The Trials and Tribulations of Accompanying an Italian to the Supermarket

When in the center of Florence, the grocery options are slim, and usually tucked between historical something-or-others or wedged into back alleys. It is much better to do a round of shopping – to the fruit woman, the meat man, the egg guy, etc – at the markets than run into the small and cramped mini “grocery stores” that you may find along the way.

(*Side note and travel tip! Unlike in the US, the markets are actually cheaper than in the stores!!) So markets it is – and they take up most of my shopping time in a normal week.

Our normal shopping spot

Our normal shopping spot

Going to a Supermarket outside the city center is an interesting experience. I’ve done it a few times now and every time am overwhelmed in this store that should be more familiar to me than the center markets. Yet, somehow I always end up flabbergasted- especially when I am following around my boyfriend that takes food as seriously as I take shoe shopping (yes, sometimes I can be girly.)

This past week, our fridge was pretty bare and for processed foods, heading outside the city center is much cheaper than in, so we hopped on a two euro train to Lastra A Signa – a little suburb of Florence where Rami’s parents live. Rami’s Dad, Bassel, picked us up at the station in the car and came with us to the Ipercoop – aka the Walmart/Target, etc of Italy.

First things first: there is a reason that there are no rogue shopping carts in Italy. Why? Because you have to (kinda) pay to use one. Stick a Euro coin into the slot located on the handle and the cart is freed from its chains linking it to all others in the corral. Slow Travel did a much more thorough job of demonstrating this than I ever will have the patience for so if you are extremely interested in the detailed process, check it out here.

*Warning – if you do have people coming up offering to “help” you by returning the cart to the corral, please keep in mind that they are not helping because they are a nice person, they are helping because your euro coin is still lodged in the cart and they will earn that euro for walking a few feet – unbeknownst to most that are not used to this process.

However, overall – this system is very well done and I think a good thing for the US to take up – though I can hear the complaints now. “I gatta pay a dolla for a friggn cahhht?!” But I’m sure that the city of Haverhill wished they came up with this idea before half of the city’s carts ended up in the Little River.

Once getting a cart, the fun begins. At this point Rami is trembling like a four year old walking into Toys R Us. In this IperCoop right at the entrance, there’s a pizzeria and foccaceria or bakery counter, as well as a small tabaccheria where you can buy a number of things including the Florence Soccer Team Fiorentina paraphernalia, tickets to the games, cigarettes, lottery tickets, place bets, or play some slot machines.

Turn right and you’re in main area for shopping – which it seems like a normal grocery store in the States, but it is this fact that throws me. For, yes, at the markets, I see many strange things. But in a grocery store, I guess I’m expecting things to be “normal.” Looking through the aisles, however, proves me oh, so wrong.

Think large squid and octopus spread out next to fish under the glass – sometimes still kind of moving. In the meat section, there are skinned rabbits under plastic wrap – complete with heads and eyes that make you want to look the other way. Chickens with feet, snails, brains, tongues, and other things you don’t even want to know about.

Pig Liver wrapped in the lining of the stomach...Bassels favorite

Pig Liver wrapped in the lining of the stomach…Bassels favorite

At this point, I am struggling to find solace in something my brain knows how to comprehend so I run to the produce while Rami bounces around in front of the fish. But in between the apples and celery (which is monstrous for some reason, as well as the Bell peppers) there are products that are as foreign to me as tripe (cow stomach for those unfamiliar with this famous Florentine dish. PS if you see it in a store or market, it is usually bleached. So, I stupidly googled unbleached and successfully found a picture. Click if you dare. Yes I have eaten it, no, I didn’t really like it and I can tell you that what it looks like in that unbleached photo is how it tastes…bleugh)

Rami and his father have now followed me as I suddenly am hoarding apples into our cart. It’s fall. It’s apple time, and for once I know more than them and explain the difference between Granny Smith and Red Delicious. One point for the New England chick. But I soon lose my ground when we turn to the next aisle wherein Rami becomes extremely excited to find these things:

(in English I found out that it is called a Persimmon. Apparently these grow at home too but the New England chick was unaware).

