After I’d written the first part of this story, I knew the tale was incomplete. My shopping habits have changed dramatically since I first moved to Germany in 2010. I no longer rely solely on the grocery store for the bulk of my needs. This is becoming even more true the longer I am living in Italy. I realized that in my frustration, I forgot about a shopping adventure that I didn’t dread. In fact, I’ve found an event that I look forward to each week.
Part II: The Shops and Markets
In Europe, nearly every town, village, and city has at least one small traffic free zone incorporated into its design. The sizes and locations may vary, but their importance does not. It is here that people gather for concerts and festivals, or meet at cafes. It is here you find the weekly markets, and here that you find the butcher, the baker, the pharmacy, the wine & spirits store, book stores, boutiques – the list goes on. What you won’t find in most of these city centers are the one-stop shopping mega stores. You may find some variant in the outskirts, but either by zoning or design, the town centers remain a blissfully charming assortment of individual shops, restaurants and cafes.
By comparison, most towns in the US lack for a definitive town center. Sure there is a Main Street, but its very design encourages the use of automobile rather than a space for a shared communal experience.
My hometown has a beautiful main street. At various points in its history, the shops that line the main street have filled the changing needs in the community. As I grew up, the shops that filled local needs closed down, to be replaced by shops dedicated to the throngs of tourists that descend annually upon that small town. Many of us who made our homes there avoided the main street altogether, especially during the summer months. Even in the towns I lived in later, the city centers, if they existed at all, were uninspiring.
I was surprised then, upon my arrival in Germany by the amount of activity on any given day in the city center. Here you’ll find the true soul of the city. It is a place to meet friends for a coffee, exchange the news of the day, and run your errands. Everything is a bit more personal, a bit less anonymous.
In many places in the US, the only show in town for groceries is the supermarket. Sure, there are a few bakeries, and because you can’t purchase anything stronger than beer in the grocery store there are liquor stores. In the summer, you’ll find farmer’s stands, and in many towns you’ll now find growing farmer’s markets. Occasionally you may still come across corner stores and smaller specialized stores. I’ve lived in many places, and because these unique stores were so few and far between, I remember them with fondness. In Georgia we found a butcher who provided us with the perfect cuts of meat for our grill. In Colorado, we found a small store that special ordered our meats for Christmas and offered an assortment of specialty items we couldn’t find anywhere else. In Kansas there was a farmer’s market, and in Northern New York the Amish farmer’s stands. All of these were lovely, but seemed to prove the exception and not the rule as far as shopping goes. Even with these additional places, the bulk of my grocery shopping was done at the supermarket.
Thankfully, these exceptions seem to be trending toward the mainstream. Even my quaint, charming hometown developed a robust farmer’s market years after I left the area. It is a trend I hope to see continue to grow. Shopping for beautiful, fresh produce at a farmer’s market should be a luxury that everyone can afford.
Owing to my previous experiences, it was difficult to adjust my thinking and shopping methods to incorporate the small shops and markets. Even though the bread was far superior, I visited the bakery only when I was in the area. I visited the butcher’s shop only when I wanted to buy fresh Weisswursts for a weekend breakfast. For all its irritations, the supermarket was simply more convenient. I could always find parking in the large parking lots (large for Germany anyway, but that’s another story). I could always find just about everything on my list. It was one stop and I was done. But I was not getting the full immersion experience. I was not using the small local shops enough. But I was a regular at the farmer’s market.
Nearly every town in Germany has a farmer’s market at least once a week. Our first German hometown had two. The Tuesday market was the smaller of these, but still a good place to pick up some fresh fruit and vegetables. The Saturday market was an event, especially if you arrived early. The regular stands sold produce, eggs, bread, cheese, meat and cold cuts. Some weekends, a new vendor would peddle his wares. You never knew what else you might find there. Just about everyone at least passed through the farmer’s market. It was a jovial way to kick off the weekend. Occasionally a local group would perform, adding an even more festive air to the morning.
It was at the farmer’s market that I began to learn German, and our favorite vegetable seller would patiently endure my attempts at communication, often throwing in a few extra samples of something fresh at the end of the transaction. I grew to look forward to the weekly markets, and even travelled to other towns to check out their market days. I grew spoiled on the incredible regional produce, most of which was grown locally in the incredibly verdant area of Southern Baden Württemberg.
Our second German hometown held its farmer’s market on Thursdays. Initially, I was disappointed by this market for what I saw as a serious lack of vegetables. There was one small vegetable stand, but the assortment of produce was unsatisfactory. A few trips to the market later and I didn’t even miss the larger vegetable stands, the weekly variety was simply incredible. Our Bavarian Farmer’s market had a truck that cooked rotisserie chickens and pig’s knuckles, a fish seller, a Greek food seller, a fresh egg and local honey vender, a cheese seller, a baker and a stand that sold horse meat sausages.
I arranged my schedule to include an early morning visit to the farmer’s market. I became a regular. First I’d pick up my half chickens from the rotisserie truck, and the scent of freshly roasted chicken would escape through the bag every now and again as I’d begin to make my circuit. The fish vendor knew which shrimp, salmon and salads I wanted before I arrived. The cheese vendor offered me advice on new and lovely cheeses to try. The rolls from the bread truck were fresh and home-baked. My last stop was always at the Greek food stand, where I would load up on olives, stuffed grape leaves, humus, beans, baked eggplant, and octopus salad, while discussing the week and the food with the very friendly gentlemen who owned the stand. Shortly before I left the area, they added a Paella and Spanish food truck. We’d put in an order for Paella in the morning and pick it up later that day. I looked forward to meeting the vendors and discussing their products, and the family looked forward to our bountiful Thursday evening market dinners.
