Friday, November 02, 2007

Karla Helgason, International Woman of Mystery

Let me tell you one of my favourite parts of the honeymoon. It's days like this I live for.

Near the end of our trip, David and I are waiting for the afternoon train out of Florence. Seeing we have a little over an hour before it arrives, I decide to go on an adventure. (Dave is hung over, and happy to be left in the shade, with some water and the bags.)

Specifically, there was one place I was determined to find before leaving Florence -- La Officina Profumo di Santa Nouvella. This perfume maker has been in business since 1612, which was around the same time Samuel de Champlain declared Quebec city -- at the time an obscure little town on a hill -- to be the capital of New France. Meaning, this is a business that predates Canada. By a long way. How very, very cool.

So I set off in search of this establishment with my Lonely Planet map as reference. Some misadventures follow, including one moment of heartbreak where the address it was listed under was a restaurant… until I discovered that Florence is famous for its duplicate street numbering.

Eventually I find the place, and it's a gorgeous, opulent vision of an antique perfumerie. It was three rooms large, each one as ornate as any in the Vatican museum. The first room was the perfumerie, so I made a beeline for the counter. Behind it was a willow-thin picture of middle-aged Italian elegance, wearing a crisp white blouse and a crisp white smile.

I was determined to buy something. Luckily, finding a fabulous fragrance was not difficult -- I tried magnolia, orange blossom, jasmine, and frangipani, and settled on the latter, a fondly-remembered Tahitian flower. The lady and I chatted about the history of that place; when I mentioned that it was older than my country, she smiled in a pleasant but somewhat condescending way.

As I was paying for my purchase, I noticed two young Asian girls trying to get the ladies' attention. "Skin lotion...?" The lady turned to them and asked, "For men or for women?" The girls paused, looked at each other, and tentatively said "….sorry? Again?" The lady repeated her question, leaving the girls looking as if they hadn't any more clue what she meant. Politely exasperated, the lady briskly told them she'd be with them in a minute, and returned to continue my transaction.

The poor girls. They had that look of helplessness and embarrassment I know so well from the language barriers I've encountered myself. It's not a fun feeling at all.

Then, as I look at them, I notice their pale skin, fine bone structure, and wacky-funky clothes. Hmm… Japanese? If so, I might be able to help. However, if they're Chinese, or Korean, this might be a bit embarrassing.

Here goes nothing.

I turn to them and say, "Annoo… Shitsuree shimashita -- Lotion, hai? Lotion shojo, Lotion shonen?" (A very poor Japanese translation of "Uhh, excuse me -- Lotion, yes? Lotion girl, lotion boy?")

Including the ladies', all three sets of eyes go wide for a second. There's a pause, where my squeaming stomach questions whether I should have gotten involved.

Then the girls' faces break into huge smiles of releif, and they cry out, "Shojo! Lotion shojo, kudasai!" ("Girl! Lotion girl, please!"… not proper Japanese, but if she phrased it correctly, I probably wouldn't have understood her answer). I then turn to the lady, whose mouth remains in an "O" of surprise, and relay that they're wanting lotion for women. At that exact moment, my interac receipt pops up, I take it, and I swagger out. The lady recovers and thanks me for my help, as do the Japanese girls who cheerily chime, "Domo arigato gozaimashita! Senkyuu!"

At the exit, I turn around with a wave and a big smile, and say, "No problem -- ie, mondaiyonai!" And then I'm gone, and I feel like a superhero. Or a super-spy. Or generally the kind of person who's so cool, they can only exist in the movies.

What a good day.