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.

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“Sometimes on the way to a dream, you get lost and find a better one”

When anyone asks me if they should apply for Bus2alps, to begin the process of trying to take flight and become a traveler, adventurer, and tour guide, the first sentence out of my mouth is always the same:

You are an idiot if you don’t at least apply.

I was stuck. Sitting in a glass cubicle in an office that I hated. My headset clamped onto my temples too hard. My eyes strained from looking at a computer program built in the 90’s (don’t ask…the company had many problems. Being computer unintelligent was one of them). I had been out of college for almost a year and I had an hour-long commute to a dreary, cement building by a decaying harbor in the horrible town of Lynn, Massachusetts. On my lunch breaks in early spring, I would launch out of my seat, grab my sandwich and run out the door and down the street to the sand. The beach was the only comfort in that place. I would roll up the legs of my ugly office pants and stand in the numbing water, watching the planes take off from Logan Airport, and wishing I was on one of them. If I had a really horrible day, I’d let my hair down and jump on the swing-set, pointing my feet to the sky, wishing I was looking down instead of up.

And then I was; peering out of the little oval window down onto the same exact beach I had paced for months. The nose of the plane was pointed toward Rome.

I had thrown myself into a life-changing opportunity that began with a delayed flight and a last-minute solo trip through multiple countries. Which was appropriate, according to my track record of travel previously. And then it began. Life as Bus2alps knows it. And it was beautiful, and I learned. 

In the past year and a half, I have accumulated so much knowledge, experience, stress, life lessons, and happiness. I conquered public speaking. Give me a microphone and I can ramble for hours. ( I can even tell people to “PLEASE LISTEN BECAUSE THIS IS VERY IMPORTANT” without sounding like an incredible snot). I have learned to navigate cities I haven’t even been to. I have more patience with people than I ever thought possible. I have learned the art of persuasive speaking – in ways that can make a rainy day seem like just the waiting time for a rainbow. I can communicate in languages you have never even heard of. Not fluently, but, you know, like hand signals and stuff. Try asking for a fork in Croatian and see how far you get…I got salad tongs on my first try. I can also actually communicate in Italian, though it’s broken, and I sound like a two-year old. But I can understand almost everything, and if a bus driver comes at me in rapid Napolitano dialect, I can get the gist of it enough for me to know if I should duck and cover, or simply nod in agreement.

I can stomp up to a hotel manager and demand that his night staff treats my students more professionally, and he actually listens to me.  Like, he actually takes me seriously. I can discover alleyways that lead to perfect views of perfect historical monuments that allow travelers with me to take perfect pictures that make their trips perfect. I am proud of my fun facts and secrets too. I can work my way through the Constant Contact program with ease and send out mass emails like it’s my job. I can give a walking tour of Venice, Milan, Verona, and Florence. (And piece one together in Rome if need be) I can use Facebook, Pinterest, Instagram, Twitter, every major social media program in ways that help build a company, instead of just ways to pass around cute cat videos. (Though I can do that well too) I can make friends in any country, in any language, but I can also make business contacts as well. I can suck it up even when I’m having a bad day – because I have to – because my happiness is the key to others. I can sell you something without coming off as a pushy sales person. That may not mean that I am a salesperson or make millions, but if I am telling you to buy something, it means that I believe that you are perfect for this product and this product is perfect for you. (Sorry I’m not sorry.) I can now explain to you in great detail about international immigration laws. I can find beauty in even the most desolate parts of a town. I can be planning on leaving for Oktoberfest one minute, and be absolutely (ok not right away but I got there) ok with going to Croatia instead. I can navigate the Rome bus and subway system, the Venice vaporetti system, the Milan Subway, and the Vienna subway with ease. I can multitask like a mofo.  I can live out of a suitcase every weekend and be organized enough that I have everything I really need. I have learned how to look completely (ok not completely but close) calm when going through passport checkpoints.  I can pick a movie for a group of fifty individuals and have the majority like it (most of the time). I can give a pretty kick-ass boat tour around the isle of Capri. I can say I have grown to be more confident in myself with asking for directions when needed. I can say that I have matured more in a year than in all of high school and college put together. I can dress so that I look European enough that I don’t get questioned on the streets. I can find cheap flights easier than most.

