Friday, December 23rd. 11:30am.
1st floor of Starbucks Cafe. Václavské náměstí, Prague.
I climb the stairs from the ground floor, backpack filled with new books, venti latte in my right hand. Just a few spots are free, but those are at the small wooden tables with wooden chairs. I have a very clear idea why I came here – to take a break from Christmas shopping. That includes falling into a soft, comfortable armchair at a table next to the window. I’ll try my luck. There’s one table that’s only semi-occupied. Four comfortable armchairs on two sides. Two on one side there are two girls – I’m guessing 18 or 19 years old. On the other – two seats waiting for me.
“Would you mind if I sit here?”, I ask.
“Sure”, one of them answers, without looking at me, fully engaged in the conversation with her friend.
I put the large cup on the table and take off my black winter jacket. Take my Kindle out from the back pocket of my jeans and fall into the chair. In my mind, I dive into the world of the Healthy, Wealthy and Wise, as Tim Ferriss calls them in the book I’m reading – Tools of Titans. In a few moments I am fully absorbed. A million miles away from Prague’s Christmas Shopping craze. Until…
“Christmas shopping sucks, really”, vividly exclaims one of the girls sitting across the table. “Yeah”, says the other. “I mean, look, buying gifts, ten years ago, at least it meant something for people. But now – people are just buying gifts because they have to buy gifts. And it makes them stress out like crazy.”
“Yeah. You’re right. Christmas shopping sucks!”
Christmas Shopping Problem
I close my Kindle to let that thought sink in. I have to admit – I know what she means. I woke up today (23rd December – one day before we celebrate Christmas) in the morning fully aware that I didn’t have a single gift ready. While I was making myself eggs for breakfast, I was mentally preparing myself for the fights in the crowds. And fast forward, in my mind, I was playing the awkward moment when I would not be able to get for my mum, my sister or my grandma any gift that would be “good enough”. I felt guilty for not having started shopping for the gifts earlier (even though I promised myself I would – same as every year before). I felt shame for disappointing the people who are closest to me. And who certainly have all the gifts for me secured.
That thought tore my self-image into pieces. I knew what the problem was.
“Christmas shopping sucks!”
Or does it?
What exactly it is that sucks about Christmas shopping? Is December the wrong month for shopping?
Or is it that we have created expectations for ourselves that are in the end hard for us to meet? That we have made it a performance exercise that ends with a “pass” or “fail” mark? That we fear that the people we love will be angry with us if we don’t make their wishes come true?
If that had to be the case, then certainly, Christmas shopping would suck. But guess what – Christmas shopping is what we decide it to be.
Eating the breakfast, I thought this through. Was it really that complicated?
I knew my sister wanted to go to a Guns N’ Roses concert (hey, I know what you’re thinking – my sister DOES listen to good music). Easy! For my mum – we would share with my sister the costs of getting her a ticket to a Rammstein concert (hey, I know what you’re thinking now – and you’re right – my mum DOES listen to even better music than my sister). My grandma – I knew I could get her a book she would enjoy. A book I loved reading. Fantasy with a pinch of fairy tales. I would get the Witcher for her (hey, I know what you’re thinking – and you’re right again – my grandma DOES read good stuff; she does not listen to Guns N’ Roses nor to Rammstein though; nobody is perfect).
Done! I mean – these were not the most impressive gifts. But they were “good enough”.
I quickly crafted the gift vouchers in PowerPoint and went to have them printed in Copy General. Then I turned to the NeoLuxor bookstore. At 10am, was not even crowded. Five minutes to eleven, the “must have” gifts were in my backpack. So hey, while I was there in the bookstore, what else could I get for Christmas?
I knew that I didn’t have to buy anything else. But that was exactly when the shopping became fun. Walking along the aisles, I just kept bumping into an idea after idea, what else I could get. Maybe my mum would enjoy a book on sketchnoting, since she kept studying various new subjects. And wow, here was a book of photos of Holešovice from the first half of the 20th century. It was the area where my grandma lives all her life – I’m sure these photos would remind her of her youth!
At 11:30, I climbed the staircase in Starbucks on the other side of Václavské náměstí.
“Christmas shopping sucks!”, said the girl on the other side of the table. I closed the Kindle to let that thought sink in. I smiled and nodded. I knew what she meant.
I continue reading. In the book I’m now at page 153, chapter “Three tips from a Google Pioneer”. I note the “Loving-Kindness” exercise. Tim summarizes it: “I tend to do a single 3-5 minute session at night, thinking of three people I want to be happy.” I close my Kindle again. Let’s do this! I settle for two. I remember a friend I have not seen in a long time. I keep her happiness in mind for 30 seconds. Then I shift attention to a stranger sitting across the aisle on my left. Another 30 seconds. Done. And wow, it works! My mood is significantly better than 60 seconds ago.
“This is brilliant!”, I think. In my mind a flash of an image from the bookstore I left 10 minutes ago. They’ve got this Tools of Titans book there in paperback. What if I bought a few copies for my friends?
I’m back in the book store in another 10 minutes. Three pieces left. I take them all. “Do you have more than these?”, I ask the shop assistant. “Unfortunately. Those are the last ones.”
I shrug. I guess three is good enough.
I get out from the bookstore, phone in my hand. I’m calling my friend – let’s call him Jan. The book would be great for him. If he’s in the city center right now – I could just bring it to him. Jan does not pick up. Let’s call another friend of mine – let’s call her Anna.
“Hey Anna. Are you in the city right now?”
“Great. Let’s meet in 30 minutes in Palladium.”
“Uh… all right!” One of the things I like about Anna is that Anna does not ask unnecessary questions.
Sitting in Palladium in Costa Coffee, waiting for Anna. Writing an inscription inside the book I plan to give her, with my eyes pinned to the page. I notice a coat of a man passing around my table – and he’s taking a seat at the table! I look up to see his face – and it’s Jan! The guy who did not pick up the phone a while ago! “Hey Lukas. I saw you called me, so I thought I’ll meet you in Palladium.” He was joking, of course. It was just a coincidence he was there. But was it? Out of all my friends I could randomly meet there, I meet the guy whom I called – and for whom I have a gift in my bag?
Maybe it’s Christmas magic.
“I’ve got something for you,” I tell him and pull out the first of the three books out from my bag. We chat a bit. Then Anna finds us. She gets the book. Neither she nor Jan are in a rush. We have an unexpected cup of almost-Christmas afternoon coffee. Then we wish each other Merry Christmas and each of us goes back to execution of their Christmas shopping plan.
The Bottom Line
Gift-buying: Mission accomplished. But more importantly, I realized that today, for the first time in long years, I enjoyed the whole day of Christmas shopping. Every gift I bought, or even every gift I considered buying, made me imagine what would it be like when the person would receive it. Even when surrounded by crowds, I spent the whole day with my friends and my family. Not only with Anna and Jan. With all those who entered my mind.
That was an experience worth having.
Christmas shopping rocks.