Okay, let’s say you had a story to tell about how you accidentally got a super-fancy facial at a high-end cosmetics boutique where they smeared magnetic Dead Sea mud and real live diamonds and who knows what else on your face before releasing your now-flawless self back into the world of mortals. How would you start that story? Think about it, because it’s not as easy as you might think. Especially if you didn’t have the presence of mind to take a selfie while lying half naked on the heated bed while the mud dried.
I blame it all on Morocco. And Turkey.
In those countries, “shopping” involves negotiation, and “negotiation” means a heady mixture of haggling, storytelling, theatre and ritual: The merchants lure you into their shops and display their wares. They ply you with tea and tales of weaving widows as a sweating shop-assistant unfolds rug after rug from the giant piles lining the room. When you show any interest, they compliment your taste (“A lawyer? I thought you were a designer!”); when you show reluctance, they ask you to name your price; when you name your price, they gasp in faux-outrage (“You are a Berber!”); when you pretend to get up and leave, they quickly come back with a counter-offer and assure you it’s the best price they’ve ever given to anyone. Back and forth you go, feeling out the limits that are real or fake, all the while hoping to avoid becoming overly attached to the rug of your dreams before you get it down to a reasonable price.
It’s fun and competitive and completely addictive. On a positive level because, when you strike a deal, you feel like you’ve just matched wits with another person and come out on top. On a negative level because, after that first rush, there’s always a sneaking suspicion that you’ve just been had — and so you want to try it again, just to make sure.
It’s also totally foreign to American shopping malls, where everything is pretty and packaged and haggling is not allowed. Or so I thought.
A few weeks ago, as I was leaving the mall after picking up my new laptop computer and a few bottles of fountain pen ink (because those things go together), something caught my eye: a stylishly unshaven Israeli guy about my age was waiving something at me. I paused to see what it was, and — BAM — next thing I know I’m on a stool inside a glowing white cosmetics shop, and Ben (that was his name) is smearing potions and ointments on my face, arms and neck. He alternatingly flatters me (“What are you, 26, 27? Older! AMAZING.”) and judges me (“What moisturizer do you use? Really. Well.”) and criticizes me (“It is socially irresponsible not to use a nighttime anti-aging syrum if you ‘re over thirty.”) and reassures me (“Don’t worry, lots of men use this stuff, not just old ladies.”).
Then he started asking me which products I liked the best, which ones I’d actually use. He mentioned giving me a “good price” and maybe even striking a deal that “no one else would have to know about.”
Aha, I thought. I know this game! So I started playing back. I expressed dismay at the prices; he broke it down into a per-usage value over the course of a year. I was skeptical of the value; he handed me a mirror and claimed to see instant results. I said I was happy with my own moisturizer; he asked me if it had gold in it, because this one was made with real gold. I gathered my things to leave; he broke out the freebies: This facial peel? Included free of charge. These soaps? My compliments, take more than one. Facials? YOU’VE NEVER HAD A FACIAL?! Look at this menu, see they normally cost $300, but this will be free. A gift for you. We will book it right now.
And that’s how I ended up, three weeks later, lying half-naked on a heated bed while a friendly middle-aged woman wiped and massaged and steamed and brushed and mudded and cleaned my face and neck and arms. I pretty much loved everything about it! Unlike massages, which I find completely stressful and ticklish and horribly awkward, the facial was relaxing and soothing and extremely comfortable. (Also, the magnetic mud? Way cool. You smear it all over your face and let it dry. Then pass a magnet over the skin and the mud just peels right off, leaving your skin incredibly soft.) I could have stayed in there all night.
Of course, I knew the facial wouldn’t be the end of the story. I’d demonstrated a willingness to purchase outrageously priced cosmetics once, surely Ben assumed I’d do it again. Sure enough, the woman giving the facial commented more than once, with some amusement, that Ben had asked her to use the most expensive products, and when I emerged, he had a whole counter full of products for my consideration. There was a pot of the oh-so-cool magnetic mud. Several vials of “diamond infused” serum and masks. More creams with gold in them (for nighttime use, he said). There was even — and this was the best part — a stack of manicure kits and be-ribboned sets of toner and lotion, three of each item (why three? because I’d told him I had three women in my family and he was anticipating my Christmas shopping needs — all these things would be thrown in for free to sweeten the deal).
Ben pulled out the mirror to show me
the emperors new clothes my face and even called over his colleague to comment (“Oh wow, yes, that cheek where you didn’t put the diamond stuff? Totally saggy. The other cheek, though, looks AMAZING!”).
Finally, the moment we’d all been waiting for, the big reveal: All of these treasures — for only $3,500.
Holy cow. Time to put on the brakes!
I stopped him right there, thanked him for the facial and said I would not buy anything. His eyes grew huge with amazement — how could I turn down this deal? How could I turn down eternal youth and beauty? Was it a money issue? But these weren’t real questions, they were game pieces; and I had stopped playing the game.
As I rose from the seat, I wondered how this would play out. In Morocco and Turkey, most of the merchants I met, however hard they might have pushed, understood when the game was over and let go with a certain amount of grace. One, though, took it personally and grew nasty. I felt relieved when Ben, seeing that I was serious, dropped character, shook my hand and wished me safe travels home. He was a disappointed salesman, but still a nice guy.
I went home and spent the rest of the evening luxuriating in my diamond-covered face (and secretly reassuring myself that my non-diamonded cheek wasn’t actually all that saggy).
(By this time the sun had set, so I had to make do with
the terrible light in my bathroom. Even so, I’m
not sure I could tell any difference between the before
and after, other than the softness from all the