I have learned so much (that list is only what comes to mind right now but it is so so so much longer than that)  and have been able to experience so much: Flying off into narrow canyons in the shadows of the Alps, diving into the crystal-blue waters off of Capri, making friends in Sorrento, eating too much chocolate in Perugia while winding down its narrow cobblestone alleyways, parading up the same church isle as Julie Andrews, skiing the Jungfrau area until my legs gave out and my eyes hurt from the greatness of the ice, snow, and rock of the Eiger looming above, eating fish off the bone on an island hopping cruise that took us to the tiny towns of Croatia boardered with colorful, worn, wooden boats, falling asleep while looking at the white-washed world under feet while heading to the top of Mt. Solaro, having a humbling conversation with a weathered Roman man on the bus to the Vatican, diving through canyons full of glacier runoff, discovering secret gardens, making gelato, finding the closest thing to Belle’s library and dancing around in it almost alone, seeing the Lippizaner Stallions breathe white puffs of air as they rest in their stalls in the center of Vienna, sledding at night under the biggest sky with the brightest stars I have ever seen, walking the halls of an emperor’s summer home as the moonlight glints on the marble floors – still in tact after centuries.  I’ve hiked up mountains as I listened to the sound of Swiss cowbells, swam through caves trying to avoid the sting of jellyfish – pink against the green water, glowing and reflecting on the rocks above.

I’ve listened to so many stories, of old men when they were young and fit, diving into the water from the nearby rooftops, I’ve met aspirational rappers, and mothers missing their children as they study in other parts of Europe. I’ve met butchers, farmers, and jewelry designers. I’ve met American students that fit the stereotypes so perfectly, I have to apologize for them, and others that have baffled me as to how inquisitive, smart, and kind they are – and how willing they are to learn about the world. I have met bearded guys on the train that kept me company, I’ve met pilots with daughters my age that are working in South America, I’ve met crazy, crazy people who like to base jump on their days off (and secretly wish I could go with them). I’ve met people who have followed their hearts across oceans, and now live completely different lives than they thought they would – simply because of love. I’ve  met many that have felt unwanted and discriminated by the United States, and because of this, I have learned even more than if I had just stayed home. I have met many, learned so much, but there is one that I have met and learned from that is above all of this: Rami.

Before Bus2alps had an office, our hours of internet were to be held in Astor Cafe – left side of the Duomo, you can’t miss it. And if you know me, you know the story. But Rami Saltagi was different and because of him I survived and thrived in this past year. I met him early, but soon was in love with him and soon my dream of living and working here with Bus2alps, coincided with living and working on my relationship with him.

Maybe that was my downfall, because I wanted to spend time with my boyfriend and my company. For, truthfully, Bus2alps is a lifestyle, not a job – and having anything else is definitely difficult. Maybe it was because I didn’t entirely “fit in” with the group of people who were my co-workers. Maybe it was because of mistakes I made early on in my life with Bus2alps that I couldn’t fix or make up. Maybe it was simply because I could not be a salesperson.

But recently, Bus2alps told me that I had to make a decision. One way, I would salvage my history with them and maintain my position in the company so I could travel with them and do what I love for at least another semester – but I would be making a conscious decision that may put my relationship in more legal trouble than it already is in. In the past year, I had given the company my everything. I had worked my ass off. I had done everything they asked of me legally to do to the point where I had nothing else to give. But this was asking too much.

The other option? Quit.

Sometimes, on the way to a dream, you get lost and find a better one. I got lost. Lost in the foam of a perfectly created cappuccino, lost in the echo of “BUONGIORNORAGAZZE” every morning, lost in the shadow of the Duomo, and lost in the brown eyes of a European.

Bus2alps was my dream, and I lived it for a year and a half. But now, I’m sitting in Florence, jobless, but completely satisfied knowing that I have found so much of a better dream than what I had in my head when I flew over that beach.

Maybe the second sentence about Bus2alps will be filled with painful truths and some warnings, but I shake them when I say the first. I make it stick, because flying here on that first plane, was the best decision I have ever made.

So, though I never was given a thank you, I will give one to them.

Thank you, Bus2alps, for allowing me to learn, to grow, to see Europe. Thank you for the opportunities, the lessons learned, the tough skin, the lows and the highs. Thank you for the stress – it only made me learn to deal with it better. Thank you for the demotions. It only made me work harder. Thank you for the days at the lake, the nights on the mountains, the dinners under the Tuscan sun and the toasts of Champagne to being young, wild, and free. And thank you, more than anything, for putting me in Florence, when I asked to be in Rome. And for having office hours at Astor every morning at 10 am.

Thank you, so.incredibly.much, for that.