Confounded by kilos and kitchen cleaners

I’ve been living in Italy for a good chunk of years now and affronting the Italian supermarket is no longer a daunting task. It wasn’t always like that though. It used to be a cultural nightmare for me!

Contrary to popular belief (and I know that I’m definitely shattering one of my Dad’s most beloved images of life in Italy), supermarkets do actually exist here. The smaller, often family-run speciality stores such as the local butcher, fruit and vegetable lady, and milk and egg man definitely still exist, but these speciality stores are where you go if you have some extra money to spend and are looking for really hard-to-find cheese or wine or where you pop in if you just need one green apple or red pepper and you happen to be passing by there on the way home from work anyways. I think that a lot of elderly Italians who have more time on their hands may make the journey all around town going to 5 or 6 different small shops to get all the freshest and most local ingredients for preparing a meal, but for the rest of us, there is simply no time, especially not for the overworked and underpaid Milanese. We need to get all our food shopping done in one fell swoop, hence the introduction of supermarkets such as Esselunga and Pam into Italy.

My first time in an Italian supermarket was an adventure that I will never forget!

prosciutto crudo

Getting the jar of green olives and the loaf of bread had gone fine because I could actually see and recognize what those foods were. Plus they were already neatly packaged for me. All I had to do was pluck them off of the shelf.  However, at the deli counter I couldn’t, for the life of me, figure out how much prosciutto I wanted.  The guy asked me how much I wanted and I thought to myself “Not only is my Italian not that good (remember that I’d only been living in Italy like 5 days), but I have no idea how the metric measuring system works!” Here’s how that conversation went (except imagine it was in Italian):

Deli guy: How much prosciutto do you want?

Me: (unsure) Ummmm .. 8?

Deli guy: 8 what?

Me: (even more unsure) Grams?

Deli guy shows me a band-aid-size slice of meat while shaking his head “no”.

Me: (the king of unsure) Kilos?

Deli guy holds up the entire leg of prosciutto, bone and all, and looks at me strange

Me: (embarrassed) I just remembered that I’m vegetarian. Thank you anyways!

Needless to say, my lunch that day was a ham and cheese sandwich …. without the ham.

I also had cleaning products on my list and that didn’t turn out to be an easy task either. By the smell of chemical lemons and pine, I had the feeling that I was in the right area of the supermarket, but I had no idea what the names of the products in Italy were or what the heck they were used for. Is this spray for cleaning windows or sun-streaking your hair? Is this bottle supposed to be for washing the inside of the toilet or your clothes? Am I supposed to make the tile floor sparkle with this stuff or swish with it after brushing my teeth? In the end, I just went with the brands that had pictures on them to help me. I saw a glimmering-clean kitchen sink on the bottle and it smelled like fake oranges, so I just put 2 and 2 together.

Italian cleaning products

Since that harrowing shopping experience, I have “grown up” quite a bit. I understand kilos much better (though not perfectly), I recognize different brands of cleaning products, and my Italian sucks a lot less than it did when I’d first arrived in this country. I guess you could say that I’ve gotten used to Italian supermarkets, though every time I’m back in America the customer service, diversity of foods, and wide array of brand choices still awes me! Where else but in America will the deli clerk not only walk you step-by-step through their various cold-cut offerings, but will even come out from behind the counter to accompany you to the cleaning product aisle and assist you in finding that special brand of wood polish that you were looking for! Plus, there is no fiddering around with kilos! Double win!


29 thoughts on “Confounded by kilos and kitchen cleaners

  1. I grew up when Britain was slowly converting from imperial to metric weights and measures so I have little sense of either. What’s a kilo? Dunno, What’s a pound? Dunno either. How many stones in a pound? You’ve got me there. Turks have taken to supermarkets in a big way and all the familiar cleaning products (all made by Proctor and Gamble or Unilever) are piled high on the shelves. Thanks be to Allah.

    • Really! Unilever makes things so comfortably homogeneous across the various nations, don’t you think? 😉

      Thanks for all your comments Jack! They always add something nice to my blog!

  2. I love living in Europe, but groceries is one of the few things I complain about. I used to love grocery shopping when I was still in the US. Now I send my boyfriend out to do it here in the Netherlands. It’s just not as much fun and nowhere near the selection. At least you have Tide in Italy. I actually miss Tide, and Dawn, and Comet, and all the food items I took for granted. And not having to figure out grams and kilos! My Italian boyfriend has been no use with the metric, either. He’s worse than I am when it comes to figuring out how much to ask for when it comes to food.

    • I know! Grocery shopping becomes more like a chore and less like fun, doesn’t it?

      Also, I don’t know about the Netherlands, but in Italy the grocery stores are often out of a lot of basic things. “Oh, no milk today at the grocery store? … Ok …”

      • Yes! I send a list, but usually with a ton of alternatives, because something as simple as celery will just be a big, empty hole. The Dutch are good at keeping up with the milk, though, as they’re a nation of milk drinkers. But other basics? Yeah, good luck.

