We find that we are drawn to the stores where the owners/employees are friendly, kind and patient with our stumbling speech. This matters more to us than the quality of the products themselves. We’ll happily buy bruised onions or limp lettuce in exchange for an uplifting experience. Unfortunately, this is not always easy to find. Many shopkeepers are at best indifferent or at worst surly when dealing with us. It has been reassuring to note that most of them are also equally curt with their regular customers.
Fortunately we’ve met several shopkeepers to whose stores we happily return. Since we don’t know most of their names, we have our own nicknames for them – “the grumpy guy” (the man who runs a wine and specialty food shop); “the older couple” (an elderly couple who run a small fruit and vegetable shop who always smile when we come in); “the two guys” (two men who run a small grocery store close to our apartment) and “the newspaper guy” (who runs the newsstand where Henry buys his newspapers).
Even though “the grumpy guy” is indeed grumpy, he has been attentive and helpful when we have gone into his store. We rely on his advice for wine and cheese, and so far we’ve always been pleased with his suggestions. One of the last times we went to his shop he gave us one of his canvas bags as a gift. He had remembered that we always bring our own shopping bag with us, and apparently he figured we could use another one. It was a nice gesture and it felt good to have been not only recognized but also acknowledged by him as a regular customer.
We have also had charming interactions with people selling their wares at local fairs and festivals. At one booth we sampled some home-made vin santo. It was so good (and incredibly inexpensive) that we promptly bought a bottle. In situations like this we often send out little “testers” – we say an extra sentence or two to demonstrate that we actually can speak Italian, and to offer a subtle invitation to discuss more than the price of what we’re buying. In this case we said something relatively intelligible and complimentary about the wine, which was apparently all we needed to get the ball rolling. Before we knew it we were discussing recipes, language, travel, and the joys of living in Italy with the family running the booth.
As far as local shopkeepers go, Alberto and his wife are far and away our favorite. The first time we went into their shop we had only been in Arezzo for a couple of weeks and we were still feeling rather timid. We did our best to communicate and Alberto was patient, kind and encouraging, and he showed a genuine interest in finding out more about us. We vowed to return regularly. Even though their shop is all the way on the other side of the city, we make a point of going there at least once every 1-2 weeks to buy something. Next to their shop they also have a trattoria (informal restaurant), which we have now been to twice. Alberto oversees the grocery store side of the business, and his wife oversees and cooks for the restaurant. The two of them always smile broadly when we come in and greet us with warm enthusiasm. When we went to the store at Christmas we brought them a small gift, and Alberto gave us a bottle of wine and refused to take any money for the groceries we had come to buy. We were touched and stunned by his generosity.
The newspaper guy is our newest friend. Henry buys newspapers generally once a week – one in English and one in Italian. Recently we were looking for a copy of a previous day’s newspaper. Henry asked him if he had a copy. He said no but to come back the next afternoon and in the meantime he would talk to his other customers to try to find one. We were doubtful, but when Henry went back sure enough he had the paper. The next day Henry took him a little gift of chocolate to thank him for service above and beyond. Now Henry won’t go to anyone else. This is why we love living here. These moments of kindness and generosity mean EVERYTHING to us.