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Extreme Shopping Around the World
As an American living in Europe for 10 years, running programs and trips around Europe and Asia, the author gives her advice and shopping tips from around the world, the best open markets and the best places to get deals and how to navigate the markets.
Although not yet part of the Olympics, or even the X-Games, this sport takes every bit as much determination, fortitude, preparation, and stamina as the street luge or dressage. So if you've been in training and think you're ready for the big time, here are some hot tips on how to save big, shop a lot, and see the sites before the holiday rush.
In England and Europe you'll find a whole slew of flea markets and antique markets every weekend. You can pick up brochures for future markets while attending one, or ask the proprietors about future dates. The hunt is the adventure at these markets since you need to peer through lots of stuff to find your treasure, and there are always surprises.
The upside is the bargains - gratifying to get your gift for a fraction of retail, and the bargaining which is entertaining. From many years of experience, I found it best to go with a few friends and tell each other what you are looking for. Many pairs of eyes are better than one, and once you have it in your mind what you want, it's easier for your eyes to see it. Make sure you have comfortable walking shoes, a large bag or backpack, a vehicle to haul your loot, and lots of smaller currencies so vendors won't have to make change. Acting ability also comes in handy on occasion. Seasoned shoppers also have a tape measure and a flashlight handy since the early birds get the deals and 5 or 6 AM is not too early for some feathered flea marketers.
Some of the larger, more frequent weekend markets are in Frankfurt along the riverbank, in downtown Bad Homburg (south of Zweibruecken), and in Nuremberg, which boasts one market that lasts two-three days continuously. The indoor market in Metz, France is quite large and in several halls with vendors strewn about the parking lot outside. Kijk, Holland is another huge indoor market that is well worth the drive. If you are interested in furnishings, then Kijk and Tongren, Belgium are the two major antique markets you shouldn't miss.
It is best to go a day early with a covered truck or van and park the vehicle near the marketplace the night before. We usually rented a couple cargo vans as a group and then jockeyed for positions for purchases and hoped we'd have enough room. The voice of experience says to bring old blankets, rope, and bungee cords in case you underestimate your haul in need to tie it on top of the van. Bring lots of cash in the foreign currency as well as dollars, as vendors don't usually take plastic. Bring a list of items you're seeking and share it with friends. You can ask vendors to hold your big pieces until you come back to pick them up - pay them first and then go look for more bargains. Do the once-around quickly to sight anything you like, then go back to purchase. Know that if it's a do or die purchase, do it quickly, as it may be snapped up. Look to repurpose items and use them not for what they were meant - it adds interest and a great story.
The outdoor markets around Florence, Italy are superb for atmosphere and leather goods. The 18-karat gold from the wholesale houses around Vicenza, and the Italian pottery and ceramics are irresistible. I've seen those chicken pictures in many a military family home. AWAG, the American Women's Activities Germany, had published a book called Never a Dull Moment which had hundreds of ideas for shopping outlets and great finds throughout Europe. Check with your local women's club for details.
During the holiday season, Kristkindlmarkts, or Christmas markets abound in Germany, with the most famous in Nuremberg. To avoid the busloads at the large markets, try the charming Heidelberg market on the cobblestone streets of the old town nestled between the river and the castle. Don't forget the Gluehwein (hot spiced wine) or turbo Gluehwein with the dash of rum to go along with roasted chestnuts. Yes, they are cooked on an open fire by street vendors.
Bad Wimpfen (located between Heidelberg and Heilbronn) is small, but amazingly quaint. For a French flair, try the Christmas markets around the Saarbruecken area along the border towns south of Kaiserslautern. There is even a Villeroy and Bach factory outlet in this area.
Since Poland, Moscow, and the Czech Republic have opened to tourism; they are shopping and sightseeing hotspots. The blue-dotted Polish pottery can be found at factory stores in Boleslawec at a fraction of US or European market prices. Krakow is a beautiful city with lots of folk art and bargains on cultural specialties. Don't miss the salt mines outside Krakow where there is a complete underground chapel carved out of salt as well as caverns where they built aircraft during the war.
Crystal was developed in the area of the Czech Republic on the eastern border of Germany. The trip to Prague, Karlovy Vary (Karlsbad), or Neustadt is worth the drive if you're in the market for crystal. Karlovy Vary is also a spa town in the former Czechoslovakia and quite reasonable for hotels, spa treatments, and shopping.