When I arrived in Rome, I was disappointed by the fact that there were no local farmer’s markets in my neighborhood. Of course, there is Campo di Fiori, and I’m sure that there are other markets hidden elsewhere within the city. Unlike my towns in Germany, any true city center was not within walking distance. But it didn’t take me long to discover the other treasures my Roman neighborhood nestled within its streets.
My first discovery was the salumeria. We discovered our regular salumeria on our initial exploratory trip to Rome, and we’ve stuck with it ever since. The salumeria is part deli, part bakery, part corner store. When we first made the move to Rome, I was a daily shopper here, in part because I had no idea where the supermarket was. I look forward to my weekly stops at the Salumeria. I’ve been going long enough now that the staff recognizes me and anticipates some of my order. They always applaud my efforts at speaking to them in Italian, offering me assistance when I need it. They nearly always offer me samples to taste as I shop, and provide me with recommendations and cooking tips as needed.
Unfortunately, one cannot survive on the food provided by the salumeria alone. However, specialty shops abound in the smallest of Rome’s neighborhoods. I have found a butcher I visit on occasion, several Pasticeria’s, an enoteca, and most exciting of all, a newly opened vegetable seller.
Now, allow me to take you on a typical outing – on a day that I don’t shop at the grocery store.
I have several stops to make today as I walk about the neighborhood. It’s a gorgeous winter day in Rome, cool but not chilly. My first stop is at the Salumeria, where I am greeted warmly by the gentlemen at the counter. They ask me about my holidays and listen to me patiently as I attempt to engage them in conversation. I pick up an assortment of cold cuts, olives, pane di olio, and of course pizza bianca. Today I decide to bring home some pasta fresca, a beautiful ravioli with sheep’s milk cheese and pepper. I ask for six. The gentleman at the counter asks if it’s for two people, then tells me I need eight, and proceeds to give me ten. One of the benefits of frequenting these small stores is that the people who work there know exactly what, and how much I need, and they are happy to offer suggestions. As I shop, I am given a sample of mortadella and a slice of fresh pizza bianca.
On my way out of the store, I run into an English-speaking Italian friend and stop and chat for a while. I am in no hurry today, although I have many stops to make, it is taking the time to embrace the interactions along the way that really makes this an enjoyable outing.
My next stop is at the phone store, where by some miracle I have timed it perfectly and one of the people behind the counter is actually free to help me – immediately. This never happens. I’m only there to charge my phone, I need to purchase minutes. I tell her my phone number, in very slow Italian. After she copies down what I say, she asks if she can verify it just to be sure. Then, I’m on my way to the next stop, the tabacheria.
The tabacheria is an interesting Italian store. You can purchase bus tickets, lottery tickets, as well as pay your bills. The tabacheria I am going to also has a bar, which in Italy is a place to buy a coffee. I am not here for the coffee. I need to pay my phone bill, which you can’t do at the phone store. It’s a short wait behind someone buying lottery tickets and I’m off to my next stop.
When I reach the door to my next stop, the hairdresser, it’s locked. I’m at a loss, because the keys are hanging in the door and I’m not quite sure what the protocol is for opening a locked door when the keys are hanging on the outside. So I stand there for a minute and finally, someone lets me in. I schedule an appointment for a haircut, and I’m off again.
My next stop is a bit out of the ordinary, as I need to have a family portrait framed. There is a small frame shop along my route, and I stop in with my picture. The gentleman in the shop helps me pick out a frame and a mat, and we effectively overcome the language barrier with a lot of pointing. He tells me he’ll call when the frame is ready, which should be sometime next week.
My next stop is the local enoteca, and because all of my other errands have gone so smoothly, I allow myself a few moments to peruse the floor to ceiling displays of regional and international wines. I find a few new varieties to try and continue on my journey.
Most days in my neighborhood, you’ll find vendors peddling purses, socks, uniforms, cashmere and assorted items. Today I notice a vendor on the street corner selling decorative wares and I make a purchase for an upcoming birthday.
My final stop in this neighborhood is one of my favorites. The flower vendor. Each week, I stop and pick up a small bouquet of flowers for my house. I don’t even have a proper vase. I put the flowers in a glass pitcher in the living room. But the beautiful flower displays draw me in, and my conversations in a mixture of broken English and Italian keep me coming back. I’ve become a regular here too, when I’m a day late or a day earlier than usual, my flower seller wants to make certain that everything is still ok. I love this level of interaction, you really can’t help but feel valued in a place like this.
Because my errands were unusually efficient for a mornings outing in Rome, I will bypass the street home and head to one more shop. The newest shop on my round of errands is the vegetable seller. It’s only been open a few months, but it’s become one of my favorites. The owner, also not native to Rome, is very friendly and has lovely produce. It is another place where I am comfortable speaking my odd mixture of Italian and English, and for the most part he understands me.
Now with my bag full of beautiful fresh produce, and my basket bursting with other purchases, I am ready to turn for home. It’s not until I get home that I notice the time. I’ve been gone just over an hour, about the same amount of time it takes me to do my shopping at the supermarket. In that hour, I feel as though I have not only accomplished more, but integrated myself just a bit more fully into the local community. And that is where the value of the hour is truly measured.