to go rude to her face but opted for the silent treatment, looked her up and down, and then walked to my friend and told her what happened, loudly.

“You see that woman,” I started, pointing at the offender. “She thinks I work here. The Finns are some of the palest, blondest people on the planet and plus, I’ve got on a coat! She sees a black person and automatically thinks – salesgirl. Thousands of miles and common sense still can’t separate them from their prejudice and stereotypical thinking.”

By then, the woman had disappeared into the racks of clothing. I bought the dress and huffed out.

Now, I’ll admit that I have confounded a shopper for a seller in the States. And yes, they’ve all been white and yes, I’ve done it on purpose more than once. I like to see the befuddled look of “How could you possibly take me for someone who works here?” When it happens to me, my look is more one of exasperation and yes, anger and offense, especially when it’s so obvious that I am not a subservient worker bee or as Native Americans would say, ‘a mascot.’ (Think the Washington Redskins, the Kansas City Chiefs, etc.)

What’s wrong with her?

Prefer to listen to a self-narrated version of this post? Simply use the player above

You’ve got to be taught before it’s too late. Before you are six or seven or eight, to hate all the people your relatives hate. You’ve got to be carefully taught. From South Pacific by Oscar Hammerstein II, sung by a young American lieutenant who falls in love with an island girl during World War II and initially can’t overcome his ingrained prejudice.

South Pacific promotional poster from 1958 via originalposter.co.uk

I’ll never forget that song because my father taught me the lyrics when I was six or seven or eight. All part of my upbringing and inculcation into what I would face as a black person in the United States of America, and a lesson on the stem of racism and stereotypical thinking. “No one’s born prejudiced,” he’d say. “Someone has to teach it.”

I’ve seen the South Pacific movie many times, most recently a few years ago in Rome where I live with my Italian husband. I started crying almost from the opening credits because I knew that all the dreaminess and romanticism of the film, albeit wrapped in blazing Technicolor, would not outweigh or shroud the embedded unfairness and tragedy. The young lieutenant (pictured below in a still from the movie) decides to abandon his life back home and marry his love, but is killed in action before he can. The main characters, however, will end up together but not after racial strife.

20th Century Fox/Getty Images

Barely able to speak, I called my husband at his office. “Gaetano, please come home as soon as you can?” I croaked out.

He did and we watched the film together; I wanted him to understand a little more about American prejudice and how national boundaries can’t contain it. He watched in silence, not knowing exactly what I was talking about until the female lead, Nellie Forbush, a Southern belle, runs from her French suitor, a wealthy plantation owner, after he introduces two local young children. Initially, she swoons over them (Aren’t they adorable? Those big black eyes staring at you out of those sweet, little faces) and then asks, “Are they Henry’s? (the butler)”

“They’re mine,” he responds. A widower, he’d fathered them with his wife, a local woman. Nellie is appalled and flees, with her silk organza dress flowing behind her.

I looked at my husband and said, “See! That’s how it is.”

“But what’s wrong with her?” he replied. “He’s got two pretty little kids and he’s rich.”

I had to explain. Since he dipped in the well of a woman of color, she certainly wasn’t going to let him dip in her well. My husband was still perplexed.

“She’d never have children as good-looking as those! She’s not all that.”

So, here’s an Italian man dismissing the looks of what would be considered the most desirable ‘type’ of woman in the States, appreciating the nut-brown offspring of a Frenchman and a Melanesian woman, and puzzled by all the fuss. For him, the optics played a greater role than anything else.

Gaetano, thoroughly perplexed

Bergdorf Goodman Versus Hermes

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Not long ago during a visit to New York City, I went to Bergdorf Goodman in an attempt to buy some stockings. OK. Why Bergdorf’s, one of the most expensive stores on the planet when CVS is my US stocking shop of choice? It happened to be my birthday and one of my substitute ‘mommies’ had taken me to a posh lunch. (My mother passed in 2007 but I have two women [one pictured below with me] who’ve known me all my life and have graciously allowed me to adopt them.) Afterwards, she gave me $50 as a birthday gift and told me forcefully.

“Now, you go to Bergdorf’s and buy yourself something for fifty dollars that you would never spend that much on.”

No, it wasn’t stockings that first came to my mind. It was lipstick. Why? Because a good friend was with us and she immediately said,

“I have just the thing.” She whipped out a lipstick by Guerlain that cost $50 (tax excluded). Candy apple red, tucked inside a case with not one but two mirrors (including a pop-up). Beyond perfect! She and I hustled over to Bergdorf’s. I got it and happily paid the sales tax from my own pocket.

I then remembered that I needed a pair of stockings for an event that night. So, the make-up salesgirl escorted us to the Wolford stocking boutique. Pricey as well but the only hosiery available at Bergdorf’s and after all, it was my birthday.

The saleswoman sauntered over and when she asked me what shade I needed (in a pronounced Eastern European accent, I might add), I showed her my leg and she got in my face, and said, “We don’t have anything for you,” then turned on her heel and walked off.

