Wednesday, March 17, 2010

The art of multiple stop shopping

Being an Italian housewife is a full-time job. The daily shopping round cannot be done in less than 2-3 hours, as you still frequent the baker for bread, the butcher for meat, and the market for vegetables in spite of the proximity of supermarkets and iper mercati. In addition, you have to go to special shops if you are in need of a particular electric gizmo, an o-ring for the tap or a little fertilizer for the orange trees . Every little thing has its own store, and it can be an art to find it.

On top of this, you are wrong, if you think that any old bakery or butcher shop will do. Italian housewives are very particular in their choice of shops based on the shop’s quality, cleanliness and congregation, and talk runs if you are seen to enter the wrong establishment. The only compensation is that shopping can be perceived as a highly rewarding, social event.

You never enter a local Southitalian shop without a loud buon giorno. Silence is considered rude to such a degree that is deserves the elevator gaze, and greetings should also be exchanged on the way out. In between you queue, while other customers update the shop assitent on the progress of a mother’s cold and while the butcher upon request minces 200 gr of meat three times. Every shopping experience comes with copious amounts of chitchat, personal advice and opinions on everything from politics to cooking.

Some time ago I had been waiting for 15 minutes at the butcher, before it finally became my turn. I wanted vitello chopped into cubes for ragu, and as I preferred a piece of meat without bones, the butchers had to go out back to retrieve a new cut. When he returned, a woman behind me mumbled something about foreigners always having special requests for the preparation of their strange national dishes. A type of comment that is unfortunately becoming more frequent, and which I always pretend not to understand or hear. This time, however, the butcher knew better.

- Anche la signora non รจ Italiana, he explained kindly. She is from Spain, but has been living here for decades.

And then we could all exchange pleasantries on the attractions of Italy.

Sometimes it requires specific background knowledge to arrive at the right interpretation of very simple statements. But the fact that the woman in the shop was not trying to bully foreigners, but practised a special kind of expat bonding, sure added extra flavour to the ragu.

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