“You have never had these have you,” Rami said as he tried to reach the last of two packages in the entire store. I assumed they must be in season and my thoughts were confirmed when he then turned and asked his Dad if he wanted some too. To which his father responds that no, they have some a home. Where did they get them? “Borrowed” them off the neighbors tree, he says with a smirk.

As I eye the fruit, Rami gives me the background info and, as if to make me want to taste these foreign things more, explains the name for them is Kaki – which basically translates to “shitty.” And though they may taste lovely, they are extremely shitty to eat. Think strings of chunky gelatin encased in a really thin skin that completely explodes when you bite into it. Alas, another fruit I look horrible eating. Figs were the first. NOTE: If an Italian ever asks you if you’ve had figs before and you haven’t, do not try to save face by saying you’ve had Fig Newtons. You will not save face, you will lose it.

So the shitty fruit also made its way into our carriage and we proceeded deeper into the labyrinth that, at this point, I knew was not the norm. But I was struggling. I know how to buy food so I went strolling to the meat section to try and find something familiar enough to pick for myself in between the liver and the brains. I grabbed a pack of diced steak and walked to Rami who was busy looking at the multitude of cheeses.

“We could do a stir-fry,” I asked more than told and his Dad leaned over my shoulder to look at what I had picked up. The two then proceeded to examine the meat as if I had cut it myself and then gave me a 21 question attack as to when I would cook this and how I would do it.

“Ahh the meat expert,” Bassel mumbled as Rami inspected the package – seemingly to make me feel better. But truly, they are right with meat here, it won’t last more than a day or two – and this is my kryptonite. Because when buying anything like a cut of meat, you have to plan in your head what you will use it for and when. And, because they are Italian, it needs to be the “right” cut of meat for the right recipe. Fail. They would be horrified as to how I cooked in college.

My meat selection, after a few minutes of debate, did make the cut (ha meat puns) and made it into our growing cart of produce. But after this botched attempt at helping out, I decided to stick to what I knew and ran around the store getting milk, yogurt, and cleaning products for our kitchen. How can you mess up sponges? Meanwhile, Rami, with a huge grin on his face, is throwing things into the cart like Supermarket Sweep. Chocolate-filled mini croissants, eight different types of cheese, this type of sausage, that type of pepperoni, this, that, and over there types of sliced meats (this ended up all being part of an amazing dinner that Mr. Chef was planning in his head.)

So as he was off in playland and his father was perusing the entire aisle of Olive Oils, I realized we also needed eggs. Unrefrigerated in Italy, mind you, you’ll find them in an isle all their own. And there are a ton of options – but mostly in only four packs. Me, going by my American sense, grabbed the only dozen there was and wandered back to the cart – in which Rami had just put a bottle of soda in that horrifyingly resembled urine. Basel said nothing as I slowly placed the eggs into the cart but as soon as Rami turned and saw what I had done, he scoffed.

“No. Not those,” he objected, as if I had suggested to buy a package of arsenic. I looked at his father for backup but he only shrugged his shoulders.

“He’s right this time,” he almost apologized to me and made the walk of shame back to the egg isle to exchange my eggs for better ones. The problem? I had picked the hormone eggs. Basically, they would be perfectly normal eggs in the states, but Italians are so health-conscious, these are known as bottom-of-the-barrel. Mind you, there is proof that these other eggs, the “norm” for Italy, are definitely not as chock-full of hormones – which is proven from the few times I have found half-formed or full-formed chicks in my eggs.

Switching up my egg mistake

Switching up my egg mistake

This second mishap on my quest for a successful Italian shopping spree had me raising the white flag. Though it looked like a supermarket, and acted like a supermarket, I am still American and don’t value the quality of food as much as Italians. I can go to the store at home, stock up on everything, and it’ll last for weeks without even a touch of mold. Here? There are spots on fruit in a day. Meat rots in two. And people wonder why here, people in their 80’s are riding bikes and lugging groceries miles, while the US nursing homes are full of elderly that are immobile. Yes, exercise and way of life are elements of this comparison, but our food definitely has something to do with it too.

