Here’s a confession: I leave my Christmas shopping really, really late every year. I think I’m actually getting worse as time goes on, because last year at this time there were wrapped gifts sitting under the tree and I had already turned my attention to the somewhat anxiety-inducing question of the Christmas dinner menu. This year, with a grand total of three days to go until Christmas, I only just set foot in the stores yesterday, making a frenzied loop through the city in an effort to buy everything on my list in one swoop. I am a master procrastinator, yes, but I also like to think that I am an efficient one.
I expected the experience to be a fairly unpleasant one. I love Rome, but I loathe Via del Corso, the city’s biggest shopping street and home to all the big-brand stores that I generally prefer to avoid (but can never actually manage to avoid). Via del Corso is annoying at the best of times, with throngs of tourists and Romans converging on a street that always manages to feel entirely too full of people. Throw in clusters of shopping bags swinging wildly off everyone’s arms, people barreling out of stores without looking where they’re going and selfie sticks cutting their dangerous arcs through everything, and it all begins to feel a bit obnoxious – and that’s before you’ve even stepped into a store. Italians don’t really handle crowded shopping situations well. They manage to be simultaneously languid and aggressive, holding long group conversations in the narrowest part of the store and then snatching the exact item your fingers were already brushing over from right in front of your face, or sneaking into the line for the cash register ahead of you but then taking half an hour to count out precise amounts of change for their purchase, two-cent-coin by two-cent-coin. If you throw a bit of last-minute holiday panic into all of this, the level of unpleasantness tends to skyrocket pretty quickly.
So frankly, I didn’t really expect the experience of shopping a few days before Christmas to be enjoyable. But then, unexpectedly, it kind of – almost – was. I headed out early, hitting the first shop on my list, in the Prati neighbourhood, just as it opened. I was in and out within five minutes, gift bag swinging from my arm. Half an hour later and I had already worked my way over to Piazza del Popolo and onto Via del Corso, which was flooded with morning sunlight and shockingly empty save for a few other people with determined expressions more or less equal to my own. And if Via del Corso itself was nearly empty, the surrounding streets were completely deserted, quiet and orderly and just waiting for the holiday shoppers to flood their way in.
In one store, generally a madhouse of frenzied shoppers, discarded products and supremely harried salespeople, I was greeted by five separate salespeople – quite possibly a record in Rome – who all appeared reasonably cheerful and mostly willing to be helpful (again, likely a record in Rome). Another store was so empty that I paused for a moment in the doorway, wondering whether it was actually open. Had I actually managed to avoid the pre-Christmas crowds just by doing my shopping at a time when most Romans are still slurping down their first cappuccino of the morning?
The moral of this post probably should have – and would have, had I left the house a couple of hours later that morning – been about how leaving your Christmas shopping to the last minute is a recipe for distress and doom, but… Here’s a confession: Next year, I think I’ll probably end up leaving my shopping to the last minute yet again.