You know it's time to get your eyes tested when you can no longer read "BREAKING NEWS" at the bottom of the screen on Sky News, even WITH your glasses on. (I'm so glad we're still able to get that leading, incisive, trail-blazing news organisation's broadcasts out here so we can stay up with current affairs. Where else can you see the Saddam execution video on continuous loop for 48 hours, or be among the first to know that Shilpa won Celebrity Big Brother?).
Neither Karen nor I had had our eyes re-tested for a couple of years and, as I've said countless times before, there ain't much to do here of a Thursday afternoon, so last week we decided to spend the day shopping and seeing if we need new glasses (as if we didn't already know!).
Granada Mall in Riyadh has several opticians: Pearle, Magrabi Optical to name but two (the only two whose names I can remember), and from the outside they certainly look the part: lots of designer names displayed, "40% Sale!", and so on. The big difference with shop windows here compared with, well, anywhere else, is that they are completely lacking any human imagery. In an Optician's window in Europe, for example, you would see photos of attractive models sporting their eyewear while engaged in sophisticated pursuits, like haring round a mountain road in an open-topped Ferrari, or lounging in bikinis, cocktail in hand, on the back of a luxury yacht in Monte Carlo. Or even just a close up of a pretty face wearing equally pretty glasses. In Saudi, however, such images are strictly forbidden. We even once saw a large billboard-sized ad on the side of a brand new Timberland store depicting a rugged outdoor-type male standing on top of a rock formation in the mountains and wearing the tough boots, thick sweater etc. that you can buy inside the store, but his face had been blacked out!
So, apart from the lack of nice photos showing us what we could look like if we buy our glasses here, the store looked pretty competent and professional.
"I wonder if you can get new glasses same-day like in the UK?" Karen pondered. I very much doubted it. Based on previous experiences here things take their own sweet time, and there's nothing you can do to speed it up or slow it down. I told her we'd go in with low expectations, fully anticipating a wait of two weeks for any glasses we may order. We went in and were immediately approached by the Filipino Optometrist who, on hearing that we both wanted eye tests, ushered us to a nearby machine in the middle of the shop floor. It was one of those things that you sit at and look into a couple of lenses -- a bit like a fixed pair of binoculars, and the guy measures the vital statistics of each of your eyes. I was a bit worried that this was "it", all the eye test we were going to get, but afterwards he took us in turn to a room at the back that put me immediately at ease, because it was just like every other eye exam room I've ever been in, with the letter chart on the wall and everything. He took my old glasses out to another machine, and returned only about a minute later to predict that my prescription has hardly changed at all: just 0.25 in one eye. I said that I didn't care. I want another eye test and some new glasses anyway (I was feeling a bit flush that day and always feel good when I'm buying myself something new).
So, both eye tests done, it was time to pick out frames. I was expecting new glasses to cost us about £250 each, which is a pretty average price in the UK (for designer frames), so I had a total budget of £500, or SR3,500 in mind. But, as we started to browse through the designers: Prada, Boss, Armani, D&G, Lacoste, Converse, we found that they were much cheaper than we were expecting (everything was 40% off after all). The Optometrist also gave us prices for the lenses, which were again much cheaper than we were expecting, so to cut a long story short we spent up to our budget by buying two pairs of regular glasses each, and a pair of prescription sunglasses each. Karen and I each ordered a pair of Steppers (which I took to be their house brand), mine are a weigh-nothing, twist-and-turn-and-they-spring-back Titanium pair, and our second pairs are Dolce & Gabbana (K), and Converse (me).
The next pleasant surprise was that, although the sunglasses would take a couple of weeks, our new glasses would be ready in just over an hour. We went off and had some lunch and browsed a couple more shops (including 30 minutes of voluntary imprisonment in Carrefour during prayer time), and sure enough there were four brand new pairs of glasses waiting for us when we returned to the store an hour and a half later.
Six pairs of glasses in an hour, and for the cost of two in the UK? This place continues to surprise, entertain, and madden me in equal measure.