After the egg debacle, we did the rounds in the shampoo and home goods isles – places where I could hold my own a little better, and then proceeded to check out. Last scramble? There are no bag boys here. If you’re on your own, it is an absolute scramble to pay, ask for bags (yup – you have to pay for each one. (smart and green), and then proceed to bag everything before the checkout girl begins to shoot the next person’s produce directly at you with an annoying smirk that you can’t bag fast enough for her liking. This is the most panic I have experienced in this country. Thankfully, with three people it wasn’t that difficult…but then I packed the bags wrong.

All in all, it’s better here – minus the chicken feet. Healthier food? I can’t complain. Italians know how to do it even without the Whole Foods stores, and all that strange stuff? It actually is amazing that they can make just about any part of the animal something edible. This is what the majority of the world needs to do – especially in the US with their mass production, waste, hormones, and preservatives. Cut it down, and you’ll just live a longer, healthier life. Let’s get going. Just don’t ask me to pick out the eggs.

Dawn – Writing Exercise

On a blog I follow, there is a daily prompt to get the writing juices flowing. Today was one I can relate to. Find it here.

 

“6:00AM: the best hour of the day, or too close to your 3:00AM bedtime? Photographers, artists, poets: show us DAWN.”

Image

I hate getting up. Up before the sun, up before the nonexistent birds of Florence start singing. Up before him, before the boxer and his owner living in our building, before the postman brazenly leans on all of the buzzers outside of our window, begging for someone to open the front door for him so he can deliver the mail (and people wonder why the Post system in Italy is crap). Up before the tourists flood the city, before the continental breakfasts are laid out in little rooms with too-old tables and chairs and the orange juice that tastes stale and the Americans complain that there are no eggs. Up before the sun casts shadows on the narrow alleyways of cobblestone and terracotta. Up before I want to be. 

But I’m up and I throw on a pair of pants and a shirt and a scarf and some studded boots that everyone seems to own here, and I slowly open and close my door so as to not wake the man sleeping upstairs that has worked too long and too hard the night before. And I grab the outside door – the big, wooden door with the graffiti and the knockers as big as my hand and I push out into the morning light. The sun just barely making the sky a pale blue – igniting the surrounding buildings in a light glow of browns, golds, creams. My boots click on the pavement. A breeze blows down the street from the Duomo, and as I circle around the gigantic structure, its red marble, taken from the quarries near Siena, glow a deep rose in the morning sun. The square is empty. 

Senza touristi. 

Without tourists, without cameras, without horse drawn carriages, ambulances, or artists. Without traveling musicians, school groups, gypsies, or salesmen trying to get you to buy mindless toys, umbrellas, or posters. My feet grace the white marble steps and I dance upon the entrance of this building – built seven- hundred years ago. I stare up at the detail, the complexity, the beauty. In silence. 

The sun grows brighter – the first rays catch the top of Giotto’s tower. Trucks begin rumbling down the streets, a few tourists, with their suitcases trailing behind them, raise up an iPad in front of their face – capturing the view through a screen instead of their eyes. Capturing it to boast, to send it home, to upload, rather than to learn. 

I step down off the marble onto the earth. My train leaves in thirty minutes. 

 

“…and sometimes good things fall apart so better things can fall together” – Beginning work with GoOverseas

About a semester back, I was contacted by Bus2alps to write an article for a company called GoOverseas. I was to write about ten common mistakes that Study Abroad students make when they’re studying abroad and, in exchange of having the article on their website, Bus2alps would maybe get a little bit more traffic on their site. 

I was excited to have an article of mine published on another website but my schedule at the time of the assignment was insanely hectic. I was the single guide running a tour called Best of Italy which brings students from London, Paris, etc, to see the sights of Italia for eight days covering Rome, Florence, Venice, Verona, and Milan. But between the trip prep, the emails, the guide plans, the mishaps and the fixes, I managed to complete most of the article – it was literally my down time/fun throughout the stress. And, at some ungodly hour in the morning on the deadline, I completed the article in a Roman hostel room, slept for a few hours, and got up to meet all of my new students for the week. 

