EXPAT LIFE: UNDERWEAR BITS AND PIECES

by missfootloose on December 4, 2010 · 33 comments

in And So It Goes, Expat life, life abroad

Oldfashioned knit underwear. Painting by Jopie Huisman

As an expat, do you buy underwear in your host country? No? Maybe you don’t speak the language, or you don’t get your jollies trying on a bra behind a drab curtain in the corner of a market stand, or you don’t like the granny styles available, or…well, you get the picture. Just for your information, Miss Footloose purchases her flimsies in her native Holland or her adopted USA, where it is a stress-free shopping experience.  Well, more or less.

So where am I going with this? On a ramble, I admit. This post is a bit of a patchwork, a few random pieces minimally strung together by the word underwear. A tanga post let’s say. Brief bits.

So let’s travel now to the south of France, where my mate and I and our two young daughters once spent several nights in a ramshackle cottage we rented from a retired Dutch guy with a pony tail, his scantily clad girlfriend and his twenty-something hunky son. The three of them exuded a kind of hippy charm and professed to like the sun-and-wine soaked south of France better than rain-soaked Holland. Imagine that.

They owned a sprawling ruin of a house which they had baptized with the fanciful name of Maison de la Cascade by virtue of a romantic waterfall splashing away on their property. If you’ve got it, flaunt it, is what I think.

The men had haphazardly erected several primitive shacks which they rented out for the price of five dollars a night, e.i. just about nothing.

The rental included breakfast of fresh baguette and bowls of café au lait the size of small lakes. Dinner was available for a modest additional charge and concocted by the men with much creativity if not culinary skill. The meal was eaten en famille outside at a rough wooden table under a grapevine arbor, accompanied by copious amounts of vin rouge. This wine had been purchased at a local co-op which sold the area’s nectar on tap: Bring your own bottles or containers and pump it out of the vat yourself. It was fabulous. The ambiance at la Maison was five-star. Of course this eluded the girls, who preferred dining in castles, as they had in Spain several days earlier.

More creativity was witnessed when we returned from an afternoon excursion and found the sun-bronzed Greek god son sitting at the outdoor table in his Mediterranean blue bikini underpants, deeply engaged in drawing artistic labels for the wine bottles filled with co-op wine: a lovely waterfall with the words La Maison de la Cascade swirling in an elegant arch above it. Each label was a piece of art. Images of this sort stay with me.  The daughters, half their genes puritan American, were also impressed. Not by the labels but by the artist sitting there in his underpants!

Photo by midorisyu

Fast forward to another lingerie incident:

While living in Armenia, two friends and I visited “our” tailor one day. One friend was a  native Armenian, the other hailed from Cameroon, West Africa. Our sewer was a rather unorganized sort with a haphazard approach to business. Each of us was hoping for some progress on our garments which had been languishing on a sagging shelf for some time now. Repeated phone calls had not been very successful in stirring the man out of his (possibly vodka-induced) lethargy.

The tailor’s shop was more like a hoarder’s house than a place of business .  Boxes with assorted junk and piles of fabric were sitting  around on floors and shelves. The “fitting room” was a sort of sitting room/cum office sporting an ailing brown couch begging for retirement, a threadbare carpet devoid of soul, and a scruffy desk of Soviet vintage. A full length mirror leaned drunkenly against the wall, wiped out from reflecting too many unpleasant images perhaps.

Sadly, we're not them

Fortunately, the sewer had managed to do some minimal work on our outfits. In order to speed things up so we could go to lunch and celebrate with a shot of vodka, we went into the room together and starting stripping off our clothes for a fitting.

Photo by Philip Bjerknes

So there we stood in all our baby stretch-mark glory — the European, the African, and the West-Asian — wearing our similarly unexciting underthings. We looked at each other and it came to us in an epiphany: We were really friends now.

* * *

So, do you have an underwear story?  Foreign or domestic? Either one will be appreciated, but keep it clean (if possible).

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{ 33 comments… read them below or add one }

Rambles with Reese December 4, 2010 at 4:23 am

Great post! I love the little details about the family. I could imagine all of it, including the underwear :-)).

p.s. the place sounds so reasonable, could you give more details on the rental?

