Posted by: 4initalia | February 3, 2009


A huge and splendid moral victory. I walked to the grocery store (take that, Al Gore, if I lived any more sustainably I’d be an actual salmon), got a cart and bought groceries, most of which I recognize, and…big finish…paid with an Italian credit card! Or debit card – the very cute bank guy explained it all, but I’m not really clear on the details.

But it’s plastic pretending to be money, and when I handed it to the cashier, she handed me a sinister calculator box with my card in it, so I surmised that I was supposed to enter my PIN. I did, and she seemed satisfied that I had paid for the groceries. Come to think of it, I have no idea how much I paid for the groceries. I was so happy that the charge had gone through that it’s possible that I just paid $200 for eight oranges and some prefab lasagna. But the point here, the good news, is that I finally completed a financial transaction in Italy without the searing public humiliation to which I have become accustomed.

Friends ask if we are settled in, or in a more medicinal term, “adjusted.” It’s a different culture and a different language. At home I buy groceries, buy clothes, go to the post office, I get around.

Here, I know how to buy food at the market. You walk to the store. Not this way, that way. I’m lost. And the tiny winding streets, named in honor of thousands of years of Italian heroes, keep the same name for about a block. Via Gobbetti becomes Via Morretti, and in two more blocks, the name will be different.

Oh, and I forgot to bring a reuseable bag. Plastic store bags cost money and are not as comfortable to carry. But it’s cold and something wet, snow, rain or drizzle, is about to leak from the sky, so never mind going back for a bag.

I find the store, get a cart. To get a cart you need a euro coin. It fits into a slot in the lock of the cart. When you pay the euro, the lock releases. When you return the cart, you get the euro back. But the locks are all different, so you have to figure out how this lock works, and you try not to look like a rube while you do it. Aaah, the ole red side lock, a classic.

The cart releases. It slides sideways, like a crab, toward store displays and other shoppers. But the store is always so crowded you’re not going to get up enough speed to knock someone over, you’d just clip them a bit. This causes another problem. Italians are like grizzlies, quick to offense and often lethal in response. If you’re going to attack an Italian, it’s much better to show them you mean business than to just annoy them. So I try to not hit anyone with my cart.

There is the fresh vegetable aisle. Whatever I choose from this shelf, I will carry home, shatter into a million bite size pieces, sautee in olive oil and garlic, and put in front of Alex, who will eat it in seconds. Now the greenery lies serenely on its cool berth on the grocery shelf, and a lot of work later it will be garlicky residue on a dirty dish. What happens in between seems to be a rough go for both of us. At home, when I brought the minivan to Costco and hauled out truck loads of produce, I didn’t bond with the broccoli. I’m not sure this is a positive development.

But produce is the easy part: you can see what you’re buying. The packaged food aisle is a complete mystery. What is in that box? Do I want that? If I do want that, do I want a lot, a little, that brand? Does it involve squid, unexpected animal parts? You got me. I scoffed at Andy for buying canned soup: “Here, everything is fresh!” And then I spent the afternoon chopping vegetables, sauteeing them in olive oil: fresh soup. It was delicious, and last night I spent several hours and every shred of produce we owned making it again. Today, I was grateful for the canned soup. I have nothing left to chop but my own fingers, and I’m a vegetarian.

I tried to buy a cake mix, but I was lost in translation. The bread section is a treat. I can see it, I want it all, and I get to choose. Cheese is easy, it’s all good. Fruit juice is good, but it’s heavy to carry, and the sherpa took the day off. Then there’s the checkout, and that little card makes this pile of food mine. And now I load my groceries, too many into the plastic bags, get my euro back, and walk home.

Walking home means dodging cars that careen toward you at high speed from impossible angles. The road is clear, I can cross, and AAAAAIIIIIIIEEEE!!!! – I am inches from Death By Fiat. Most of the cars here aren’t big enough to take you out gracefully in a cataclysmic bash; there would be a lot of smearing and unseemly breakage. When the four of us are together and we’re trapped in an angry nest of buzzing vehicles, I shout: “Run, kids! They can’t kill us all!” I think my parenting has improved here.

I am adjusted, to buying groceries at the store. But I want to buy fruit at the fruit stand, bread at the bakery, fish at the fish store! I haven’t adjusted to that yet, and all of those things must be learned. Do I weigh the food myself, or do they weigh it for me? What are the words for mussells, for grapes, for that wonderful bread?

It’s not like home. I don’t know how to buy stamps, so I asked Melanie, who deciphers things that would take me weeks to figure out. A stamp for a letter to the US costs 85 euro cents, and you can get them at the Tabacceria, but they may not have any. The job description for people who work at tabaccerias is to sneer at stupid foreigners and their moron questions. They practice. They’re good at it. So that’s a conversation in rapid Italian that may lead nowhere but feeling like an idiot. It is theoretically possible to buy stamps at the post office, but it’s also possible that Leonardo Da Vinci is going to make me soup.

There are a million reasons why at any given moment an Italian post office will be closed. There are feast days and holidays, or just that it’s after 12:30. Of course, after 12:30 it should be closed, and it should not open again until the following morning; get that smug American look off your face. If you’re standing in line at 12:20, they won’t serve you anyway, because they are getting ready to close at 12:30 and….

Andy and I needed to pick up a form that was cruelly available only at the post office. We tried to use the one near our house, and foolishly waited until after noon. Chiuso. But Giovanna told us that the post office across town was open until 6. So Andy took a bus across town, got to the post office, and it was closed. “Problemi technicali.” A car had smashed into the plate glass windows, weapons were used. The motive was ascribed to robbery, but I suspect that the bandits were just trying to pick up some forms. We tried again the next day, and were directed to a big post office in the middle of Modena. Closed: Union Meeting. The one near Andy’s office in Bologna: Closed. It was, after all, 12:25.

I have adjusted to buying groceries at the store, but I have yet to master little shops. My chances of buying a stamp are not good. I have not adjusted to buying stamps. Have I settled in? If you can settle in to quicksand, if you can settle into a tank of sharks who have swallowed landmines, then I have settled in.

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