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!
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.
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!