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missfootloose December 4, 2010 at 9:46 pm

Thanks! The details are always fun, and it’s what made the incident memorable. The story took place some time ago and I’m afraid they were so reasonable they worked themselves right out of business. I couldn’t find them again when I went looking for them.

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Karen Barr December 4, 2010 at 10:31 am

Enjoyed the post. Back in the days of expat life I certainly preferred to shop for undies at home, but that was not always possible. There came a point when living in Egypt many years ago that that it was apparent that buying bras could not wait for home leave. After talking with an Egyptian friend and getting the address of “the best shop” I headed out. I already knew that the sizing scheme was totally different so I was prepared to have to try them on behind a curtain in the back. No. Not done that way. When I asked the man where I could try them on he assured me that was not possible. When I protested that I did not know what size I wore there he assured me that wasn’t a problem. He would tell me. He then took a long look at my body, handed me a box and assured me this one would fit fine. Bought it, took it home and he was right. Perfect fit. Carefully cut out the size from the box to make sure I never had to do that again. I don’t think I have ever felt so “undressed” as I did in that shop.

After wearing that one I bought several (taking the old box with me). They were all cotton with just a couple of small elastic inserts. FAR more comfortable in the Egyptian heat (we had no air-conditioning) than the ones I had brought with me. Stocked up before we left.

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missfootloose December 4, 2010 at 9:50 pm

Hi Karen! Fancy seeing you here in cyberspace! (We knew each other in Indonesian times 😉

I loved your Egyptian tale! I could just see this happen, and how excruciatingly uncomfortable to buy a bra from a man, and then to find he knew exactly what you needed. Great story.

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Judy December 4, 2010 at 10:37 am

Ha, ha, I really enjoyed this post! Shopping for underwear is one of those small details that assumes incredible importance for us women when we go to live in another country. Stories from my own travels:-

In Azerbaijan, when we first arrived in 1996, the only underwear I ever saw was reinforced soviet bras for sale in the market. As I watched the local women examine them I had to wonder, how on earth does anyone buy a bra without trying it on first? Did the stallholders allow them to return it if it didn’t fit? I never did discover.

In Egypt what struck me was the contrast between the demure outfits worn by women in the streets (sack-like, long sleeved, long skirts) and the incredibly racy underwear on display in some store windows – red and black lace, crotchless panties, feather boas – enough to make a hooker blush. Did the women buy it themselves? Did their husbands buy it for them? The stores always seemed deserted.

As for me the one bit of British-ness I’ve been unable to give up is my love of Marks & Spencer underwear. I continue to have it shipped to wherever I am, often at ridiculous expense. I paid $59 in duty for a large parcel just this week. I must be mad!

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missfootloose December 5, 2010 at 12:11 am

Marks & Spencer underwear has a mythical reputation and even non-Brits are familiar with it! As for Muslim women who are all covered up in black, I understand that underneath, they often sport the latest fashions from Paris or Milan.

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john falchetto December 4, 2010 at 11:34 am

Hilarious post! I love it. A really refreshing view on the expat search for clothes in the host country. As Judy says I was always surprised by the number of racy lingerie shops in Arab countries, where most women dress very modestly in public.
The Saudis took it a step further by removing the heads of the mannequins in the windows but then realized there was still too much for the eye so banned the mannequins all together.

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missfootloose December 5, 2010 at 12:13 am

I love that mannequin story!

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Maria December 4, 2010 at 11:44 am

No, Judy, not mad. Marks & Sparks saved my life in Singapore, where the bras were generally made for the ultra-petite Asian figure (and included an astonishing amount of padding.) Until I discovered the lingerie department at M&S, I despaired of ever finding a suitable home for “the girls.” And then I moved to France, which was lingerie heaven. I still drool a little when I remember going up the escalator of Galeries Lafayette, and seeing all that frothy loveliness coming into view. A lot of it was beyond my price range, but a girl can dream!