In the days following, I was entirely too occupied with where my group was, if they were happy, if Venice was going to flood, if they were going to complain about something, if I was going to lose one of them, if they were going to like me, etc and completely forgot I had even submitted an article. Then, a while later, I was notified that it was posted. So exciting! Technically my first published article (on a legitimate website – for travel, no less!) and a humble accomplishment for me. I started exploring GoOverseas.com myself, and saw that there was an option to become part of their Writing Corps. Of course I want to do that. I applied, and a little later was contacted by a GoOverseas employee who personally congratulated me on my article and was very happy that I wanted to continue writing for them.

*Note: What is GoOverseas, you ask? It’s a first for the internet and explained extremely well in their About Section if you want to check it out (and you kinda should because they’re splendid) but, to sum it up, they are the Google of finding a Study/Volunteer/Teach/Intern/Travel Abroad program that is exactly perfect for you.

It was a relief to finally hear praise and to finally be doing something I truly appreciated in its entirety. Writing is not a struggle. Writing about traveling? It’s like asking me to house sit your beach house for a week…oh and we have a two month old puppy that we need you to take care of. WHAT? OF COURSE!

So through this debacle of my Bus2alps career dismount, I was happily writing for GoOverseas. Was I making money? No. Was I getting published? Yup. Was I enjoying it? Absolutely. So when Megan Lee told me I could possibly begin to work for GoOverseas, I was ecstatic. I filled out the application, crossed my fingers, held my breath, turned around three times, threw a coin in the Fountain of Neptune, rubbed the Boar’s nose (this is a pro of living in Florence – there’s a ton of “good luck” things to do around here) and hoped that this’d be the start of something wonderful. Low and behold, I received an email.

 

“Hi Lisa!

 

Great news. Go Overseas is excited to welcome you to our excellent team of Contributing Editors. Welcome to the fam!”

 

 

Finally, I have a writing job. I am an editor. Not only that, I am an editor for a company that is so awesome, they titled my task sheet “GoOverseas <3’s Lisa Harvey”. Talk about making a girl feel special.

 

Today, Florence is dreary, puddles are forming, and my internet has decided that the monotony of staying stable is overrated. I donned my Timberland boots, and, because I had some free time, scaled Giotto’s Bell Tower solo. As I reached one of the terraces, the swishing of the bells could be heard. And soon the giant pieces of metal clanged and my chest hummed with the vibrations of these masterpieces that have sung for so many hundreds of years. I leaned against the marble and looked up at them swinging freely, then glanced out at the city beyond, dappled with rusty terracotta roofs and towers of royalty long-passed. But as the mist of the oncoming rain swirls through the tower, I can’t help but smile. My mind is void of worries about lost students, complaints, or that someone will be miserable simply because they need to tote an umbrella throughout their day. Instead, my thoughts are on the beauty of the Duomo in my view, the glorious smell of the mountains beyond the ancient walls, and the barely-contained anticipation for where the next few months will take me.  

Stop worrying, start dreaming.

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It’s August. Breathe in. Breathe out. Stop looking at those plane tickets sitting on your desk. Stop counting down the days. It’ll come soon enough. Stop stressing about what to pack, will I miss home, will I miss peanut butter too much, how will I make friends, what will my room be like, will I eat too much Nutella and gain the study-abroad fifteen, will I be able to wear my clothes and not stand out, what will my nights be like, will I have fun, how in the world will I only bring fifty pounds of stuff, where do I want to travel, how many toiletries do I need to take with me, will I make friends, can I pass my classes, will I be able to get around without constant connection to the internet, what do I do about bidets, how many classes can I skip to travel, will I like the food, what will I do for fun, will I make it to Oktoberfest, can I get to learn the language, can I use my straightener without it blowing up, will my family miss me too much, will I hate not being at my college, will I be able to fit back in when I get home?

Stop it. Stop the worry, stop the stress, stop the thoughts. (and if you’re truthfully that worried, talk to one of our guides. We can honestly answer all of your questions.) But first, instead of doing that, take a break.

