I love anything free, actually, and would argue that this is a basic human instinct with some important evolutionary basis that I have not entirely thought through. Give me time though. Have you ever been at a mainline station when they are giving out unspeakable flavoured new crisps or banana and tofu cereal bars, or tiny samples of men's deodorant? And there are inexplicable hordes of people queueing up for fizzy strawberry yoghurt drinks? Well there I am, right at the front of the queue, ideally angling for two or three, and coming back a few minutes later from another angle to try and inveigle them into giving me even more. That's more: STUFF I DO NOT LIKE. But like I say, it's pathological. A typical Wednesday (my day off) when we lived in Spitalfields would involve me taking both boys on a lengthy tour of Liverpool Street station and its environs to see how much free crap we could accumulate. I even once signed up for a gym induction (I KNOW) so that Lashes could get a free frisbee. I love free.
There is a hierarchy of free, though, and my favourite kind of free is free cosmetic samples. This is an area where France effortlessly outclasses England. In England, obtaining the smallest pathetic vial of carpet cleaner scented perfume requires a rigorous vetting process akin to a job interview. Do you LIKE the brand? Are you committed? What are you buying today to merit our mililitre of synthetic bird sick? Or course, this also plays on our natural British reticence. We would not dream of actually ASKING for free samples, so the sadistic sales ladies in Boots, or at beauty counters the length and breadth of Britain withold them, only opening their magical drawer of promise when you have already parted with large wodges of your cash on some piece of pricey snake oil.
The extension of this, of course, are those "free gift with two purchases (of which one skincare)" offers that act on my cerebral cortex like some kind of a class A narcotic, removing all sense, judgment and inhibitions. I MUST HAVE the bronze pleather beach bag with the pearlised pink lip gloss, the hand cream (hand cream, you are simply pointless, sorry) and the blue eyeshadow, dolly sized. It's pre-rational. I have to have it. I queue up with my fellow zombies to select the cheapest combination of product that gives access to free gift nirvana, ignore the scorn of the saleshags, snatch my dainty padded lurex pochette and run away, cackling, to admire my spoils. They are invariably 85% horrid and pointless to 15% useful, but somehow the total economic idiocy of these operations never discourages me.
It's not like that in France. For France is the land of Sephora. As a nineteen year old arriving in France, Sephora was like the land of milk and honey for me. Not only did it have the joy of self service shelves (no need to talk to drag queen faced gorgons to buy a bottle of cleanser!) and testers, but as a matter of course, whatever tiny item you bought, the girls on the counter would nonchalantly open their magic drawer, sweep up a handful of precious tiny magic items, and put them in your bag. Most of the fun of buying any kind of make up was in the bag of esoterica you would get with it, things you could take home and stroke gleefully. Usually, I wouldn't even get round to using them, or would discover they smelt like Dettol, or brought me out in a rash, or were a shade of foundation best described as 'baby poo'. That was Not The Point, however. The point was the freeness. The freeness extends even to French pharmacies,where they are quite liable to hand over whole fistfuls of treats even if you are only buying a toothbrush. Sometimes the samples you receive are quite puzzling, admittedly. I remember a work trip to Monte Carlo (this was before the credit crunch reduced us to cycling trips to Knokke la Zoute, ah, happy age of innocence) where after buying a facial scrub, I got a cream for cracked nipples and a mysterious nasal spray whose instructions were entirely in Italian. Not to mention this incident.
Of course, if the free samples are actually good, even better. My absolute best ever holiday was at Les Sources de Caudalie*, not just because it is a spa in a vineyard (and let's just take a minute over that. A Spa. In a VINEYARD. Does it get any better than that?), or because it's outrageously beautiful and stylish AND you get to fight with a giant homicidal swan and you might get to see someone halfway famous in their dressing gown. No. Because in the spa changing rooms they had giant baskets of free samples. And I mean GIANT. Every morning I would go down there in my robe and come out, pockets bulging with small tubes and phials. Then I would go back and do the whole thing again, and again, and again until the basket was empty. The massages were fantastic, sure, and the scrub with grape pips was an experience, but the real pleasure was sitting on my bed afterwards and gloating at my ever growing mountain of product samples. I still consider it one of my most cost effective holidays ever, since I didn't need to buy any skincare products for eighteen whole months thereafter.
There isn't really any point to this post except to say look!
*For the avoidance of doubt, sadly Les Sources de Caudalie are NOT paying me to say this. Hardly surprising since I have basically just admitted to stealing most of their inventory. And I wonder why noone offers me free stuff on this blog? Pah.