Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Sensory Overload & Fear and Loathing in Usce Shopping Center, Belgrade

Usce Shopping Center - Belgrade, Serbia
Struck by a bold lack of ceremony, our savage journey to the heart of Serbia leads us into the invasive opulence I’m strenuously familiar with and have learned to avoid. The marble floors reflect glistening chrome and neon signs and the stretch of a huge Christmas tree that hurts my eyes.

     “I thought you had no Christmas in Serbia,” I blurt out. I’ve never been able to properly explain myself in this kind of climate, Raoul Duke would have said.
     “We have Christmas,” says Draga, lustfully eyeing a pair of fur boots in the window of a shop that tries to lure customers in by expelling House at an enormous volume, “But it’s on January 7. On New Year’s Eve you can give me those boots. What do you prefer, Benetton or Zara?”
     “I don’t know. What do you prefer, Fuerst or Brown, Driver and Briggs?”

She grabs my ear, drags me into a noisy joint full of jeans so ragged that anyone with any sense at all would have thrown them out, not pay for them.
     “Get me out of here, you idiot!” I yell and off we run. Next door is a store that sells attire for the more aspiring gentle sirs. I take an immediately liking to the silent mannequins, whose faces seem trained on the timid Creedence trickling from the ceiling. Draga pulls three pairs of pants from the stock and hoists me into one. Then she notices something that requires her to call an attendant. I’m told to stand there and not move, and I stand there, feeling one hand on each buttock, one cupping my crotch and one on my forehead (mine).

I suffer from what experts call a proneness to sensory overload. I have concluded that it has to do with my rich inner life, but it also makes me a social cripple. Sensory overload occurs when my senses pick up more information than my brain can process, and I see everything; items that puzzle me, goods that defy definition, dazzling details, patterns, patterns of patterns, a woman on a Rolex billboard whose eyes are dreamy but whose nipples give me a piercing stare.

Sensory overload usually kicks in ten minutes after entering a mall, five minutes after entering a supermarket and six seconds after entering a disco, which I therefore never enter. When it happens, I become virtually blind and deaf, and stagger around like a drunk searching for the exit, snarling at anyone who starts explaining things or gives me good advice. Shopping for clothing, therefore, can only be achieved with a trusted page, who has to literally lead me along and take care of everything.

Draga drags me from Benetton to Marc & Spencer, Gant and Fox, until my last kernel of resistance succumbs and I start casting Dinars like breadcrumbs on a lost road, learning quickly that men’s clothes are bought not out of taste but exasperation. In brief breaths of lucidity I find myself posing in duds whose maker’s passions are lost on my inclinations, but I buy whatever Draga points at. We gallop by Samsung wide screens, Sony monitors, Woman’s Secret (“Hey, what happened to Victoria?” I pant; “None of your business,” Draga growls back), Avanguardia, Bottega Verde, Jasmin, until I scream, “Who are all these people?” and start running for Knjižare Vulcan - offering the Latest in Literature.

     “They’re on the second floor! I’m sure I saw them!” I shout, and this while the edicts of my usual composure dictate that the merits of quiet desperation can not be overstated. I don’t care anymore! I run over some children, shove their mothers out of the way and flutter like batman up the stairs, with fresh leather flopping and flannel flying, and Draga behind me hurling bloody Serbian curses to anyone who stands in our way.

Bil Brajson, the Serbian transliteration of Bill Bryson
At the Vulcan bookstore, pinching my eyes, hands on my ears, I throw myself on a nervous under-read nerd and demand to be taken to the Bill Bryson section, post haste! Seconds later I’m curled up against the back wall, semi-comatose and clutching an armful of Brajsons against my chest. Draga kneels beside me but as she tucks the tails of my new flannel shirt into my ears, I’m on the Appalachian Trail, with a mild drizzle kissing my face and not a single human soul in sight.

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