You’re a budget traveler, opting at times to picnic instead of always eating out at restaurants. This is a good choice for the health of your pocketbook (which is undoubtedly hurting if you’ve been traveling for awhile) and also helps you to enrich the well-rounded cultural experience you’re so keen on having. It’s true! You might be surprised, but eating in restaurants is not the only way to experience Italian cuisine. So, like the adventurer you are, you seek out the nearest supermarket and step inside…
Now, I’m telling you not to be alarmed, but I know you will be anyways. The Italian supermercato can sometimes be about as orderly as the fans at a calcio game (not very), and as terrifying as a cab ride in Naples. Your first experience goes something like this:
“Wow, this is a lot smaller than the Costco near my house!” You exclaim to your traveling partner. Yes, this supermercato would fit into the bathroom area at your friendly neighbourhood Costco back at home, and it’s crammed with about three times as many people. Excellent.
“Ok, first thing’s first. Off to the produce section.” You start to load up your little rolling basket with all the peaches, nectarines, pears, tomatoes and eggplant you can, commenting on the freshness of the produce in Italy.
“WE KINDLY ASK THAT ALL CUSTOMERS WEAR GLOVES!!!” One of the employees not-so-kindly shouts at your from behind the box of fennel he’s unloading. You look around confused, since it is the middle of summer, and wonder what on earth this guy is talking about. Who wears gloves when it’s 35 degrees out?
“Miss! Sir! You must wear the gloves! For respect of the other clients!” You look down at your hands, clutching the potatoes you were about to put into your little carrello, and think to yourself, my hands are quite nice looking, thank you very much! I don’t need to cover them up for anyone! Is this because I’m a foreigner!? You exchange unhappy looks with your travel partner, but decide to shrug it off. Fennel guy throws down his produce and darts towards you.
Before you know it, the potato is being snatched from your apparently offensive bare hand and thin little plastic gloves are being pushed into your personal space. “Wear these!” Fennel guy huffs angrily, as if you were a mannerless, unhygienic heathen. As he stomps back to his fennel, you look around at all the little old Italian ladies giving you the hairy eyeball, become very embarassed and wear the glove for the rest of your sojourn in the produce section.
Even though you donned your glove for picking out produce, your new supermarket friend still has you under surveillance and is there, ready to pounce, as your gloved hand slowly and hygienically lowers a bag of pears into your basket.
“Miss! You must weigh the fruit first! How do you think my colleague at the cassa will know how much you need to pay?” Before you know it, you and your gloved hand are being jostled down the aisle and positioned in front of what seems to be a scale with a bunch of numbered (but not labelled) buttons in front of it. You place your bag of pears on the scale part and wait for something to happen. Nothing does. From behind you, another gloved hand (presumably Fennel guy’s) reaches out and pokes at number 46. You look around and realize that all the little signs sticking out of the fruit and veggie displays have little numbers on them, that presumably correspond to the numbers on the scale. Jeez, you think. I have to do all the work around here! What do they pay their employees to do, anyways?
You whiz through the aisles of breakfast food (cereal and croissant-type sugary sweet snacks), pasta, pasta sauce, and come to the dairy cooler. You pick out some yummy yogurt from the Italian Alps, some fresh mozzarella, and you go on the hunt for latte (milk). Now, in Italy milk doesn’t come in industrial sized packages like we have in North America, and you’re ok with that. You and your travel partner search high and low, but to no avail. Maybe they ran out of milk? You decide to seek out a friendlier-looking employee and ask.
“Ma, dov’è il latte?” Where’s the milk?
“È di là, signorina!” It’s over there! She points in the complete opposite direction of the dairy cooler. Hmmm.
Your travel partner wanders over and comes back with a small-ish carton of room-temperature milk. He raises an eyebrow at you. Surely, this milk has gone bad. Everyone knows you need to keep milk in the fridge! Or wait, an idea strikes you, maybe it’s powdered milk. That must be it. You check with the girl, and she makes mooing noises at you so that you fully understand that that milk came directly from a cow. You feel a bit like an idiot. But unrefrigerated but fresh milk? You decide to forgo it and mosey down to the large selection of alcohol that the supermarket houses. Hey, you’ve gotta drink something, right??
You do a little happy dance when you see that they carry 1-euro bottles of spumante (sparkling wine), so you load up the remaining space in your cart with various bottles and remark on the fact that drinking wine is cheaper than drinking bottled water here. Oh, the LCBO could learn a thing or two from Italy!!!
Your travel partner finally succeeds in pulling you away from the shelves of bubbly beverages, and the two of you get ready for the final leg of your supermarket journey: the checkout. La cassa. Mamma mia! The words actually escape your mouth (you’re feeling very Italian lately) when you see the mess that awaits you.
Noise! Food! The sounds of the cash registers! People everywhere, a good percentage of them little old ladies laden with enough food for an army (meaning, the groceries for one Sunday lunch). You survey the chaos and try desperately to make sense of it all and figure out just where the lines start. After 5 good minutes of using all the logic skills you ever acquird at school you give up, get out your elbows and try to muscle your way towards a cash register, receiving a few bumps and bruises along the way since everyone else is using the same tactic. But they seem not to mind! They’re getting right in there! Especially the little old ladies! (After one or two trips to the supermercato, you’ll realize that they are the most ruthless ones when it comes to lines, checkouts and not waiting their turn.) They’re pushing, they’re shoving their baskets in front of you, they’re switching sides, they’re talking loudly to the checkout people, they’re using their groceries as weapons and their ailments as excuses. You worry for your safety, and are relieved when you finally get to the cash. You pay your 4 cents each for a couple of plastic bags, the girl rings you through and you immediately start to throw your purchases into the bags willy-nilly because you’re afraid of being trod on by the ever growing crowd at your shoulders. You and your travel buddy escape unscathed, but just barely. You grab your bags, head for the door and happily take in a deep breath of fresh air. Next time, you’re bringing a body guard to help, you decide. Or someone’s Nonna.
You laugh as you try to imagine the same scene in a grocery store at home. Surely the police would have been called, or at least store security. The one lady who smacked you with her crusty bread would have gotten a talking to, and the guy who kept feigning heart problems so he could get through quicker certainly would have been loaded into an ambulance. They would have opened more cash registers, begged for everyone’s patience and maybe even started to play soothing music over the loudspeaker. But not in Italy! No-sir-ee-bob! What you experienced was your standard, run-of-the-mill day at the supermercato.
And if you thought that was bad, just wait until outdoor market day…