Today we rented a car, a cute little Daewoo Matiz which has been christened Bianca, “Whitey.” Tomorrow we ‘damo uno giro’, make a tour, but first we’re off to the grocery to pick up some supplies and really prepare to settle in. Making a grocery list brings up memories of our first trip to an Italian grocery and also reminds me that even the most mundane of activities can be a lesson in culture shock when you’re living in a foreign country.
We were living about 13 miles west of Florence near a tiny village called Malmantile, which had a population of perhaps 500 and two groceries. Italian groceries seem to come in three basic varieties: the alimentari, the mom-and-pop which is locally owned and has a fairly good selection of staples and a few artisinal products but not much else. Think a more genteel version of a jiffy-rip. Still, this can be your best bet for really good locally made food, if you’re a bit adventurous. The supermercato is a small supermarket, usually locally owned but part of a chain, which has a good selection of foods at moderate prices but probably not much in the way of international fare. Then there’s the ipermercato, whose name presumably means supermarket as well, since super and iper (hyper) are the Latin and Greek prefixes for the same idea (like hemi- and semi-). But I suppose the use of the Greek implies super-duper. These are the big giants which are nationally owned and carry a huge variety of goods and all sorts of processed foods. Most Italians avoid them like the plague when they’re looking for really good food but flock to them when they’re looking for a bargain on such things as cleaners, paper goods, etc.
So, we quickly exhausted the limitations of our little alimentari that was within walking distance on the next ridge over, and took a taxi into the town of Lastra a Signa, down in the valley of the Arno. There we found the supermercato. And the fun began.
The first embarassment occurred when I tried to pull a shopping cart from the rack. “Chunka!” That’s a bit odd, this thing seems to be stuck. “Cachunka chunka chunka!” What the @#$#$ is wrong with this stupid thing? Sandy, more observant than I, pointed to the slot where I was supposed to have deposited 500 lire, about 50 cents at the time. Fortunately we had change, and we entered the store with confidence.
All went well until we reached the produce section. You understand, of course, that this was practically the first section in the store, just as in an American grocery. The produce was nicely arrayed and very pretty, but as I reached for a tomato, “Ssss!” I withdrew my hand in alarm and we both glanced around. Only a little old nonna. I reached again. “Ssss! Ssss, sss, sss!” Geez, did that sweet little old nonna just hiss at us? She did! We abandoned the produce in panic, retreated to the meats. Beautiful cuts of chicken, turkey, and veal, but no beef. Most of Italy simply doesn’t have proper pasturage for cows and they are not stupid enough to pay the exorbitant price for grain-feeding them. But veal is delicious if you can get past the ethical issues. Italian veal is overwhelmingly free-range, so I don’t really have a problem with it. I’d rather die at six months after ranging the beautiful hills of Tuscany than at two years of life in a feed lot.
Well, back to produce section. We really must have some vegetables. Fortunately this time a kindly local noticed our hesitation, cleared her throat to get our attention and nodded to a dispenser of little plastic gloves mounted on the wall behind the produce. Bingo!
The remainder of the shopping was uneventful. As we came to the checkout, the young checker, who acted not the least entranced by the joy of dealing with two rubes from Stati Uniti, snarled, “Nostri o vostri?” Whuh? Ours or yours? After several disgusted attempts the young man finally made me understand that I would be charged for any plastic bags that I used from their store, a nominal amount, to be sure, but enough to encourage us to precycle the next time.
As the groceries began to pile up on the counter, the young man looked more and more alarmed. There was no one to bag the groceries and a several people waiting in line behind us. “You bag!" he shouted in frustration, even condescending to speak English. We scurried to bag our groceries, and there may have been some squashed produce and broken eggs, but by golly we had ’em bagged by the time he was finished.
As we departed the store, we were about to put our cart back in the rack when a middle-aged gentleman came strolling up and, not realizing how clueless we were, thrust a 500-lira coin in my hand, took the cart and was gone. Properly chastened by our trauma at the supermercato, we retreated to the taxi which whisked us away to our haven in the hills. And we tried like hell to avoid the supermercato thereafter.
So, what a crazy system, right? Well, not really, not when you give it some thought. How many times have you seen stray grocery carts all over the lot or even out on the streets somewhere? A little incentive to return your cart or at least put it in the hands of another shopper makes all the sense in the world.
And think about the produce section. How many dozens have pawed that beautiful eggplant before you chose to take it home and offer it to your family? And I think I know the sorts of places some of those paws have been! And, tell the truth now, do you always wash your produce as well as you know you should? It just makes sense to take the time to be considerate of others.
And Italian checkout too makes lots of sense. Why not encourage precycling monetarily? And who's paying that slack-jawed kid for the challenging job of putting food items in a bag while you stand there idle or yabber on the cell? Santa? Don't think so!
My students react to Italy in one of three ways. There are the wide-eyed innocents who think that absolutely everything in Italy is better because, well, because it’s in Italy! It’s just so...European! Then you have those who are so mulish that if the Italians don’t do it our way, they must be idiots. I’ve had students that we had to practically force feed because I refuse to allow our hosts to serve us chicken nuggets and soggy french fries every night. But I always encourage my students to reserve judgment either way. Some things in Italy still don't make much sense to me and probably never will. But many more things do. The point is that you can’t really judge until you’ve made the effort to see things from within a culture, not looking from without.