The other day we went into a fruttivendolo that we had never been to before. After we had paid for our groceries the shopkeeper offered us some celery and stuck it in the bag for us. We were delighted and perplexed, and we tried to figure out what we had done to make ourselves worthy of this spontaneous gift. We learned later from Monica, our Italian teacher, that many of the older fruit and vegetable vendors will infer from the ingredients you’re buying that you are planning to make a particular soup or a specific dish. If so they will throw in an extra stalk or two of celery, some sprigs of rosemary or other odore (aromatic herbs) at no charge. Frequently they will also check to make sure you have the other ingredients you’ll need, asking “Do you need any sage or onions?” or “Do you have bread for tonight?” for example. As a result, shopping for food is more like a conversation than a simple act of commerce.
We love shopping at the fruttivendolo run by Anna and her family. This is because she has taken an interest in us and we always end up chatting each time we go in. Often, but not always, our conversation is about food: what we’ve enjoyed eating in Italy; how the produce here is different than in the US; the best time to add compost to a garden; recipes; etc. Sometimes the conversation expands to include other customers who come into the shop - just about everyone has an opinion or a story to share. We make a point of going there regularly even though the shop is a 30 minute walk from our apartment.
Anna takes an interest not just in us, but in all her customers. For example, Henry was in her store recently when a man came in with a list. When Anna asked him how much of an item he wanted, he replied “How much does my wife usually get?” Anna knew the answer.
Shopping in Italy, for anything, is first and foremost a social activity. It’s not just a task on a “to do” list, it’s an aspect of a relationship. Customers and vendors chat together seemingly oblivious to anyone who may be waiting their turn to be served. As a result we’ve found that it’s best to allow several hours to complete the day’s grocery shopping. Though it can be inconvenient at times, we love living a life in which personal connection is valued more than efficiency.