Instead focus on something like this: Walking cobblestone streets and calling them home, smelling fresh baked bread early in the mornings, the feel of your body plunging into waters off the coast of somewhere beautiful – the deep aqua-blue that you’ve only seen in pictures. Sitting in class and learning about the Coliseum, and then reaching out and touching its worn stones only hours later. Skyping your family from your apartment as you look out your window onto an incredible view of Dublin, the illuminated streets of Rome, or the late night street performers in Florence. Getting lost in the narrow streets and canals of Venice while you find the perfect Murano glass ring to give to your mother, paddling out into the surf off the coast of Portugal and catching your first wave back to shore, or walking out of the club as the sun rises over a new city you’ve come to love for it’s vibrance, music, life. Grabbing a ticket on a tour, getting on the bus, and sitting down in a seat next to a stranger, that you soon decide to jump out of a plane with a little later in the weekend, or fly down a canyon with in nothing but a wetsuit, life jacket, and funny helmet. Laughing at new inside-jokes at a local pub, learning the public transportation system down so well you begin helping tourists, and truthfully, becoming a local in a place that you have only dreamt about visiting. Living in, and loving Europe.

Imagine that.

Behind the Mainstream Study Abroad – Moments that are worth Duplicating

Sitting in my apartment, I can hear tourists pass by on the Florentine street outside my window. Some complain about the rain, others comment on how beautiful the Duomo is. Some girls pass talking about day trips they’ll do while they study here, while others scoff at the fact that there’s a Subway Sandwich shop across the street. “Are you kidding?! When there’s an amazing Panini place right around the corner?!” All the conversations are varied, yet so much the same – living or visiting this beautiful city and looking at it through the eyes of a foreigner. But sometimes, I wish I could tell them that they need to stop and step off the main path. Adventure. I wish I could share some experiences that are my favorite – but if you’re reading this – maybe you can recreate these moments.

 

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Sunrise somewhere: Before the tour groups step off their busses, before the restaurants open up their doors and unfurl their tablecloths out into the summer air, stroll the streets of dawn.

We woke when it was dark out and crawled out of bed, fumbling in the unfamiliar hotel room – donning jeans, a sweater, boots that I thought would make me fit in while I was in Italia. Caitlyn looked at me and questioned this decision, is it worth it? I responded with a resounding yes. I had done this before. We stepped outside our hotel – a small canal silently greeting us, a red rowboat sleeping peacefully in off-season air. And then we began, a walk through twisting and turning streets of dormant shops and ornate doors to come up upon the Grand Canal of Venice – just in time to see the golden sunset begin to shed light on the City of Bridges. Below us, the only boats were of the Venetians – Gondoliers uncovering their golden gilded boats, their striped shirts contrasting upon the rose and faded walls of an exhausted city. But in this moment, senza touristi, it became alive again. The real Venice; radiant in life instead of a travel book.

Conversation without Social Media: Turn off your phone when you travel. The person next to you could change your life.

I was lost in Rome, again, but managed to find a bus stop that seemed to point me in the right direction of the Vatican, I hoped. It wasn’t too crowded – not like rush hour when you are pressed up against other bodies, all just desperately clinging onto the bars and handles available. Now, in the evening chill, I stepped lightly into the orange bus and faced forward, beginning to search for signs that confirmed my arrival at the heart of Catholicism. He was quiet at first, and maybe it was my outfit that gave me away, but when the bus came to a stop at the next station, he patted my wrist. “Due piu” he smiled at me behind thick-rimmed glasses. Two more stops until the Vatican. When he realized I could speak minimal Italian, his face brightened, his brown eyes swam and he began teaching me the landmarks that were passing by the window. He spoke about the beauty of women when they don’t wear makeup: “that is when they look most beautiful, when they first wake up in the morning,” and as the Vatican came into view, he grinned, told me to drink the water from the fountains in the square and sent me off. A true Roman, he will be in my memory forever.

