In a foreign environment, you notice things.
For example, the last time I read the tiny print of a manufacturer’s pillow label with any degree of scrutiny was in 1968.* Feathers, down, synthetic – what else is there to note? Since the advent of Martha Stewart, Nate Berkus and their legions, pillows have become more sophisticated, but not enough to attract my attention for longer than 0.7 seconds.
Sure, their thread-counts are ever-escalating, they boast various origins of cotton, hemp or bamboo, they have adopted political mantras, and they no longer content themselves with merely snuggling your head, they promise a better life through better sleep. Okay, I’ll buy in.
And I admit it, I’m a pillow nut. Dave sleeps with one skinny prison-issue pillow that is flat, hard, punishing. I sleep with a carousel of pillows: Feather, down, square, rectangular, memory foam, enormous, not-so-enormous, decorative, functional, neck-soothing, pillows designed to stay cool, pillows that insulate. The list is endless.
I have never counted my assortment, but I have so many that there aren’t enough beds for them all, so I rotate them through storage closet to bed and back, depending on the season and my mood. A conservative mental tally leads to a 50-count, not including the ones I hide on my sofas by stitching them into decorative cushion slipcovers. My husband will back me up on this.
Obviously, pillows are the comfort-food of bed linens. That is, until now.
As mentioned before, we live in a hotel, so we are sleeping on hotel pillows. In North America, this suggests New Yorkish elegance, but the industrious Swiss have discovered sleep is economically unproductive so they do what they can to discourage it. Bless their hearts. If you are from the southern U.S., you will know that when I say “bless their hearts,” what I really am saying is, “What the heck? Who thought of this?!”
So our pillows here are closer in dimension to Dave’s single prison-issue pillow back home than to the generous, plump pillows that I crave.
This sent me into our town’s quaint shops in search of a single giant pillow, one pillow to compensate for all the pillows I am doing without. I found such a pillow on sale for about $40, and I was about to buy it when a sales clerk descended upon me, horrified that I would lower myself to the sale-price pillow, and ready to hold an intervention right there on the store floor.
He had a Sprockets wardrobe, accent and demeanor. For those too young to recognize this NBC show Saturday Night Live reference, click here.
“Yooo do not vhant dese pillow,” said Store-Sprockets smacking his palm against the pillow as though to punish it, his dark eyes wide in horror. “Dese pillow has Scheeneese feathers und down. It ees not Sveisse! You! You vant Sveisse!” Okay, so Sprockets doesn’t like Chinese feathers and even suggested through a series of eye rolls, nostril flaring and upward-chin-tilts that Chinese feathers were plucked by Chinese inmates, possibly from other Chinese inmates.
He went on to show me a wonderful selection of Swiss pillows, the cheapest of which was over $100. The most expensive I cannot print here, because it doesn’t seem possible to charge that much for what really is just leftover material from a roast goose dinner.
Recognizing that to purchase the cheapest pillow might cast aspersions on Canadians everywhere, I left the store empty-handed.
Culture Clue: Sprocket quickly deduced my Canadianess when I reeled back at the most expensive pillow. This is how Europeans differentiate between Canadians and Americans – by how much money we are willing to spend. Note: Not how much money we have; but how much we spend.
In the weeks that followed, I was at the mercy of our tiny hotel pillows, that are, by the way, large by Swiss standards. I have seen small square pillows in the stores that measure 12 x 12 inches. One sales clerk said, “Your head is not so big, so why big pillow? Wastes space.”
I wish I was making this up, but I am not.
Eventually, I returned to Sprockets’ store, sneaking to the sale bin again. Even from the linen department, I could hear Sprocket lecturing another customer who was about to make the fatal fashion error of purchasing an unreliable lime-green hand mixer from Germany, when a perfectly good Swiss brand was right next to it.
Thus able to deduce Sprockets’ location and so avoid a follow-up intervention, I plucked the pillow from the bin and snuck off on an evasive route through the toy and sports departments. At the check-out, as I slid my debit card into the slot, I heard Sprockets approaching. Sweat erupted all over my face. This was no mere hormonally induced hot flash. I grabbed the receipt and fled the store.
At the hotel, I chuckled to myself at getting the pillow I really wanted.
Then I looked at the label.
Label-reading is part of my informal language-immersion at which I am doing very poorly, so when I saw the words “pas plume’ a vif,” I was sure I was reading it wrong. A quick online trip to Google translate showed I was not. The label reads in German, French and Italian: No live plucking.
I did not know such a practice existed as plucking a bird while still alive. I am hoping it is a translation problem, and not a fact, but I am afraid to do an online search for fear of learning of new horrors in the world. In the meantime, I should comfort myself that this pillow was not made from tortured birds.
This is what you notice in foreign countries: Labels. Fear them.
* 1968 is not a randomly picked number**. That’s the year I realized my grandparents had a bunch of pillows with no labels. They were homemade, from their own poultry stock. I still have one, but keep it in a closet for fear of the bacterial count that could be living inside it. It could be 50-70 years old.
**Okay. Maybe it wasn’t 1968. It could have been 1965.