Drumming through Assisi

Assisi is a special place. There is something about it which draws you in, gently, as though St. Francis were floating above extending his hand in blessing over the tiny hill town, asking residents, tourists and pilgrims alike to just breathe and take in the beauty. We’ve been to Assisi a few times, and each time we experience the same sense of sacredness.

Of course, this ‘calm’ only descends after you’ve battled your way up the tiny, winding road, skirting vehicles and pedestrians by inches, as you search for your hotel and for a parking space that is within a 2 km range. St. Francis traveled light: no car, no possessions. He could navigate both the town and the calm much more easily in his dusty leather sandals.

Assisi

This year we arrived in Assisi on April 24, just in time for Liberation Day (April 25), an important national holiday which marks the fall of Mussolini, and the end of the Nazi occupation of Italy. It is a day in which all Italians mobilize and join the battalions of tourists already scrambling for a purchase on the ‘boot’. The prime national sites are usually full to the brim with turisti and Italian families out for a little culture, sunshine, and relax. This year the holiday fell on a Tuesday, making it a 4-day ponte, long weekend, so everyone (and their dog) was taking advantage of the extra time for an extended holiday.

Hotel San Giovanni

Our lodgings, Hotel San Giovanni, were situated at the very top of the hill; it was a sweet place just inside Porta San Giovanni and not far from the Basilica di San Francesco. After dropping off our luggage in the room we headed out into the late morning heat, towards the church.

Simple Beauty

 

 

 

 

I’d forgotten how truly beautiful Assisi is: In the bright sun, the gray stones of the houses, dotted with potted plants and neat window boxes, gleamed; the narrow streets, some made up only of steps, were clean and inviting; the view of the surrounding valley, breathtaking.

Basilica di San Francesco

When we arrived at the basilica, now a UNESCO Heritage Site, the scene changed dramatically. Machine-gun-toting military personnel had set up barricades and checkpoints and were rifling through everyone’s bags and strollers. People were jostling and being jostled, while family and tourist groups struggled to keep together. Welcome to travel in a terrorist age.

The church itself is divided into a Lower and Upper Basilica, both begun in the 13th century, both awash in Medieval gold and blue, and a riot of frescoes by Giotto, Cimabue, Lorenzo Lorenzetti, and others. An earthquake in 1997 took the lives of four people in the Upper Basilica and damaged–and in some cases, destroyed outright–many of the frescoes.

Assisi – Basilica of  St. Francis (Lower) (1*)

Inside the Lower Basilica visitors walked single-file down the aisles as security, like a bad, broken record, repeatedly tried to silence the crowds and ensure that no one took pictures. The line-up to see St. Francis’ tomb was long and lethargic so we decided on avoidance as the best option; we chose, instead, to sit in a pew and take in the colours and images swirling around us. Even the hordes and the constant shushing from security did not diminish the impact of the beauty of the Church. Every square inch was part of a story–a teachable moment that had lasted centuries. If a picture truly paints a thousand words then we were sitting in an enormous library. I marveled at the dedication, the tenacity, it must have taken to complete such a task.

Basilica of St. Francis (Upper) (2)

When we ascended to the Upper Basilica, we found it still crowded but the Gothic ceiling lifted us to the heavens, just as it was designed to do, and made it easier to breathe and to move. Again we sat in a pew and let those Medieval pigments wash over us, grateful for the experts who had been able to restore the damage caused by the earthquake.

By now it was well past lunch time and the crowds were thinning. We decided to try our luck with St. Francis’ tomb. This time we descended easily, and did not feel part of a bovine herd. The tomb itself is much in keeping with the philosophy St. Francis had lived by: Simple. Still, I’m not sure how he would have felt about the thousands of people filing by his tomb and reliquaries, the glass cases housing his vest, tunic, sandals, and sackcloth, among other things. Far too much attention for one who espoused and preached a simpler way of living—and dying. But human nature is thus: We mortals feel a need to be close to greatness, fame—or holiness. Some of us need it for inspiration; some of us simply to fulfill innate voyeuristic tendencies. Whatever the reason, St. Francis is rarely alone.

