When I was growing up in Galveston during the ’70s and ’80s, we had one shopping mall. Galvez Mall was the perfect size for our small-ish city. There were the usual ’80s staples (Limited, Corn Dog Factory, arcade, movie theater), but also a couple fancy, locally-owned department stores and more than one t-shirt shack.
Really, there was no reason to venture off the island, which is exactly the way Galvestonians like it.
Except once a year.
Every December my friend, Dawn, and her mom would make a trip to Houston’s Galleria to shop for Christmas gifts. Most years Dawn invited me for a shopping trip that might as well been to Italy for how strange and beautiful and exciting it was.
Even back then, maybe especially back then, the Galleria was a place of magic. A huge ice rink spread out over most of the bottom floor. Also, exotic stores like Benetton and Neiman-Marcus sparkled and shined, like nothing we had at our touristy surf shacks back home.
Whereas Galvez Mall was a one-story rectangle that a pre-teen could cruise in about ten minutes, the Galleria was an explosion of sophisticated-looking Houstonians wearing all black and rushing from store to store.
Dawn’s mom would let us run wild all over the mall. “Meet me back in front of Lord and Taylor at nine.” We would dart into stores like Hot Sox, which sold hundreds of socks in every shade of every color. Or Units, an ’80’s staple with fabric belts and tube tops you could also wear as skirts.  The Galleria was Land of the Exotic: Wicks and Sticks, Contempo Casuals, and three huge chandeliers that sparkled and shined like nothing on our little island.
Thirty years later, visiting the Galleria still seems like an escape. The mall has been renovated and expanded into one of Houston’s most popular tourist destinations. With almost 400 stores, including a Tesla car “lot” (that is, four Teslas in a sparkling showroom) and the only Prada store in Texas, the whole place really is larger than life.
The sensation of being part of something larger than myself is probably why I hung out at the Galleria pretty much all the time after each of my children were born. Like, seriously, every day.
My hair was not washed, my mind was not clear, my body was not rested, but I would load up my stroller (or double stroller), throw on my tennis shoes, and head to the Galleria to walk around and lose the baby weight. And to be some place other than my own living room because that smelled too much like regurgitated breast milk.
Last weekend the girls and I celebrated a friend’s birthday at a princess party. When it was over, we found ourselves with an empty afternoon and in Uptown Houston. We stopped by the Galleria, which was like stopping into the pages of the kids’ baby books.
“Look, Catie! You puked all over that potty once!”; “We met Jen and Elijah there once and he screamed through the whole elevator ride because he didn’t get to push the button!”; “See those ladies with surveys? I used to get paid to take those while you napped, Elisabeth!”
The girls are typical narcissistic children, so they love any story featuring them. They were thrilled to wander around the bustling Galleria, openly gaping at women wearing belly dancer outfits or quincenera dresses, or more tattoos than Kat Von D and hearing stories of their childhood.
Just like me thirty years ago, the whole experience was other-worldly from our lives, like visiting the zoo. Or Italy. Or a house without underwear on the living room floor.
We walked through Chanel and Fendi and sampled the perfume. We tried the exotic tea at Teavana and watched videos at the Disney store. We were doing what everyone else was. We were in Rome, acting like Romans.
So, when we passed a nail salon with Vietnamese letters on the glass and a woman calling, “Cheap! You get pedicure! Manicure! So pretty nails! Come inside!”a full nail treatment just seemed like the right escape-from-real-life activity for a Saturday afternoon.
The nail technicians weren’t kidding about the cheap. Or the pretty. Four women, chattering non-stop in Vietnamese, soaked, scrubbed, buffed, clipped, painted, and designed our nails. An hour later, when all  sixty of our nails were, “so Pretty Nails!” we only owed them $60.
A dollar a nail for these women to transform our grubby, bitten-down nails into Vegas show-girl looks. SO worth it.
When we finally left the Galleria and walked out into the sunshine, it seemed like we were stepping out of a dream. Catie commented that it felt like we had been on a trip.
Which we had.
Maybe we hadn’t gone to Italy, but for a couple hours on Saturday, our little band of three went on a vacation.

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