Adrenaline: Do something that scares you:

“I can’t wait,” I had boasted as we rode through the Swiss Alps. I saw the guide’s eyes flicker to my face in the rear-view mirror. I loved heights and adrenaline. I had seen my friends jump before, but canyon jumping was new to me – and as we pulled up to the bottom and saw another jumper fall gracefully into the crevice with a loud WHOOP, I was terrifyingly ecstatic. And the higher we climbed up to the platform, the more nerves began to creep into my system. The tremors in my legs began as I was fixed into the harness. I stepped out onto the metal grate with the guide. His smile was trumped by the sheer drop off behind him. “Are you ready?” he asked, and as I turned to face forward, I looked around. The Eiger was to my right – in the setting sun, in all of its glory – a Swiss Alp towered above us. Below, so, so far below, the river crashed over the rocks, daring me to jump, daring me to try and fly. Split second decision, my muscles moved, my feet left solid ground and I was falling, falling so fast, so far, my stomach clenched, my heart raced, it was too far, too fast, a free-fall like a bird soaring, and then the rope caught – swung me through past those that had already jumped, and back again. I could breathe, and as I looked up from where I had just come, I gave a “whoop” of my own. No roller coaster will ever compare.

Delve into other cultures: Break out of your comfort zone to begin to understand others.

“Here, I cannot speak with a girl like this,” he says. His dark brown eyes squint into the Moroccan sun, searching the horizon for the next surge of water from the Atlantic. I don’t understand what he means. I lean forward to look at him closer and the nose of my board settles into the water. He turns and glances at me and then back to the water, his dark brown shoulders glistening with droplets of salt water.

“If I want to speak with a Muslim girl, it is secret. No one can know. Here is one. Turn,” he leans toward me and pushes at my leg, eyes still on the ocean. I look out, see the swell, and obediently turn and lie on my blue and white surfboard, chin hitting wax, resting my eyes on the golden Moroccan sand with Mounir’s board and back to my left. Still sitting, his muscles ripple as he balances.

“That’s stupid,” I say over my shoulder. “How can you talk to them in private if you don’t know them?” The sun is hot. He chuckles and tickles my foot.

“Paddle.”

“I couldn’t be Muslim,” I say as I feel the wave build behind me. He laughs again and takes hold of the back of my board, one hand resting on my calf, he pats it twice. The earthen scent of Argan Oil from his skin drifts towards me on the breeze.

“No…you are too strong….paddle,” he reminds me.

I sweep my hands into the water and under my board, pushing. I hear the wave crashing to the right of me. I feel Mounir push me forward.

“Stand up!” he calls under his French/Arabic accent. The wave carries me from him, surging me toward the beach. I can feel the board bouncing on the tumult. My hands push up against the board, my muscles tense, legs bend. I stand and shift my weight, easing the board into the side of the wave, gliding it down the stretch of water. I push against the water, up and down, pumping the board parallel with the wave until it breaks. I glide to the shore with the foam, jump off, feel the grit of the sand under the soles of my feet. I turn toward the horizon, raising an arm up to shield the sun. His silhouette gives a thumbs up as the ocean glistens behind him.

Run, hike, bike, climb – while you are still young enough:

“You won’t last in jeans,” I tell the guys as they stand in front of me. It’s autumn in the Swiss Alps, about fifty degrees, and I’m in a tank top and shorts. “It’s too rough and you’ll be sweating in about fifteen minutes.” But they were stubborn and came anyway, and as we started our ascent, the hike grew steep and they started stripping layers. I hated to say I told them so. But it didn’t matter – because they were doing it. We talked as we hiked, getting glimpses of the snow-covered alps on the other side of the valley – with the town of Interlaken nestled before us. I learned about the group, their time abroad, their home life, what sports they played, and we stopped to take pictures along the way. It grew steeper, and sweat started pouring, the banter stopped, for we needed to breathe and muscles ached. We climbed up into the mountain pastures, collected water from a hollowed out log used as a basin for the spring water used to satisfy the thirst of the cows that grazed there in the summer – their bells chiming in an unorganized harmony. When we reached the summit, I turned to the group and was met with smiles and astonishment as they looked out over the lakes and mountains. “Thank God I did this and have the ability to do this,” one said to me. Take care of yourself and challenge yourself – for sometimes the best views are at the other end of a climb.