 

Gray roofs and potted plants

Mid-day street

Mid-afternoon. The sun was hot and our stomachs, empty. We returned to the hotel via a different route, enjoying the play of light and shadows on the grey stones of the houses and streets. Potted plants and bright flowers dotted the tiny streets and broke up the monochrome. Inside the homes we passed, we could hear snatches of conversations as families gathered for their midday meals, the smells transporting us and making our mouths water.

 

 

 

 

Peace and quiet. . .

We had imagined lunch at the trattoria across from our hotel. Sadly, there was a line-up to get in, even though it was past 2:00 pm. Our hotelier was standing in our doorway so I approached her and, over the desperate rumbling from my stomach, asked about other restaurants in the vicinity. She directed us to an unassuming osteria–sans line-upbeside the hotel, the Locanda del podestà, and quietly suggested that we would eat much better food there.  And eat well we did. The food was delicious and simply prepared, and the wine, restorative. The best part, however, came when a young family got up to leave. Their baby girl of about a year in age decided to say ciao to every patron in the restaurant. Holding out her chubby hand in the iconic Italian underhand ciao-ciao wave, she departed on the arms of her father, looking at each patron in turn, taking her leave with an innocent smile. In her eyes we were all one happy family dining together. Her spontaneous inclusivity was irresistible: We smiled at each other from table to table and commented on the child’s future in international relations and diplomacy. A natural.

Viewing stands for Calendimaggio in Assisi’s main piazza  (3)

After a rest in our room we continued exploring, heading into the center of town where, in the central Piazza del Comune, bleachers were being erected. It was almost time for Calendimaggio, the yearly Medieval festival to celebrate the arrival of Spring. It is comprised of sfide, games and competitions, between the two factions of the town: la Magnifica Parte de Sotto, the Magnificent Lower Part (clad in red), representing the Guelphs, and la Nobilissima Parte de Sopra (in blue), the Most Noble Upper Part, representing the Ghibellines. These were the families that had engaged in a bloody struggle for power in the town of Assisi, one that lasted more than two centuries.

 A burst of Spring. . . ? (4)

The competitions are divided into three categories: Feats of strength and skill (tug of war, races with tregge, sledges, crossbow shooting, etc.); music (both factions compete with choirs and with drumming); and a general show pageantry and spectacle. Beyond these main competitions, there are many sfilate, parades, and other events which flaunt the superiority of each parte, each faction of the town. There is even a Bandi di sfida after the physical duels have been fought—a verbal challenge in which contestants try to slay their opponent through sarcasm and irony. . .  only in Italy! In the end, a jury comprised of an historian, a musicologist and a well-known Italian celebrity award the palio to one of the factions (Blue or Red), an honour they will keep for a year, until the next Calendimaggio, when it all starts over again!

I balli (dances) (5)

Beyond the formal events which take place during the three official days, there are many activities in which the townspeople of Assisi participate while clad in sumptuous medieval garments. As the date for the start of the festival approaches, the entire town slowly readies itself for the festivities.

Red standard  identifying a house from the Parte de Sotto.

Even while we were there, almost two weeks before Calendimaggio, there was evidence of the town gearing up and of individual pride of place. People were identifying themselves and their houses or businesses, as either Red or Blue.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Tomba di Santa Chiara

Ceiling: Tomba di Santa Chiara

That evening we walked across town to the Basilica di Santa Chiara, St. Clare, a follower of St. Francis who espoused his ideals of poverty and service to others. The basilica itself, although large, is extremely plain, one of the most unembellished churches I’ve ever visited in Italy and the antithesis of the vividly polychromatic Basilica di San Francesco. Santa Chiara’s tomb, however, in the crypt of the church, did not reflect the plainness upstairs; it was intricately ornate. Again, how she would feel about the excess of money lavished on her resting place, rather than on the poor, one can only speculate. I assume that she would not be pleased with her followers. However, as a dyed-in-the-wool marble lover, I must admit that I was grateful that someone had gone to the trouble of carving all those elaborate stone details. Whatever views one holds of the Church’s history and of its present place in the world, it cannot be denied that an amazing quantity of beauty has been created because of it and through it.

