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. . ..
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).
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.
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…).
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.
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!
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.
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. . .
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. . .