This is what I thought America would look like. Shopping malls of glass and chrome, coloured lights and escalators. Wide roads and pavements, shop windows of high fashion stretching down Wisconsin Avenue. It’s not Rodeo Drive, but it has all the names. Here by the metro station it’s H&M, Neiman Marcus, T.J. Maxx and McDonald’s, but the women in slacks and coloured jackets coming from further up Wisconsin are bearing bags from Louis Vuitton, Tiffany, Cartier. I sit in the plaza outside Bloomingdales and take it all in.
Initially I’d been taken aback by how few of the store names I knew. All my clothes from the first few weeks here were bought in Gap and H&M – which was itself a relatively new arrival in DC. T.J. Maxx is of course the original of T.K. Maxx, and is just the same, only even cheaper; apparently, there was a business in the UK called T.J. Hughes which prevented T.J. Maxx trading under its original name when it expanded over there. When I first arrived I had no idea which of the clothes stores would be suitable for my price and age bracket, but I’ve been learning. Discount Shoe Warehouse (DSW) helped me out with its name, but the others were a mystery until I went shopping with an American.
Anna was also new to DC, and needed to buy a dress for a friend’s wedding in California. I had already discovered that Friendship Heights was a good place to shop – mainly because it had a Whole Foods. This supermarket also lived up to my ideas of what an American shopping experience should be, far more than Safeway in Adams Morgan. While Safeway had questionable meat, mixed quality fruit and veg and not even a whole aisle for chips or ice cream, this Whole Foods had a spacious fruit and veg market, a special system for check out, its own bakery, and at least three hot take-away food stations as well as a fresh salads and olives counter. (Rather than buying chilled microwave meals, Americans tend to buy freshly made, hot take-away meals, sides and desserts from supermarkets.)
Anna hadn’t been shopping in Friendship Heights before, but she knew the stores for discount dress-shopping. We started by hitting T.J. Maxx, and followed up with Neiman Marcus, Nordstrum Rack, H&M and Gap. The first three were the real discount warehouses, with rack upon rack of dresses. As well as the challenge of American sizes, I had to contend with different descriptions of age-brackets. To me, ‘Juniors’ sounded like it was aimed at children, but it actually seems to be aimed at anyone who’s not a senior citizen… Anna was tiny, which apparently presented all sorts of challenges for dress shopping that I couldn’t possibly understand, and she didn’t have a clue what she was looking for. I waded through racks of dresses, my arms ached with carrying so many to changing rooms, and I almost ran out my phone battery waiting while she tried things on. It was a very long shopping trip.
Finally, Anna made a decision and bought a dress. But before I could celebrate, we had to go and find make-up. I spent a little attempting to engage with her chatter about BB cream – apparently the latest thing – and how much she loved this beauty chain – Sephora – but when the sales assistant came over I left her to his assistance and browsed alone. I’ve since discovered that Sephora is a rather new model of beauty store in the States, though to me it was very like what we’ve had in the UK for a long time. It’s self-service, self-trial and stocks a range of brands from expensive to economy. It turns out that these sorts of stores have been slower to catch on in the States, as women continue to go to concession stands in department stores to be sold their make-up. I’ve always hated being hard-sold make-up, so I was relieved to be introduced to Sephora. This branch even stocked Soap and Glory, which I greeted like a long-lost friend.
Anna eventually made all her purchases, pocketed a few free samples, and we made our way home. About a week later she departed for California and her friend’s wedding, and decided to stay there with her family. That was it for my first DC friendship, but I was grateful for that shopping trip, and all that I’d learned.