Tramonto (Sunset) in Assisi

When we exited the basilica, the sun was setting over the town and the surrounding hills. We sat at the railing in the piazza in front of the church, looking out over the valley, watching the spectacular, ever-changing show. In our lifetime we have had the great fortune to see many stunning works of art but, somehow, they never compare to the breath-taking beauty we have found in nature. To be in a place like Assisi, where it is possible to witness, simultaneously, great art and natural beauty, is a true privilege–and a gift that we did not take for granted that evening.

 

 

As we sat, mesmerized by the red glow on the horizon, we began to hear drumming. This is not unusual in Italy. Even in Lucca I was serenaded by  drumming rehearsals every Monday and Thursday night (starting at 9:30 pm. . . !) coming from the rampart next to Porta San Jacopo, directly across the street from me. In Assisi, as the sky darkened and the percussion continued, we walked to the center of town in search of the noise-makers. We found them descending from the upper streets, so obviously, the ‘Blues’, the team from the Parte de sopra.

Tamburieri (drummers) della Parte de Sopra

We met the troupe, about twenty-five in size, in a small vicolo leading to the main piazza, where the men, most in their twenties and thirties, stopped drumming long enough to sing a bawdy song as shoppers and passersby  stood beside them, laughed and cringed. That done, they began once more to beat heavily ** on the snare drums slung around their shoulders, their timing impeccable. Our ears and insides reverberated with the thunder. It was thrilling! Like good groupies, we followed them down to the piazza where they stopped in front of the Temple of Minerva and put on a great show ** for the patrons who were sipping a drink in the local caffè, and for the rest of us standing around them. I never would have imagined enjoying drumming so much. No wonder this tactic was used to rile up the troops and ready them for battle: I was certainly all geared to go! After about a 10 minute concert, the troupe filed, still playing, into the caffè–to the shock and surprise of both patrons and those of us watching. They finished their piece, then marched out, beers in hand (an offering from the bar owner to help speed them on their way, I assume), while the patrons and workers inside the bar checked for hearing loss. All in good fun. After a well-deserved rest and libation, the men once more stood in formation and marched out of the piazza, still playing and entertaining. At this point, wholly caught up in the festa atmosphere, we found a table outside the assaulted bar and ordered a drink. Like everyone around us we were sporting wide grins—and still thrumming from the drumming!

Blue troupe in the 2017 Calendimaggio (6)

Young ‘red’ drummers in the making! (7)

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

                                          Buona notte!

** the videos imbedded are ours. Sometimes and Error page comes up when you first click on the One Drive link. Try again — the video should be visible on the second (or third…) try. Technology!

(The numbered pictures were borrowed from Assisi tourist sites)

Advertisements

Leaving Lucca, Routine, and Old Dogs

All good things must come to an end.

Cliché, I know. But is it true? In the case of my time in Lucca, sadly, yes. The day I left was sunny and warm and though my bags were packed, and my well-ordered, temporary existence dismantled, I was not ready to leave. I kept looking longingly at the Walls from my glass doors, at the fortress that had kept me secure for the past month, like a comforting embrace; at the people out there walking and cycling, still able to enjoy an experience that I was about to leave behind. In a perfect world I would be back next year, possibly for a longer period. But this is not a perfect world we live in and most good things do come to an end, cliché or not.

John had arrived almost a week before and I had been able to introduce him to some of the charms of my recent home-away-from-home. He had been to Lucca with me several times in the past but took in with gusto, the experience of ‘living’ there, even if only for a few days. He accompanied me to the fountain in the piazzetta to fill up the large water bottles and I was happy to have him there to help me lug them home. In the morning he followed me to the Conad, the local miniature supermarket, to pick up milk, bread, cheese–our needs for the day–, like me, dodging the pallets stacked high with the merchandise with which clerks daily replenished the shelves, an early morning dance I had been caught up in for almost a month. Now I was dancing it with him. John has traditionally been the shopper in our family, but in a reversal of roles, in a side-stepping of routine, it was I who was teaching him about the places to go for best selection and best prices, teaching him the easiest way to get back home, pointing out ancient, tree-topped towers and dark, narrow alleyways along the route.

