Department Store Blues, With Tinsel

Department Store Blues, With Tinsel

The festive season in December brings on a lightness of spirit for many people. Me, I’m more the bah-humbug type. All this “joy to the world” stuff going on makes me squirm. Morbidly obese guys with red cheeks (how’s the blood pressure, Santa?), wearing boots, fur-lined suits and standing in fake snow don’t do it for me in tropical climes. Oh, I like the sentiments of the season and I love the opportunity to see my sadly neglected family. I’m not that much of a hopeless scrooge. It’s the trappings that irk me – the contrived, relentlessly cheerful commercial environments that are so at odds with my inner grump.

Take hotels, for example. Two weeks before Christmas, I was staying in a Kuala Lumpur hotel. Except for my room, the entire building was suffused with the most atrocious, musak-style renditions of Christmas carols ever recorded. The lobby, the lifts, the restaurants – every space, alcove and corridor was filled with this aural Valium. The big shopping malls were the same, except the music was louder and more obnoxious. I wasn’t expecting to hear this stuff in a city which seems (to my untutored eye) to be predominantly Muslim. Even more unexpected was to see shop assistants in red tights, short, white-trimmed red skirts and jackets – and traditional Muslim head-scarves. It’s an interesting and tolerant world. Or maybe it’s just that a religiously eclectic approach to retailing generates more sales.

Luckily, the season’s excesses don’t seem quite as bad in Bali. Some stores seem to have a few Christmas decorations, which I grudgingly confess is mildly uplifting; but the in-store shopping experience for customers continues to be unaffected by logic, product knowledge or common sense. It remains as strange as it is during the rest of the year, except in November and December it has tinsel. Shopping in a Bali department store is an experience that requires throwing away all expectations and embracing frustration like an old friend.

So there I was, buying a replacement wall clip for a hand-held shower because I had accidentally snapped the flimsy plastic of the old one, allegedly after imbibing too much Christmas spirit. The assistant eagerly showed me a shower head, complete with flexible pipe, fittings and assorted incomprehensible hardware.

Me: “No, I just want this bit” (indicating the wall clip).

Assistant: (regretfully) “Oh no, sorry, I do not have – only whole shower.”

So I walk two steps and find a little plastic packet. It contains a wall clip.

Me: “Oh look, you do have one here!”

Assistant: “No.”

Me: (confused) “No?”

Assistant: “Not mine. This shelf belongs to Putu. I not do his shelf.”

So it transpires that Putu is not at work today, but fortunately I can still take the item from “Putu’s shelf” to the checkout. It’s just that the assistant on duty couldn’t actually sell it to me. Or even tell me it was there, evidently.

I also needed a plug-in mosquito killer-heater thingy that vaporises a liquid, which in turn comes in a little bottle that you push into the base of the heater. Except that I couldn’t find the liquid. “Maybe it’s on Putu’s shelf?” I suggested innocently. “No, no – we sell only the unit, not the liquid.” Is this Bali’s answer to global warming? No. In Bali, there seems to be a disconnect between the concept of selling hardware and the concept of supplying consumables for that hardware. Lesson: if you actually find consumables for stuff you own, buy heaps. In fact, if you find anything you like, buy it on the spot. Nothing seems to be kept in stock – it’s all on the shelves. Don’t come back later. The item you saw before is unlikely still to be there.

Then there’s the undies problem. I just don’t have any luck with buying unmentionables in Bali. I know my size, but the problem is that the size on the smalls bears no resemblance to the size of the smalls. I suspect that the size tags are made in a different factory to the garments themselves, and then sewn on randomly by poorly trained Uluwatu monkeys. I now have 10 pairs of undies that would be too tight on a Kintamani dog, but even BAWA doesn’t want them for the puppies.

And don’t start me on other garments sold in department stores. Everything is laid out by brand, so even if do you find some shirts, they will all be from one maker. Then you have to traipse over to the other side of the store to find some other brand of shirt, and somewhere else if you don’t like those.

No wonder I avoid shopping here.

The final straw in my shopping extravaganza came while looking for laser-printer labels. After earnest assurances from staff that they do not stock them, and in fact have never even heard of them, I found some. They were in the tools and hardware section and were labelled “Paper Sticker – for all stick design.” Silly me.

In future, maybe I should just do all my Christmas shopping in Kuala Lumpur. After all, I can always wear earplugs to drown out the Christmas carols.

Vyt Karazija writes a blog at and can be emailed at

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