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missfootloose December 5, 2010 at 12:16 am

Never thought of the small sizes you’d find in Singapore! Buying a simple bra can be a problem of major proportions (no pun intended 😉 when shopping in alien parts, it seems.

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missfootloose December 5, 2010 at 1:08 am

I enjoyed your post, your experience in Tanzania. Married men washing their own undies. What an image! Hope you don’t get more creepy comments!

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Bianca December 5, 2010 at 6:18 am

In Egypt I had the choice between fancy schmancy style stores selling what I’ve been used to at home (La Senza style..) or a stuffy shop full of women in niqaab. So I chose the first one, thinking I’m a cool chick. The bubble burst when the shop girl looked at me as if I were a filthy insect: “42? No, we don’t have sizes that big”.
Such a reaction is surprising if you consider Egypt reached position nr. 14 on the WHO’s list of fattest countries this year. It’s quite clear they shop elsewhere, which I do too…
Home, anonimously!

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missfootloose December 7, 2010 at 1:07 pm

Thank you for the warning! It’s so much easier to just shop for your intimates in your home country.

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guyana gyal December 5, 2010 at 4:21 pm

Here, a gal is not supposed to mix up her undies with the regular clothing. It’s considered ‘dirty’. But MEN can have their underpants washed with other people’s clothing. Can you imagine?!!!

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missfootloose December 7, 2010 at 1:09 pm

In many cultures women and their bodies are often considered dirty. In some places they are to stay away from the kitchen and cooking during their time of the month, or they are not allowed to enter temples. I wonder how they check?

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Madame DeFarge December 5, 2010 at 4:54 pm

I always carry plenty of clean underwear when abroad, just in case of moral hazards. A girl can never be too careful where elastic is concerned.

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missfootloose December 7, 2010 at 1:11 pm

Your advice is practical and no-nonsense, and greatly appreciated! A girl can never be too careful while traveling in alien lands.

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Ian December 6, 2010 at 6:21 pm

I make it a rule when I’m travelling never to try on a bra behind a drab curtain in the corner of a market stand, although I once entered a bar wearing a pair of underpants on my head.

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missfootloose December 7, 2010 at 1:14 pm

Englishmen are always such a surprise once they venture abroad. Something just breaks free once they’ve left the confines of their island. In case you do need a bra, I hear you can do well at Marks and Spencer’s.

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MaryWitzl December 6, 2010 at 7:09 pm

I love that story about your epiphany with your friends!

I may have told this story before (I’m sure I did somewhere)… When we lived in Japan, my cousin sent me a joke pair of racy underwear from Fredericks of Hollywood (not sure of the spelling). They were black lace and scandalous as all get out and I’d never worn them, but being me I could not bring myself to throw them out. Our daughter was three at the time and she found them. A friend of ours showed up for dinner that same evening and he could not look me in the eye. When our daughter swanned into the room I knew why: she was wearing that horrible underwear on her HEAD.

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missfootloose December 7, 2010 at 1:16 pm

Thanks for the laugh! What a fun story. I can just see it happen!

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edj December 6, 2010 at 9:28 pm

I never bought underwear in Mauritania. The market had stalls of new (newish?) underwear, being sold by young men. I could not even meet their eye!
Morocco had those stalls too, and an American friend dared to buy them. Morocco also has French lingerie stores though. Not to mention sales. I love French underwear.
Such a funny topic! So important to us all, our “unmentionables.”

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missfootloose December 7, 2010 at 1:19 pm

I love all the comments! Underwear clearly stirs up people’s emotions, fears, embarrassments and so on. Just like we were still in nursery school!

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Mara December 7, 2010 at 6:04 am

I once had a colleague who seemed to fancy me quite a bit. Of course I was completely oblivious to this, even when he asked me about my underwear size (bra included). Just before New Year’s he handed me a package and out came a bright red little ensemble! The fit was just about right, but I did wonder why he had given them to me.