After almost 40 years of marriage, it was a strange sensation to introduce my husband to my living space, my routine, my city: This is how I do things here. He loved it all, as I knew he would, and was respectful of the little world that I had built without him in the previous month and was now sharing. And I was eager to share — but I was also possessive of my little piece of turf, did not want it altered in any way. If there were systems not as efficient as they could be, if things could or should be tweaked for maximum ease and logic, I didn’t care. It all made sense to me. It was only mine for such a short time and I was comfortable with it the way it was. We are all of us, such creatures of habit.

Arcobaleno (rainbow) sopra Lucca

On that last day, John was soon loading the suitcases into our rented car as I made a careful sweep of the apartment to ensure that nothing was left behind. It was then time to hand over the keys and say goodbye to the place I had called home. My room of one’s own. My room with a view.

We exited through Porta San Jacopo and drove by stately villas outside the walls. Soon we were on our way to Camaiore which originated as Campus Maior in Roman times, through narrow, tree-lined roads, by tiny towns that were behind us in the blink of an eye, through the Valfreddana, an area between tall mountains, that gets very little sun and warmth, and a fair amount of snow (hence its name — Cold Valley).

Once in Camaiore we found parking beside the small playground near the hospital. It is a relatively new green space that used to be the site of  my parents’ school — and my school, for a year. It was grade two, under signora Trezzi’s perpetual scowl, that I cowered behind a dark, sloped, wooden desk armed with inkwell for my unfamiliar nib. I shudder every time I think of it.

Reunion

But on this sunny day, I walked through the park as children shrieked and played, and into the hospitalin search of my zia Clara, my great aunt, now 97 years old. And there she was, in many ways as she always had been: tall, thin, and ready to laugh and hand out kisses and hugs. She was always very emotional and affectionate, unlike my nonna, her eldest sister by 18 years. My mother and I lived with zia Clara for a time when I was little and I have wonderful memories from that period. After much kissing, hugging and tears, she began singing La casetta in Canadà, a popular song in Italy in the 50’s and 60’s. I joined her, surprised that she remembered many more of the lyrics than I did: I can only hope that some of her genes have been passed along to me!

Soon after our impromptu duet, we noticed that she was becoming a little anxious. It was almost lunchtime: Would the staff come and get her? Would they know where she was? Would they find her?? Routine. So much of life is our comfort in routine. We gave her more hugs and kisses and directed her wheelchair back to the common room where, as we walked down the hall, we could hear her regaling everyone with the details of her nipote, her niece, who had come all the way from Canada to visit her. Every time I see zia Clara, I think it might be the last and that thought tugs at my old heart strings. But every time, she surprises me.

After more final goodbyes in Lido di Camaiore — my aunt, my cousins, my second (and third!) cousins, we headed to the autostrada. Road trip!

 

We love road trips — especially at the beginning. There is that feeling of open road, adventure, the two of us in a car, navigating the unknown. Kind of like marriage. In Italy that ‘unknown’ can refer frustratingly to road signs. Does it mean here? No! Turn here. . . I think. What the. . .? Where are we supposed to. . . ? Huh??? I derive great solace from the fact that Italian road signage can be as frustrating to those who live there as to those of us who visit. Being in the passenger seat with various family members and friends is always reassuring: The signs are specifically designed to raise the blood pressure of every driver, not just residents. Unfortunately, that little bit of schadenfreude does not help in the blow-by-blow of driving in an unknown city.

The autostrada, however, is wonderful. It is well-signed, and, unless you are traveling on one of the many Italian public holidays, a very efficient way to achieve your destination. As a bonus, one has front row seats to one of Italy’s greatest spectacles: the Jedi pilots in their Star fighters, flying nose to butt, at only-God-knows-what-speeds. It is a fluid, elegant dance that demands admiration for its beauty and grace, despite the great danger it poses. We, lowly mortals, admire and keep driving along at our steady, if embarrassing, 120 km an hour. Every once in a while, we check our speedometer for there must be a mistake. Surely the car has stopped moving, we must be stalled — this observation based on the speed with which other cars are whizzing by us. . .  Finally, reassured that we are still in the running, we soldier on.