Moscow's open markets are on Arbat Strat or The Arbat. It's best to go with the reputable guide who knows the political and retail situation of the day. The delicately painted black boxes or stacking matrioska dolls could be purchased with $10-$30 or a pair of Levis. At one time I priced a similar box from a vendor in Germany and the cost of the box was the same prices my entire 10-day trip to the former Soviet Union. It pays to purchase items in their country and discover their other treasures as well: massages for $1.25, the Bolshoi or Kirov ballet for $8, a strand of freshwater pearls for $3, and the Hermitage Museum for $5.
If you're in the market for hand-knotted rugs, gold, silver, leather, or copper; a trip to Izmir, Turkey is a must. Izmir is smaller than Istanbul with smaller prices as well. Silk and wool rugs easily triple in value once they are out of the country. You can't go wrong in purchasing these works of art that last a lifetime. The Hilton hotel is reasonable and centrally located next door to the APO and walking distance to the shopping district. It offers a luxurious respite amid the city life with a sumptuous breakfast feast, indoor pool, and spa facilities with facials for $5 and massages for $8. Asim's Copper Shop is well known for his piles of copper items. He'll happily dig through them for you or build a box for your goods to be shipped home through the APO.
A little further east is one of the largest duty-free shopping Mecca's of the world in the Dubai airport in United Arab Emirates. Gold is a great deal while your plane stops over for refueling on its way to further points east such as Thailand. Bangkok is known for its Thai Silk which is brightly patterned and thicker than most other silks. The tailors in Bangkok are known for making any piece of clothing you want within 24 hours from just a drawing or magazine picture. Sukhamvit Road is loaded with fabric shops and tailors. I chose the Landmark Hotel for its selection and quality of shops. Some of my hand-tailored purchases include a three-piece raw silk suit for $80, five-color lizard shoes for $34, silk-wool pants for $20, and a 2-hour massage wearing silk jammies for $8.
Still further east are the famous shopping areas of Naem de Mun and Itaewon in Seoul, South Korea. Itaewon is walking distance or a short AAFES cab ride from Youngson Army Base or the Dragon Hill AFRC Hotel. Also known for their tailor shops and embroidery, the Koreans can make any type of clothing you want in a few days from the picture you provide. Jewelry, scarves, leather coats, handbags, luggage, outdoor gear, and contact lenses are all bargains and bargaining is the name of the game in these tiny shops. If they don't have it, they will either jump on their moped or have a runner bring it back for you in a matter of minutes.
The deals are so good, service members have been known to fly in from Europe and the U.S. just to do their holiday shopping. Those stationed in Japan as well as the Japanese often fly over for a weekend shopping spree. Nice leather bags retailing in the U.S. for $300 are sold for $35-$75, leather jackets selling in the U.S. for $269 are $65-$100, depending on your bargaining endurance and how much you buy at one time. The more you buy, the more easily you can swing a deal. Also be sure to ask for the "first customer of they day discount, rainy day discount, cold and snowy discount, or my favorite - the pretty girl discount".
Back in the USA, outlet malls are overwhelming. Reading, Pennsylvania has one of the first and larger outlet districts, while centers with the word "Mills" in them (Arizona Mills near Phoenix or Potomac Mill near Washington DC) offer enclosed neighborhoods in which to do your off-price shopping. It can be an all-day affair at some places such as the Mall of America in Minneapolis or the Edmonton Mall in Edmonton, Alberta, Canada.
The last two malls are more entertainment destinations than mere shopping malls. The Edmonton Mall boasts an ice skating rink, an indoor water park and wave pool, a full-sized pirate ship in a pond with submarine rides, a dolphin show, and an amusement park.
The great thing about extreme shopping in these worldly places, is that it's an adventure just milling around and taking in the sights, sounds, and smells of the different markets and cultures. You can come back with empty bags and a full memory of terrific times and an extreme experience. On a personal note: since my days of living in Europe, collecting interesting items from around the world. I'm now out of the accumulation phase and into the dissemination phase of my life. I prefer not to indulge in unfettered consumerism and I have found that I have discarded or otherwise jettisoned much of what I worked so hard to collect. What I did keep were the photographs framed around my home with the memories of my haunts around the world. It seems that collecting memories was of much greater importance than the stuff. Go figure!