I traveled abroad for the first time in 1958, when I was 9 years old. My family lived in Zadar, a pretty town on the Adriatic coast in Croatia. There was a direct ship line to Ancona, on the Italian side of the coast, where my grandmother and I were picked up by my aunt and uncle in their little Fiat.
In those days it was not a small thing to travel abroad, either from any of the communist bloc countries or, for us, from Yugoslavia. I remember the excitement while I climbed the ship staircase, aware that this trip was something extraordinary and that it was going to take us to a magic place of wealth and beauty. I knew it because from time to time, as proof of the existence of this place, we would receive parcels with fine clothes, toys and chocolates. But I remember far better my first trip to the department store Standa in Naples, where my relatives lived. To a child used to grocery stores with not much food and the Narodni Magazin (People’s Store) department stores with not many products, entering Standa felt like entering a dream. Perhaps not even my dreams were as plentiful and colorful as that store. Things I saw there dazzled me.
The best thing about Standa was that just before our visit the store had introduced a new selling system: self-service. It was quite amazing for everybody, not only for a small girl from Yugoslavia, to pick things up by ourselves. At first I just strolled around, not really convinced that I could touch and take into my hands anything I wanted. But when I came to the toy counter, I could not resist touching the dolls. There were many kinds of dolls, but I was interested in those big ones that were popular at the time. A fortunate owner would put it on a bed or a couch as a decoration. All girls envied the lucky one who had it, although she was not supposed to play with it. In its overstated beauty, such a doll somehow personified the entire new world that had opened up in front of my eyes. But after getting approval from my aunt to choose one, I could not decide which one I wanted. I agonized for a while and then burst into tears. There were simply too many choices for a child who came from a land with barely any dolls at all.
Perhaps forty years later, I witnessed almost the same scene in Bloomingdale’s in New York City. I saw two women from the former Soviet Union, a mother and daughter, buying lingerie. The lingerie department occupied the whole floor, and the two of them wandered around with hands full of bras and panties, looking lost and exhausted. The mother was the first to break down. She just dropped the whole lot on the floor and burst into tears. “I can’t choose,” she said in despair and collapsed in a chair.