A few weeks later (after he had started ignoring me), I found out that in Italy (where he hailed from), giving a woman red underwear for New Year’s is a sign of love and devotion! Now, how am I, a silly and naive Dutch girl supposed to know that? Anyway, it never worked out between us, even after I found out…

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missfootloose December 7, 2010 at 1:20 pm

I love this! Cultural confusion, Italian style. I learned something, and am now forewarned in case an Italian ever gives me underwear. Well, I can live in hope!

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GutsyWriter December 7, 2010 at 10:20 am

I remember those men in France in their skimpy Speedos. I used to date one myself. Anyway Judy’s comment on “reinforced soviet bras” makes me laugh. I can visualize them, and how a small gun would pop out if a man tried to get close to the woman’s breast.

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missfootloose December 7, 2010 at 1:23 pm

Reinforced Soviet bras, what an image. The fashionable young ones in Moscow won’t be wearing them, but I assume in the hinterland they’re still available, with or without attached little guns.

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maria altobelli December 9, 2010 at 2:17 pm

Another great post, Miss Footloose. I love Karen’s comment about being eyeballed for bra size. Makes me think a trip to Egypt might be the easiest way to get a bra for me—plus the fact that they’re made for hot weather. Now that’s a plus.

Trying out bras is not allowed where I live as well. I often wonder if that’s why a friend had breast reduction surgery—she said the best part of it was that she hasn’t worn a bra for over two years. Seems a tad extreme to me.

Wearing red panties in Mexico is supposed to ensure a woman love in the year to come. They are to be put on at midnight, New Year’s Eve and the charm works best if they are a gift. Yellow is supposed to ensure good fortune and gilt. There are a number of convoluted instructions that go along with this practice. Tradition supplies a slew of other things to do around midnight as well. Don’t know how anyone can do them all. I love the one about running around the house hauling a suitcase to ensure travel during the next twelve months. I’ve actually done that one. The neighbors loved it.

Now there’s a plan. I’ll run around the house again with that suitcase this New Year’s and then Paul and I will go to Egypt in 2011. I’ll take the same suitcase (empty) and fill it with bras.

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bettyl December 19, 2010 at 6:30 am

Great story! I have never been very particular about clothing of any sort, for the most part, so I have no exciting stories to tell…except for figuring out the NZ bra sizes!

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Davida Goldberg December 21, 2010 at 7:02 pm

This is a fun blog, I’m glad that I found it and plan to read more. You’ve got yourself a new follower. Happy writing.

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geeGee Parrot May 18, 2013 at 7:19 am

What a wonderful selection of comments.. Here in London (uk), there is a street market called Ridley Road, at Dalston Junction. There, in the market, are two underwear stalls.. one selling knickers, the other bras. And SUCH bras! The most glorious you have ever seen, some for ‘every day’ use and some for evening wear, but both types in fabulous colours, you want pale turquoise, primrose, chartreuse, lilac.. they are here, along with white, ecru, cream, ivory, charcoal, black etc, you get the drift! Price.. £2.00 each! Lord knows where they come from.. they do go up to 40″ but D is the largest cup. Two friends of mine buy them and say they are wonderful.. so the next time you have spare time.. mosey over to Ridley Road Market and find the stall.

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missfootloose May 18, 2013 at 2:49 pm

Oh, thank you for your comment! That market sound so much fun! I may be in England next year so maybe I’ll have a chance to visit it. It might give me some great photo opportunities 😉

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geeGee Parrot May 18, 2013 at 5:06 pm

Oh yes.. great photo opportunities! Black Africa meets Asia at this market.
There is another wonderful stall is run by a charming woman from the Cameroon’s.. she sells the greatest handbags! My travel bag on wheels came from her at £25.00, holds enough for a 10 day trip! I used to travel a lot so know how to squeeeze things in, the wheels are sturdy yet retract and the zip is strong, great bargain!
And at the top of the market is The Turkey Food Centre run by Leila.. & what a clever girl SHE is! Full of delicious yumyum food and great things for cooks.
You will enjoy a trip to this market.. Broadway Market it is NOT, this is NOT a tourist market, this is a proper London Street Market for people who live near-by and it is open 6 days a week. A 38 bus takes you all the way there from Victoria, or it is directly opposite Dalston Junction Station.
Have fun!

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