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Monday, November 21, 2005

Bloomingdale's: We're Not In Sri Lanka Anymore

I don't own a credit card with America's haute couture retailer, Bloomingdale's. Nevertheless, a prestigious catalogue arrived in my mail about a week ago. Bloomingdale's mailed the gift catalogue in the guise of an expensive holiday invitation, placed inside a legal sized embossed white envelope. Unfortunately, I couldn't re-use the magnificent envelope after it ripped while opening, so into the trash it went, tout suite.

Still, I didn't throw the actual Bloomingdale catalogue away because, despite it's over priced displays of Holiday gift merchandise, having a copy is almost akin to owning a piece of American pop art. Retail items like jewelry and cloths displayed by waxen-eyed catalogue models appeared to cost as much as some Andy Warhol pop-art originals.

New York City's literary icon, the late Henry James, is quoted in an inscription over-laying a baby doll model's photograph: "It's time to start living the life you've imagined," is the quote. Actually, Henry, I can't imagine. Nevertheless, I confess to momentary bedazzlement with the Bloomingdale's catalogue.

But then, I awoke from my dream-shopping with those perfect stick shaped Bloomingdale's models, because my husband and I were preparing to entertain Rotary Club international guests for dinner, from Sri Lanka.

Sri Lanka citizens Keerthi and Malkanthi DeSilva were recent guests of our Rotary Club of Brunswick, Maine. They arrived courtesy of a travel grant awarded by Rotary International (RI) for the purpose of providing a cultural exchange between the Brunswick Rotary in Maine and the Rotary Club of Colombo Central, in Sri Lanka. Together, the two clubs will help rebuild a fishing village devastated by the December 26, 2004 Tsunami, one of the largest humanitarian disasters to occur in modern history.

Sri Lanka is an island nation located in the Indian Ocean off the Southeast coast of India. Once known as Ceylon, the name was changed to Sri Lanka in 1972, said Keerthi. Malkanthi impressed us with her beautiful native Sari dresses and Ceylon jewelry. They have one son who attends college in Melbourne, Australia.

We talked with the De Silva's about building projects costing several thousands of dollars to help the fishing village called Duwe Modera, in the south of the island. Rebuilding five houses and a community education center to re-train those who lost jobs caused by the disaster, especially fishermen, is estimated to cost $81,000. This price tag is less money than many middle class American families make in annual salaries, when all household income is tallied.

Our Brunswick Rotary discussed how to complete the Sri Lanka building project given the competing string of disasters subsequent to last December 26, when the Tsunami hit Asia. Although other catastrophic disasters unexpectedly erupted since the horrible Tsunami, the Brunswick Rotary made a promise to deliver on the commitment made to the needy Sri Lankan village. Our club's membership supports the building project because it's direct aid, from one Rotary to another. Also, it's a mission we can see to the end whereby one village will benefit from realizing achievable goals.

A value added advantage was the rare opportunity to meet Keerthi and Malkanthi, two exceptional cultural ambassadors from Sri Lanka. Their visit cemented the project's future through the friendships they created.

Keerthi and Malkanthi experienced a traditional Thanksgiving Dinner while they were guests in our Topsham, Maine home along with David Fuller, the current Brunswick Rotary president and his wife, Carol. Although the De Silva's enjoyed the turkey dinner, the vanilla ice cream served on the apple pie a la mode appeared to be their favorite.

Dinner conversation with the De Silva's didn't focus on Asia's poverty and destruction. Clearly, the underlying reason for their visit to Maine, to request $81,000 from Rotary International needed to build five houses and a community education center in Duwe Modera, are evidence enough to describe the humble living standards of Sri Lanka's average citizens.

Although the De Silva's appear to enjoy middle class status in Sri Lanka, they're socio-economic position puts them in a minority among the other 20 million citizens, where annual per capita income is about $2000 a year.

In other words, in Bloomingdale's retail language, the per capita annual income of two average Sri Lanka citizens equates to owning one Chanel black tweed jacket (found on page 5 of the mail catalogue), with white lace collar and cuffs, priced at $4,080 apiece. Add the silk handkerchief skirt in black and it's another "Chanel moment" at $2,980. Owning Chanel's designer ensemble will cost $7,060, or more than three times the per capita income of one Sri Lanka citizen.

"Sorry, no phone orders", directs the catalogue.

I really should call Bloomingdale's to reassure them about not receiving a phone order from me. "Don't worry about a phone order from me. I'm sending my money to charity this year," I could say to their phone-voice machine.

Although I have nothing against Bloomingdale's in particular, I simply cannot imagine living life consumed by wearing designer fashions with price tags that have the decimal point misplaced by three columns to the right.

As upper crust as Henry James was, I'm even pretty sure he never imagined paying $1,395 to buy a Canal Tux when he died in 1916, like the style modeled on page 4 of the catalogue.
The extraordinary price tags of the Georgio Armani gold silk scroll embroidered jacket at $3175, plus the matching gold silk georgette skirt at $1325, added to the St. John black sequin gown at $2095, started to create an unbelievable dream-tab in my Bloomingdale's fantasy.

Pretty soon, each item added with the one before exceeded the cost of building five houses and a community center in Duwe Modera, Sri Lanka.

My 2005 Bloomingdale's Holiday gift catalogue now sits as a piece of memorabilia of stuff I should throw away, but don't. Owning the catalogue is the closest I'll ever get to thinking about a phone order to Bloomingdale's to purchase anything made by Armani.

Perhaps Bloomingdale's gave a donation to Tsunami relief when the international community poured resources into the Asian area to help hundreds of thousands of victims and their desperate families. Hopefully, Bloomingdale's also gives money to charities like the United Say, the Salvation Army, the Red Cross and to homeless shelters. I sure hope so.

Keerthi and Malkanthi sent me an e-mail when they arrived home in Sri Lanka after flying for over 20 hours:

"Dear Juli: We are back home. We enjoyed every moment of our visit. We thank your for hospitality and in particular for that wonderful dinner at your place. Please convey our regards to your husband and all nice people whom we met at CHANS home healthcare."

Indeed, Thanksgiving dinner with Keerthi and Malkanthi was a lesson about showing compassion for others.

Perhaps Henry James should have imagined living life in a poor place like Sri Lanka, although the country was Ceylon when he was among New York City's high society set.
Thousands of people who cannot "start living the life you've imagined" are struggling to survive throughout the world - especially in Pakistan following the recent earthquake.

As a matter of fact, one day of shopping in Bloomingdale's could feed many of the third world's families for a year.

Living in the woods of Topsham, Maine, I can't imagine shopping in Bloomingdale's. Neither can I imagine being as poor as the people in Sri Lanka. Yet, when I imagine the people we're trying to help in Duwe Modera, I know we're not in Bloomingdale's anymore.

Happy Thanksgiving.