Perugia

MiniMetrò, Perugia

Our destination was Perugia, in the neighbouring region of Umbria. As is common in similar travel experiences, our love of road trips diminishes as we enter the destination itself, with its tiny, convoluted streets, obviously not made for Fiat Puntos. After a few close calls (and I do mean centimeters close. . . ) we were directed to the free parking lot at the foot of the hill on which sits Perugia’s historic center, a center we had tried — insanely — to navigate. We unpacked the gear we would need and took the MiniMetrò to our rental accommodations.

Penthouse accomodation with birds-eye view

The apartment was beautiful and spacious, with a wonderful view of Perugia and the surrounding countryside. Like Tuscany, Umbria is a region of verdant, rolling hills and neat parcels of farmland. We were fortunate to face east again, so the sunrises on the three days of our stay were stunning.

L’alba: Sunrise in Perugia

It was lovely to wake up just after 6 am. and pad out to the living room to wait for the sun to peak over the low-lying hills and slowly add colour to the buildings perched on the cliff face. Once the show was over, it was time for our morning cappuccino. The day had officially begun.

Sunrise (l’alba) over Perugia

Perugia is a beautiful city draped over the top of a hill, much like a Dali painting. Buildings, fountains, and narrow streets flow down slopes, on every side. The only flat surface we found was in Piazza d’Italia, on the North-West side of the city — a small and relatively uninteresting area, but with great views from its terrace.

 

Fontana Maggiore & San Lorenzo

The focal point of the city is Piazza IV Novembre, home to the Cattedrale di San Lorenzo and the Fontana Maggiore.

Hanging out at San Lorenzo

 

 

The wide steps of the Cathedral play host to young people, mostly university students, who gather in the sun to hang out, laugh, and unexpectedly burst into boisterous song. The crowd grows on Sundays, when the students are joined by local families and, of course, tourists. The gathering provided an enjoyable theatre experience on a bright, if cold, afternoon as we sipped prosecco at an outside table at a café across from the church: Young people, carefree, their books  momentarily forgotten, children shrieking and running around the piazza under the watchful eyes of parents and nonni, and, of course, dogs, lots of dogs.

Galleria Nazionale dell’Umbria (Palazzo dei Priori)

Across from the church stands an impressive building, the Palazzo dei priori. It is now a national museum, the Galleria Nazionale dell’Umbria, where I spent a quiet afternoon immersed in regional art and artifacts ranging from the 13th to the 19th centuries, as well as special temporary exhibits. The building itself is a work of art, inside and out.

Galleria Nazionale dell’Umbria

 

 

 

 

 

 

Start of Via dell’Acquedotto

Just behind the piazza is the start of the Via dell’Acquedotto. In 1254 the city commissioned the 3 km aqueduct to be built from Monte Pacciano to what is now Piazza IV Novembre. In the early 1900s, it became a popular walk, and so it remains to this day.

Via dell’Acquedotto

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Il mangiare (food)

We were charmed by Perugia’s many, terraced vicoli that meandered down from the main street and in which we discovered, quite by accident, a wonderful restaurant, Al mangiar bene. As we strolled down a sloping, dark alleyway, steeped in romance and history, we noticed several people outside an inconspicuous restaurant door, waiting for it to open. Intrigued, we continued our stroll, then doubled back. By then the establishment was open and full, but they were able to find a place for us at the end of a long table already in use. What a find!

Gnocchi alla norcina

The atmosphere was relaxed and the food locally sourced and deceptively homey. The bread? Divine. We shared a tagliere of local cured meats, cheeses and interesting oddities: humous dip, frittata, and a local variation of the Sicilian specialty, arancina. After the antipasto, I decided to order an Umbrian dish, gnocchi alla norcina, a sauce made of bits of sausage, tartufo (truffle), panna (thick Italian cooking cream), and white wine… sigh. John ordered the tagliatelle al cinghiale (wild boar). Both delicious choices which were accompanied by an excellent vino rosso della casa, a local wine. We opted for no dessert — how virtuous! — but then succumbed to the charms of Sandria, a beautiful pasticceria back up on the main drag, rich in dark, polished wood — and the best hot chocolate outside of Spain.

