Shoppin' to the Oldies
13 November 2010
All those images I had in my head of this remote Italian village, untainted by the globalization that has spread to parts of Europe like an infectious disease, were mere previews of a higher level of much-romanticized-but-surprisingly-congruent village fare.
I had just been in London for three weeks, and had been disappointed to find that in the twenty years since I’d last been this way, globalization had taken a strong foothold on London’s previously-innovative hipster centers, save for the glorious markets where one can still find unique and imaginative designs and handmade “bits and bobs.” Food shopping, however, has little to report about that I’ve seen, other than the Tropicana orange juice with “juicy bits” instead of just plain pulp. And then there is Waitrose, a chain built on integrity, cleanliness, and top-quality variety, comparable to nothing in the United States. It is has its own English charm and simple packaging, instilling trust with their dedication to excellent quality at the forefront. And it shows.
As I am writing this, the church bell is chiming across the field from me, letting me know that it is 20:00 and all the children in the farmhouse must be headed to bed. It is the same sound I anticipate hearing when I rise to assist with preparations for the incoming German family here at the Agriturismo. My trip to the local grocery market was indeed prompted by their pending arrival. We had to go pick up whatever little things we were unable to retrieve from either the cash and carry or the Carrefour in Massa. These were just little run-of-the-mill things, like chestnut flour, blood orange juice, local persimmons, aged salami, prosciutto cotto, edam cheese, rocket (a.k.a. rucola or arugula), olive crisps, and a 20-pound bag of lower-grade penne pasta in the dog food section, to name a few.
The shop was everything you would expect. Elderly Italian ladies gathered around the produce section, patiently waiting for a man donning a houndstooth wool poor-boy cap to measure his tomatoes on a self-service scale, under-eye satchels rivaling those dangling from their forearms. At the bread counter, a woman muttered in disbelief for the rising cost of living. A pair of friends ran into one another on the pasta aisle, where they remained blocking a snail’s-pace flow of seniors in the interest of catching up with both the town happenings and neighbors’ questionable behavior. And a couple shuffled down the cleaning aisle, the man pushing a heavy cart for his apparently peremptory wife.
I speak a reasonable amount of Italian, and I understand the culture. Never mind how. A lady doesn’t kiss and tell. Because of this understanding, I felt uncomfortable eavesdropping, and even more so taking photographs. I had assumed in this very rustic not-on-the-tourist-map environment that I might be regarded as an intruder with an even more invasive macchina foto to examine them as specimens. But instead not one looked at me at all. In fact, life is so simple and unadulterated here, that there is seemingly no awareness of anything else whatsoever. What a welcome insight for a weary woman from New York and Los Angeles, undeniably the rubbernecking capitals of the United States. And how amazing it is that foods I consider quite precious are found in every village market in every small town across Italy and beyond. There is still an unsullied way of life to discover. Not all places have gone to big-agro pot. There was not a person on a mobile phone in the shop. The man behind the Gastronomia counter took his time, sharing an anecdote along the way. No manager was just around the corner, waiting to pounce on an employee who talks too much and holds up the line. In fact, there was a line, but no one seemed terribly concerned with the wait time. It was a chance to be in company. People said please and thank-you generously, and food was again re-introduced to me as the basic stuff of life, a means of bringing people together, not just in the home but in the community. Food is prepared to nourish, and not to stuff. It takes as long as it takes to prepare, and every Italian knows EXACTLY the timing, so at 12:30, when it is lunchtime nationally and time stands still, it is the simplicity of readily-available ingredients that come to life in perfect union. Everything closes down for lunchtime, and the table is always abundant.
If I try to think of the most contrasting scenario to illustrate a point, I think of the following (although a gross exaggeration, there is a GMO corn kernel of truth): We rush around, grab a pre-boxed deli sandwich and eat it at our desk while on a frustrating call, work late and nuke a frozen whatever, then plop down in front of the television in an exhausted heap, only to learn more about what convenience foods are fresh on the market. Hot Pockets has new flavors. And then we half-way watch “The Biggest Loser,” while leafing through a celebrity rag that reports on who looks like shit in a swimsuit this year. If you had to choose, would you go with “Shoppin’ to the Oldies” or head straight-on toward “Sweatin’ to the Oldies?”