I was speechless and my friend (a white woman) turned red with anger. Ordinarily, I would have gone to the manager and pitched a hissy fit but my time was short. So, I wrote to Bergdorf’s online customer’s service explaining what happened. After about six weeks of silence, I wrote to Mr. Jim Gold, President of Neiman Marcus group which now owns Bergdorf’s. Furthermore, I added that I lived in Rome, Italy where the local Wolford store accommodates me and all my friends of varying hues. I deduced from the difference between the two shopping possibilities that Bergdorf’s was not interested in women of color as clients, even though the pool of potential black shoppers in New York City is phenomenally larger than the bathtub sized number in Rome.  

I got a mildly apologetic note from the General Manager of Bergdorf’s, inviting me and a friend to have lunch in the store’s rooftop restaurant the next time I came to New York. Now — I live in Rome and get to the States at the most once a year, right? Next time you jump across the pond, come on down to Bergdorf’s for lunch.

Let me now compare an experience that a black American friend (who also lives in Rome) had a few years ago at Hermes in Paris (before Oprah Winfrey’s unfortunate non-visit). In short, a saleswoman told her and her daughter to wait until she finished with another client and they did, patiently, for about a half hour (the store was packed). My friend finally inquired and was informed that the saleswoman had gone to lunch.

So, my friend also wrote a letter. The store apologized in short order in writing, included one of its signature ‘foulards’ with the letter, and told her to advise them when she was planning her next trip to the French capital so they could send a car to the airport to pick her up and escort her directly to their flagship store.

Not the foulard, but two of my own for illustration

Now, I certainly wasn’t expecting a plane ticket but maybe a couple of pairs of hose…to match my skin tone?

You be the judge.

Lobster Anyone?

A few years ago, the end of 2016 to be exact, I went shopping with an Italian friend of mine, named Maria Teresa. She prefers to go only by Teresa because as she explained, “Every girl in Italy has Maria somewhere in her name, so I drop that part.” We did more gabbing than grabbing since neither of us was in the mood. That year had been a hard one for many reasons, not the least of which occurred for me on November 8th in the United States as well as all the skullduggery that preceded the ‘vote.’ On this side of the pond, Italians were more than fed up with the political shenanigans and also wishing to sweep out the incumbents.

In any event, Teresa needed to buy a birthday present. We wandered into Tech It Easy, a tech store with all sorts of gadgets and gizmos that make you think you really need them. This chain also has a lot of well-designed items, some of which are actually useful. We came across a set of paraphernalia for a lobster party for six: red-trimmed white bibs with embossed lobsters across the fronts; lobster shell crackers in the form of, you guessed it, lobster claws; long-handled, dual-ended seafood forks and scoops; and even sturdy, pint-sized wooden hammers just in case the crackers didn’t do the job. 

My friend wisecracked, “Who would need these? Who fixes lobsters at home?”

“We did,” I immediately chimed in. “When I was a kid, my parents and their friends had lobster and champagne parties.”

“Really?” she said. “I’ve never heard of that here.”

“Black people couldn’t go into most restaurants and sit down and eat back then, especially the highfalutin’ places. But we could buy the lobsters out of the back door or from markets and prepare them at home. Everything was segregated in my hometown but they had so much fun at those parties. More fun than the white folks did sitting in those fancy seafood restaurants, I bet.”

My Italian friend’s face fell. “That’s so sad. That you couldn’t go out to eat.”

“Yeah, those were tough times but they made the best of them.”

Teresa still didn’t understand. She watched me smile and laugh as I reminisced about those times. I told her how one couple, ‘grown-ups’ I emphasized, loved to dance. They knew all the latest teenage dances and the highpoint of these evenings was when they strutted their stuff and did the “Madison,” (instructions below) the “Bop,” and the “Stroll,” with or without music in the background.

She finally gave me a half-smile but I could tell she would never really understand how black folks back then had real fun under such constraints, all the while marching and protesting and fighting for equal rights. For her, it was tainted and for me, too.

But I still remember how excited everyone would get anticipating steamed lobsters, a cup of piping hot melted butter for dunking, baked potatoes, crispy cole slaw, a brightly colored mixed salad, and endlessly popping champagne corks. And all in the comfort of our homes. They could get as loud and happy as they wanted to and they did!

Looks Can Be Deceiving

Trieste Center, Italy

Once upon a time in a country far, far away (in this case, Norway), I had a job. It was my first overseas assignment as a diplomat with the US Foreign Service and I was posted to the Embassy in Oslo to learn the ropes. Well, this blog isn’t about my time there or my job but the backstory is integral to the plot.

Another salient factor is that more than 500 moons ago, I spent an academic year in Italy and I was heartbroken when I had to go back to the States. Italy stayed in my blood, as did a thirst for international travel. What I learned and how I lived during that time were reasons that I eventually decided to become a diplomat.