 

Pasticceria Sandria

 

 

 

Pasticceria Sandria

 

 

 

 

This out-of-body chocolate experience was fully-appreciated, but came as no surprise, as Perugia is well known for its chocolate confections. Baci Peruginaa chopped hazelnut melange topped with a whole hazelnut, covered in chocolate, wrapped in a love message and then, finally, in iconic silver/blue wrapping– have been exported the world over for almost a hundred years, but are now the property of Nestlé and are not made in Italy at all.

 

Former Perugina workers’ new ‘Baci’

The local workers displaced by this takeover have been producing their own ‘baci’  under the blue Vannucci label, which local merchants sell alongside the ‘imposter’ versions. The locals are very proud of their original product and of the fact that they are continuing the tradition.

And for the chocolate junkies among you, keep in mind the annual (October) chocolate festival in Perugia which attracts thousands of visitors each year. Just saying….

 

 

 

 

 

Going Underground

Rocca Paolina

One of the most fascinating aspects of this city is the underground fortress, the Rocca paolina. It has a riveting if confusing history (which you can discover by reading the link provided), but even without the story, the place itself is beautiful and full of meaning. Arches, alleyways, niches, remains of private homes, and large gathering spaces now used for exhibitions. . . all buried and slumbering under the thriving city above, and finally coming to light in the past 40 years. Quite literally, the old fortress is being dug out of the ground, an ongoing project. It is now a juxtaposition of old and new: eerie lighting illuminating ancient brickwork and roads, strange modern sculptures hiding in corners, escalators, a few shops, bright market stalls at Christmas, interactive displays providing information on study programs of the University of Perugia. . .  Around every corner, the unexpected, the eclectic.

 

 

Old dogs. . . ?

San Lorenzo – ceiling

The unexpected can be also be found in the most sedate of places in Italy, where routine and rite seem to have been set in stone for thousands of years. On Sunday morning we returned to the Cattedrale di San Lorenzo, where Mass was almost finished. We sat in a pew not far from the young organist, to take in the the last of the service. I love to listen to Mass being said in Italian — or even French, for that matter. There is something about the language and rhythm which elevates it for me to a musical experience. Perhaps it takes me back to my first remembered exposure to the Catholic rite, of going to Mass with my mother in Camaiore — the dim lighting in the old church, the incense, the singing. The spectacle. Whatever the underlying reason, I find Catholic rituals in Italian to be soothing.

San Lorenzo – Organ pipes

Organist, San Lorenzo

On that Sunday morning in Perugia, as the worshipers walked up to the altar to receive the host, the organist began playing the Communion song. Within a few bars, I turned to look at John, one eyebrow raised: Was this haunting music soaring up into the cupola of the cathedral not by Italy’s own Ennio Morricone? Was it not the iconic melody from Once Upon a Time in the West? Was it not achingly beautiful even though it was being played on an organ–albeit, a stunningly gorgeous instrument, in this cathedral– but an instrument I’ve despised since birth?

This was not within the realm of my expectations. I had to take stock, think it through. Figure out where I stood, how I felt about this unforeseen musical experience, regardless of the fact that it made my soul soar. There is no lack of sublime church music, much of it written by Italian composers over the past thousand years and more. Was there no other suitable choice to accompany these worshipers, on this particular Sunday, than this iconic piece, exquisite though it was, composed for a spaghetti western in the 1960s?

I found myself treading and floundering through juxtaposition and parallel: Sublime music written for a religious institution, often brutally violent; sublime music written for a film, that is brutally violent. Here I was, having to participate, yet again, in that ageless debate (even if it was only with myself): Does art stand alone, outside the context of its creation, outside of its relationship to its creator, or is it necessarily tied to both? After some musing, my answer, in this case, at least, was Yes. As I sat in contemplation of what Humankind is capable, both destructive and noble, I let the music soothe and lift me until all those preconceived associations, those vivid, disturbing images, melted away and I was simply present in the moment, in that beautiful space.