  3. hi garrett!! when i went to the u.s.a back in 2002 the thing that shocked me was that in the supermarket there was a guy that prepared the plastic bags with the grocery shopping .. i wanted to say to the people.. how “lazy” are you..?? infact i did my grocery bags and kindly refused his help.. i really loved the u.s the i could never live in a country where there is no san daniele prosciutto.. ciao 😉 silvia

  4. Gotta love shopping in foreign lands. When we were in Italy and hit the “Supermercato” called “Coop” in Pomerance (it was advertised for about 15 miles around by billboards on the Tuscan back roads)we found most of what we needed for our few days stay in a hillside apartment in Montecastelli Pisano. But finding eggs was the biggest mystery. We went through the dairy aisle about three times. I tried asking for eggs in English and in French (l’oeuff) but since the Italian is Ouva or something like that, we had no luck. But we stumbled upon them eventually — they were not refrigerated.
    When we needed some packing tape to send a box home, we decided to try at a little hardware store in a side street in the Lucca (a very cool place, by the way). Anyway, we didn’t immediately see any and looked all over the store. So then I tried to explain what we were looking for in English — no luck. So I pulled out the Rick Steeves book and kept saying, “Scotch” (like you’d pronounce the liquor). The guy just looked at me, confused. But finally he figured out what we needed because I mimed what we needed to do. And then he said, “Ahhh, scotch” only it was pronounced, “Skouch” (long O). I’d trade the adventures of shopping in Italy for an American supermarket any day!

    • Coop is one of the bigger (and better stocked) Italian supermarkets, but they are usually in culi lupi (in the middle of nowhere) and not in the city center.

      The egg thing is sort of weird. Sometime I find them in the refrigerated section, and sometime not…. I’ve never understood that. And I NEVER buy non-refridgerated eggs!

      It’s fun having to mime stuff in foreign lands, isn’t it? 😉

      • Still haven´t got any problems with not refrigerated eggs in the last 7 years living out of Italy. I must say that i forgot that sometimes you can find “refrigerated” eggs in Italy. But i would assume that non refrigerated are more fresh. Talking about misure, what the heck of one are cups? this make no sense! How can u measure a cup of butter (out of the refrigerator)?

      • Haha! Usually, the sticks of butter have a measurement on the side of the paper that shows you where to cut for a cup of butter. Though, I hear your point that a “cup of butter” is a strange measurement! 🙂

  5. Lol, the conversation about prosciutto is very funny 🙂 I can imagine the looks of the guy behind the counter 🙂 😀

  6. The problem with this blog story is it is not consistent with the stories I tell. “Why yes, each day my son goes to the bakery for fresh bread, butcher for meats, produce market for vegetables and the pump store for spray cleaning products…” Alright even I am not sure about the last one!

  7. Hi Garrett, I’m trying to understand wholly your post and perhaps I am able to do it.
    Plese may you explain me the meaning of “dunno” I read in first commento?
    It’s a slang word?

    • Wow! That is too cool! I saw your first comment and went to answer it, but then I saw that you found the answer by yourself on my blog! I guess it does serve for something after all! 😉

  8. Garrett, te lo chiedo in italiano..I ask you a question.
    Quando si studiava la lingua di Shakespeare, ci hanno torturato con l”uso del to do.
    The teachers said us: “we must use to do only for negative sentences and interrogative.
    Now I read “it does serve” and I need to understand: why???
    Why you used to do in your comment?
    God bless you…but, of course, only if you are able to explain this in any language!

    • To do CAN be used in positive sentences too!

      For example: “I need to do my homework.”

      Also, it can be used to add extra emphasis, for example:

      A: “Studying a foreign language doesn’t serve a purpose.”

      B: “Yes, it does serve a purpose. It helps you get a better job.”

      Mi sa che il tuo insegnante era sbagliato! 🙂

  9. Just stumbled across your blog via Jack’s in Turkey. I loved this post. I totally went through the same thing when I got to Istanbul– arriving in a shop having dutifully looked up the name of the food I wanted, only to get stumped by the measurements. After 10 years, I’ve got them down for some foods, but not others. Meat– fine. 250 grams always does the trick. Still, as recently as last year I let a guy talk me into a kilo of spinach and goodness, were my teeth green after a week!

    You know what else killed me? Instructions for cooking staples aren’t on the bag. And me without a rice cooker! By the time I figured out rice, bulgur of all sizes, and lentils of all colors, the Internet started being fast.

    For cleaning products, it was the low literacy of women in Turkey that saved me. All of them come with pictures of what they do. Sweet!

    • Hi and welcome!

      You have to be careful when buying food at the markets in Italy too! If I ask for a half kilo of, say, strawberries, sometimes they try to give me like 5 kilos saying “they are really good and super fresh”. I then respond “I understand lady, but what the hell am I gonna go with 5 kilos?!!?!” We’d have to eat them for breakfast, lunch, and dinner all week just to go through them all!

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