Oslo, Norway

In any event, Norway was nice, but definitely not as warm as Italy, so I took some vacation time and went to visit some friends and, on a whim, some friends of my friends who lived in Trieste. We wound up meeting them on an impressive estate, situated virtually in the middle of the city.  Imposing, automated wooden gates opened onto a small park of sorts with several buildings scattered around the property, including a stable for horses. I tried to keep my eyes from bugging without success.  

To welcome us, two people stood outside a contemporary wooden house with immense glass windows covering its face. One was the owner, a widow, and the other was a lawyer from Naples named Gianni who was her boyfriend and lived between her place and his apartment. He was a handsome guy, albeit a bit on the short side, with dark, naturally tanned skin.

Gianni in the middle & me on the far right

He immediately unnerved me by the way he stared my way. I’d seen that ‘look’ so many times in the States from white people. A stare hard to define but indisputably menacing. A stern look that was also curious but seemed to say, “What are you doing here?” In the States, this ‘look’ usually turned out badly. Some racist innuendo. Some way to belittle me and make me feel uncomfortable, as if I didn’t belong at the event where I was sometimes the only black person or one of two or three others. I just tried to ignore him but I could feel that he was on the verge of exploding just like Vesuvius still threatens to do in his hometown. And before too long, he popped! With the verve that Italians are so expert at, Gianni started shouting at me while rubbing and stabbing at his forearm.

“What are you doing in Norway? You have the skin! You have the skin! You have color in your skin! You should be here, not there with no sun and no color and no warmth!” He stared at me and said it again, even more emphatically.

“What are you doing there?”

Well, I really didn’t have an answer for him, other than “Well, I’ve got a job there,” which didn’t make much of an impression and it certainly didn’t placate him. He shook his head but kept glaring at me as if I had somehow betrayed myself.

My expectation of his ‘look’ was so far afield of his intention. I was in a world warp, fully waiting for some snide remark. Instead I was being emphatically told that I belonged in Italy.

The next chapter shocked me even more. I went back to Oslo. He got my number from our mutual friend and started calling. I rebuffed his advances with as much tact as possible but he persisted. He tracked me down once I left for my next assignment in Paris and showed up there one weekend with our mutual friend, insisting that he and I get married and have children! His girlfriend had a grown son, her biological clock had ticked-tocked, and he was desperate for a family. And I mean desperate. Well, the story pretty much ended there but I still hold a fondness for this crazy Neapolitan who finally took ‘No’ for an answer.

Gail Milissa Grant

What’s in a Face?

Gail Milissa Grant

For starters.  During the aforementioned trip to Athens, I decided to buy a fur coat because Greece has a centuries-old tradition for making some of the best. It was the 1970s and PETA* had yet to be founded, so you’ll forgive me, ok? I was teaching at a university, had a few extra pennies, and this was a BIG deal for me. A French friend, who was living in Athens, said he’d help me out so we waited until the sun started to set because no one with any sense shops during the day in summer. I grew up in St. Louis, Missouri and thought I knew what hot was . . . until I spent a week in Athens in August.

We made our way through the muddling market that tumbled forward and backward along cobblestone streets. As the sunlight dove into the Aegean Sea, electric light bulbs strung along the streets took over its job. When I finally found ‘my’ coat, we sat down with the store owner and bargained politely over steaming coffee that soothed my throat and surprisingly didn’t spike my temperature. Once we agreed on a price, I cheerfully handed over my credit card.

Plaka Shopping Athens

“Sorry, Miss, but your card doesn’t work.”

“But,” I stammered, “that’s not possible. I know it’s good.”

George (yes, his name was the ubiquitous George so many Greek men are named) then explained that there was a spending limit on my card for any single purchase. I was beaten, I thought.

“That’s all right,” he continued. “You can wire me the rest when you get back to the States.”

“Huh? But you don’t even know me.”

“Oh, but I do. Everything I need to know about you is written on your face.”

Well, that just about knocked me off my feet and into the mountain of fur coats piled up behind me. I immediately thought of how many times my colored ‘face,’ had gotten me kicked out of a restaurant or gotten me called the ‘N’ word, or gotten me turned away from a movie theater growing up in my own backyard. And here I was in a very foreign and distant backyard with a complete stranger telling me that my face was all he needed as collateral.

“That’s so kind of you but isn’t there another way? I’d really like to pay you now.”

He rubbed his brow, took my card and disappeared but returned quickly with a fellow shop owner waving a receipt for me to sign.

“We’ll split the amount in two. You sign his and mine.”

With my coat bundled up in a shopping bag, I left but not before hugging them both.

I’ve thought of that incident time and again. In fact, it resonates whenever I experience this type of color-blind kindness abroad. Don’t, however, take me for a Pollyanna. I know the times they are a-changing and Europe ain’t what it used to be. But it still happens. Trust me. 

Gail Milissa Grant

Fur coat shopping Plakka Athens

*PETA (People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, founded in 1980)