A cup of reevaluation. . .

With a little reevaluation, routines and expectations can be altered. An old dog can, indeed, learn new tricks.

Another teachable moment–and several more clichés–brought about by travel.

 

              Buona notte!

 

Shopping all’italiana

Ready for Pasqua (Easter)

Italy is made for shoppers — both the serious kind, with money to spare, and the dreamers who simply love to window shop. For both groups the store displays are a key attraction. Art, design, and beauty are not only the domain of museums and galleries, and companies like Alessio; they are three important ideals which most Italians live by — and judge others by. They are found in nearly every shop window in this country, whether in a quaint alimentari in Rosia, a sweet hill town just south of Siena, or in an exclusive profumeria (perfume shop) on via Fillungo in Lucca. A particular treat in the past few months have been the chocolate and pastry shops; these have been in fine form thanks to the Easter Bunny and his ilk, hopping into town to celebrate the Risen Christ. As you can tell by the image at right, some poor hens were putting in an abundance of overtime as well. . ..

Pasticceria, vetrina (shop window)

Thankfully, shopping in in this country has become much more client-friendly. You can now enter many stores without having someone at the ready to ‘help’: What is it you want? What size? What fabric? What colour?. . .  Here it is.

What followed was the expectation that you buy — and if you didn’t: Why not? This is what you asked for, no?

Well, yes and no. We North American shoppers want choice. We love department stores because we can wander around at will, checking things, touching things, trying things on, and maybe — just maybe — buying. For us, shopping is an outing, an event. Often the end result, the purchase, is a bonus, or on those wonderful, unexpected days, a serendipitous surprise. The introduction of department stores in Italy have been a great step to a stress-free shopping experience, but these are usually found only in larger centres, and as with all departments stores, they often carry stock merchandise, not that special qualcosa, something, that inspires us. Which is not to say that Italians always want to be inspired and make unique purchases; what they want is to fill their houses and to cover their bodies with beauty — at the best price possible, especially during these difficult economic times. The bottom line is the bottom line. One has to just look to the prevalence of Ikea furniture and household items in many homes and rental accomodations to understand.

Thanks to the influx of department stores and to the millions of foreigners who want to get their bearings in a shop before being set upon, you can now enter many stores, even the smaller ones, without that pressure to buy. Entrata libera. Free entry. The commessa or commesso will welcome you, ask if she or he can help, and then let you browse, just as you would in Canada, without having to justify your existence in their shop. This is still not true when you enter a fruttivendolo (fruit and vegetable store) or macelleria (butcher shop). In the macelleria, of course, it makes great sense; the macellaio, the butcher, must take the meat from the cooler in front of you and prepare the cut you want for that day’s pranzo (lunch) or cena (dinner).

Pienza, fruttivendolo

If you think you can go into a fruttivendolo‘s shop and pick and choose your own apples, bananas and lettuce, think again. Not even the little old nonnine (grannies) that have been coming to that particular shop for the better part of sixty years, are allowed to do that. And if they can’t, you certainly can’t. You must tell the fruttivendolo/a what you want and he or she will handle the fruit or vegetables, weigh them and put them in a bag for you. If they know that you are making soup or a sauce, they will usually throw in the odori for free (the aromatic herbs that every Italian uses to make these dishes). You do, of course, have the right to say that you don’t want this or that particular fruit because it looks a little bruised, or you prefer the darker pear, etc., but you mustn’t handle them yourself.

Handling produce

Even in supermarkets you don’t get to touch. In some, the fruit and veggies are already packaged — styrofoamed and cellophaned — to keep them out of harm’s way; in others that have bins of fresh produce as you would find back home, you are required to don a sliver of a clear plastic glove, from a dispenser adjacent to the plastic bag dispenser, at which point you can handle the produce and choose what you want. You then put it on the scale, press the number of the bin from which you took the item, and presto! –another dispenser spits out a sticky tag with your item, its weight and price written on it for the cashier’s benefit.  No need to weigh things at the till. All very civilized (well, except for the extra waste of plastic…).

