What Buying a Souvenir Taught Me About Myself
About the episode
In this episode, I tell a personal story about the way I tend to form impressions about people I don’t know. The story takes place in the summer of 2021 while I was buying a souvenir in Greece and I think it might make you think about the way you make judgments about strangers. The photo that inspired this story is not particularly special. It’s not a picture of that moment but one about the souvenir I bought (the picture frame below).
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It’s the summer of 2021. My girlfriend and I are on holiday in Greece and we’re strolling around the streets of Athens. We’re in the city centre, where there are a lot of souvenir shops selling all sorts of objects: statues, plates, magnets, Kalamata olives and so many other things.
This is paradise for my girlfriend Aloha. She loves souvenirs and anywhere we go she wants to buy something as a memento to decorate our house.
I fear that one day our living room will look just like one of those souvenir shops. Plus, I describe myself as a minimalist and I’m strongly against consumerism, so I let you imagine how much I love buying stuff in a souvenir shop.
She’s already decided what to get this time: a picture frame composed of ancient Greek columns where she’s going to put a photo of us standing in front of a traditional white Greek house with blue windows. How cute.
She had a similar idea when we were in Fiji, but that wooden Fijian frame she bought has never framed a picture of us. There’s a photo of her cousin’s wedding in it!
Lovely idea, terrible execution. I appreciate her intentions, but I’m worried about who’s going to end up in this new one now.
Anyway, we walk into a shop and we’re welcomed by a lady. She’s the worst shop assistant in the world. She won’t leave us alone for a second. We tell her we’re just browsing but she keeps trying to sell us stuff.
“I have the Parthenon, only 40 euro. This bronze statue is discounted. Do you like it? What do you like? Tell me. Tell me. Look at this, look at this. There’s a 40% discount on this. It’s beautiful, isn’t it?”
And in my mind I’m thinking: My goodness! Would you leave us alone? We’re just looking! If we like something we’ll ask you about it and we will buy it. You don’t need to show us every single thing you’re selling in your shop. We can see what you’ve got! Do you think we’re blind?
And then she asks us, “Where are you from?”. As soon as we say Italy, she switches from English to Italian.
“Oh Buongiorno signore! Bella l’Italia. Come sta? Tutto bene?”
Oh, come on seriously? She thinks that by saying random Italian words she’s going to make a stronger connection with us but actually, I’m now even more annoyed than before. She’s so bad at selling that she could easily be in a training video for shop assistants, so they can learn all the things they should NOT do when selling.
We can’t stand her aggressive attitude and leave almost immediately.
“Whoof! That was painful”, I say to Aloha. “I couldn’t take it anymore. This is the perfect recipe to make your customers leave your shop”, I comment.
A couple of days later we’re having a walk in the city centre again. Our mission is again the same: get that picture frame. We walk into a shop and after two seconds the same lady comes out of nowhere!
Oh my goodness! Are we in the same shop again? Did we make this mistake? Oh no, please give me a gun, I’m gonna kill myself!
Nothing has changed. She’s here and she’s nagging us again. We feel we’re being harassed again, and we can’t wait to get some fresh air outside. But, this time, since we’re here, I might as well give her a chance. So I ask her, “We’re looking for an ancient Greek style picture frame. Do you have one?”
She pulls out one that’s exactly what Aloha was looking for.
“This is 36 euro but there’s a 40% discount, so only 22 euro.”
Yeah yeah, 40 euro, come on, I know how these discounts work so I try to negotiate the price.
“Look,” I say, “15 euro and we’ll buy it straight away.”
“Oh, why are you doing this to me? I don’t know, you know, this isn’t my shop. I just work here. I have to ask my boss. Wait, wait.”
For the first time, I see the real boss in the shop: another lady, who looks quite authoritative and is busy taking payments and counting money.
Our shop assistant gets us the deal, we pay 15 euro, we thank her and leave. As soon as I leave the shop, I feel ashamed. This woman was just a worker and I was so quick to judge her. Nagging, annoying, aggressive, worst shop assistant ever. Yet I knew nothing about her, nothing about her story, her life, her job and how she ended up working in a souvenir shop.
Does she get paid by the number of souvenirs she sells? After all, Greece is still recovering from the 2008 crisis, so it might well be that this is the only job she was able to find. Maybe she’s a minimalist, like me, and hates being there surrounded by stuff.
I’ll never know. What I know is that my first impression is always wrong. Always. First impressions are based on insufficient information and they’re the results of jumping to conclusions. It was so easy for me to judge this woman. It required me very little thinking and zero brain energy. And the worst thing is that I do this way too often. Way too often.
I was in the land of the greatest philosophers history has ever seen, and my favourite quote of all time is Socrate’s “The only thing I know is that I know nothing”. Yet why did I, once again, forget about this?
I’m not worried about what or who is going into our picture frame anymore. I’m just sure that when I look at those marble columns, I’ll be reminded of what the ancient Greeks taught us: think, reflect, ponder, use your brain.
And be kind.