Epistle from Italy: Grocery Shopping
For as good as the Italians are at sleek and elegant design, one thing they are not good at is product packaging. No easy open pull-tabs or press-and-seal tops for them! Everything is bound up in draconian sealed wrapping and when you finally manage to break it open using a knife, or your teeth, the contents burst out all over the kitchen counter. Then you have to figure out what to do with the portion you don’t use right away, because they also haven’t discovered zip-lock Baggies. For someone who is used to shopping at places like Walmart and Sam’s Club (occasionally---not always!), where everything comes in truckload sizes, it’s disappointing to discover that here everything comes in one size: miniature. What’s worse, you pay the same price for the smaller portion (my how the Euros fly!)
Some of the labeling is also surprising. They try to convince you that cookies are good for your digestion. There is a label on the fresh milk advising you that it doesn’t need to be boiled before drinking. There has also been an obvious push by marketers in recent years to convince shoppers that they don’t need to go to the market for bread, deli meat, and cheese everyday, and instead can purchase prepared quantities in convenient (albeit poorly designed) packages. Yet I still see people lined up in the bakeries and salumerias. Thank God for fresh food!
Another stressful experience for an American is going to the grocery store to shop. These stores, especially here in Venice where space is at a premium, are extremely small, with everything jammed into tight little aisles that barely have room for one miniature-sized shopping cart (they also have hand-baskets like us that you can carry around the store, but they have wheels on them and the handle can be extended to transform them into an odd little pull-cart).
Now, as a supposed “cultural ambassador” to Italy I guess I shouldn’t be making bitchy generalizations about the Italians, but I’m going to anyway. Many of the people here are like giant overblown balloons: hugely egotistical characters, insistent on occupying center stage and oblivious to everyone else around them. I love them---they can be wonderfully charismatic and beautifully romantic, but they can also be as annoying as hell. To get a bunch of them crammed into a tiny market at peak shopping hour is almost more than a person can tolerate. They bump into you. They stand in the middle of an aisle reading a (misleading) label and won’t get out of your way if you’re trying to get by. The worst part is at the checkout counter, where people cut in front of you without any feeling of shame or remorse. The first time I went to the market here I was so frustrated I wanted to drop everything and run outside. Since I’m a fairly big guy I already feel somewhat claustrophobic in a small space. Having spent my whole life being conditioned to not intrude on other people, I was totally out of my league.
First the woman behind the deli counter made me feel like a complete idiot because, being used to pounds and ounces, I became flustered when I tried to explain how much prosciutto I wanted in grams (I’ve since figured that out). She talked to me like a child, in slowly enunciated tones, while everyone in front of the counter stared at me (I’m sure foreigners in the US have experienced that before!) Then it turned out that I was supposed to weigh and label all the produce myself. When I got up to the checkout counter everything came to a grinding halt while the checker went back and weighed everything for me---all eyes staring at the dumb American again.
Then of course there’s the money. My God, the Euro comes in so many denominations! E10, E5, E2, E1, .50, .20, .10, .05, .02, .01---and all the coins look pretty much the same. You just want to put out a handful and say, “Take what you want.”
Now a month later, I’ve got the whole thing down pat. I bustle around the store with the best of them, pushing my cart through the crowds of shoppers. At the deli counter I shout out what I want with confidence. Today in the checkout line I let my mind wander for a moment, and a foot of space opened between my cart and the person in front of me. Suddenly I became aware that the woman behind me was peering around my side, trying to figure out if she could sneak by me without being noticed. I quickly repositioned my cart, as if to say, “Don’t even think about it!”
(The only other thing I'll tell you about myself at this point is my real name: Jeff Abshear. Hello to those who know who I am!)