 

Mercato di frutta

All this talk of shops. . . but we are in Italy, land of the mercato. And we all love a mercato! When I arrived in Lucca I was very disappointed to learn that the weekly market that used to take place on my street between Porta Elisa and Porta San Jacopo, basically right outside my front door, no longer existed. It had moved fuori le mura, outside the walls, into an area that was not even on my map. So no mercato experience in Lucca for me. Viareggio has always had a permanent mercato, with an expanded version on Thursdays. This more comprehensive one has now moved to the passeggiata lungomare, the extensive promenade by the ocean.

Mercato (vestiti – clothes) Firenze

It was there that I spent a lovely morning shopping with Sara, my cousin Sandra’s daughter. She and I had not had much opportunity to get to know each other well, as I live in Canada and she has spent the better part of the last ten years living in Syria and Turkey. Our paths simply had not crossed in many years. What we discovered was that, apparently, neither one of us was as ‘cured’ of  shoe and handbag shopping as we had professed to each other to be . . . But we enjoyed a true bonding experience laughing sheepishly over our purchases. And what a haggling-ninja she is! Having been immersed in Muslim culture in her years abroad (her degree from the University of Florence is in Arabic language and culture) she understands that if she is dealing with a merchant from North Africa or the Middle East, bartering is an absolute must. So it was that she spent a long time at one handbag stall, speaking in Arabic with the poor vendor, who had not expected to meet his match that day. Let’s just say we got some pretty fair deals, even though I thought the original prices were already very good. The poor guy was still crying when we left; there were no tears on Sara’s cheeks, just a bright twinkle of victory in her eye.

I particularly love the mercato at Lido di Camaiore. The last few times I’ve been in the area, I’ve managed to be there on Mondays, when the market is in town, again, on the passeggiata. I’ve always found it to have unique and good quality items including local food specialties and several stalls with oggetti artigianali, handcrafted items. There I managed to find unique gifts at good prices to bring back home. Of course, one can also find stock mercato items such as clothes, shoes, pottery,  soaps, tea towels — and tovaglie, tablecloths, of which no Italian can ever have enough!

Mercato on the passeggiata in Lido di Camaiore,  Pasqua (Easter)

This year I missed my Monday opportunity at Lido, because I was not well (I refer you back to the ‘G7 seige’) and was quite put out. Surprisingly, I got my chance on Easter Sunday. Yes, Easter Sunday. John had just arrived the day before and after a decent night’s sleep, we took the train from Lucca to Viareggio where my cousin Roberta picked us up and drove us the 10 minutes to my zia’s house in Lido, where she stuffed us to the gills: torta coi pizzi (a savoury pie used for appetizer), tortelli al ragu’, (meat ravioli), roasted lamb and roasted chicken with veggies. Oh, God.

Pasticceria Taddeucci: best buccellato in Lucca?

I had brought buccellato, (a sweet bread with raisins, specialty of Lucca) from Taddeucci, in theory, the best in all the city, hence the best in the world. That served as dessert, along with some Colomba pasquale, traditional sweet bread for Easter in the shape of a dove. We had to leave the torta al cioccolato from Camaiore, a chocolate pie made with rice, among other things (no, no, really — it’s delicious!) for another time. I was sad. I cried. But nothing else would fit in our stomachs for  at least another 24 hours. . .

Easter Sunday: Antonella & Daniela enjoying sunshine on the crowded passeggiata

 

 

 

After a little rest, John, Antonella and I decided to go to the passeggiata and walk off some of our indulgences. To our horror, the promenade was a sea of bodies, young, old, and in-between, enjoying the beautiful summer-like weather, eating gelato (where were they fitting it in? All these people would all have had a similar repast to ours…), and checking out the many, many stalls of the mercato artigianale, lining the passeggiata for several kilometers. It was overwhelming — both the crowds and the thought of shopping on Easter Sunday — but the three of us persevered, desperate for a walk in the sunshine. We didn’t have the stomach for making purchases, but being out on such a day was welcome. Besides, as I said, actually buying something is not always the goal. . .

Negozio di… tutto!! (Firenze)

                                     Buona notte!