Thursday, February 15, 2007

The Village People


Although there are large grocery store chains in Trieste, I usually do my grocery shopping in the village near our apartment. Here's a shot of the street where I went this morning with my son. We made 5 stops, all within 25 yards of each other. After an hour and a half, I ended up with 2 small bags of groceries. Why did it take so long?
Here's a run-down of our errands:
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1. The butcher (one of the shops in the pale green building on the right)--Another customer overheard me ordering 2 steaks , and spoke in Slovenian to the butcher. When the butcher answered, the only word I understood was "Amerikanska." The customer nodded and smiled. "America!" "Ja," I said--one of a total of 4 words I know in Slovenian. The butcher then proceeded to explain my story in Slovenian (I only know this because he translated for me afterwards). Then the customer told me all about her cousin in Canada, and asked if I'd ever been to Toronto (I haven't). She played peek-a-boo with my son, and then we were on our way to...
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2. The corner store (in front of the silver car on the right)--where I bought some fruit and vegetables (this shop has the best selection). I asked Sonia (the owner) how her 2-month-old granddaughter is doing. She told me all about the baby's colic, and how she goes and helps out her daughter when she can. During this conversation, two 70-something women were waiting in line behind me. One woman chimed in about her sure-fire cures for colic, and the other woman said that was a bunch of hooey, sparking a heated discussion half in the local Italian dialect, and half in Slovenian. Then my son coughed, and they all fell silent. He coughed again. Sonia asked if I'd taken my son to the pediatrician. One of the customers said to give him honey and he'll be fine. The other woman agreed, but insisted that I should get the honey from the local beekeeper, since local bees make antibodies in their honey that cures all (or most) local ailments. I smiled, thanked them, and then we were off to...
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3. The bakery (on the left, just beyond the white van)--As soon as I walked in, two of the employees greeted my son by name. I ordered my bread and a caffe latte. While I stirred sugar into my coffee, I asked the lady behind the bar how her daughter was. She told me all about how well her daughter did on her first grade report card, and played peek-a-boo with my son from behind the espresso-maker. As I sipped my coffee, a man came in with his dog (pets are allowed, as they are in many restaurants, too). My son made a beeline for the dog, so I put my coffee cup down and went to scoop him up. Magdalena, the bakery/bar owner, told me I should drink my coffee in peace, so she held her arms out and called my son's name. I handed him to her over the bar, and she took him over to the cash register where 4 people were waiting in line. She started to ring up the first customer's bill, when my son coughed. I knew what was coming. "Have you taken him to the doctor?" she asked me. I said yes, that he only has a cold. She didn't look convinced. My son coughed again, so Magdalena gave him a cookie. The 4 people in line turned to me and gave me their cough remedy tips (a nebulizer, steamy bath, and honey--again). I finished my coffee, and Magdalena handed my son back to me, his mouth covered in cookie crumbs, but smiling. From there we went to...
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4. The grocery store (back to the green building on the right, just past the butcher's)--When I say "grocery store," it's not like an American grocery store...it's about as big as your local 7-11. The lady who helps with the produce greeted my son by name, and he reached his arms out to her, so she held him while I put some milk and yogurt in my cart. She raved about how big he was getting (she'd just seen him yesterday), and put him on the produce scale to weigh him (10 kilos), which he loved. Then he saw the lady behind the deli counter, and wanted to go to her. She was cutting some ham for another customer, so I told him he had to wait. Then he started to cry and cough, so the lady cut a sliver of ham, put down her knife, and came around the counter to pick him up. She gave him the ham, which he immediately stuffed in his mouth. "Have you taken him to the doctor for that cough?" she asked. Then it was on to the check-out line, with 2 ladies ahead of me. My son started to cry again, so the cashier said something in Slovenian to the ladies. They smiled at me and motioned for me to go ahead of them (I love them). We checked out, and I threw my groceries into the bag while my son fussed (there are no baggers here...you have to bag your own groceries). I didn't do a very good job, however, and it looked like the groceries wouldn't fit in just one bag. The cashier expertly repacked my groceries while singing a song for my son, which calmed him down right away. She opened the door for me while the other customers waited. Finally it was on to...
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5. The pharmacy (I took the photo while standing right outside)--I went here to get some pasta for my son. Yes, they make pasta just for babies and toddlers--about 50 different varieties. They have this pasta in the larger grocery stores, but not in the village store, so that's why I had to hit the pharmacy. While I waited in line, my son occupied himself by shaking the pasta box up and down. When our turn came, the pharmacist came around from behind the counter to greet my son. He asked my son if he could borrow the box of pasta to ring it up. That's when my son's smile faded, and his little fingers gripped the box even tighter. So the pharmacist picked up my son and brought him back to the cash register where he could scan the price and ring it up. "Will that be all?" he said. My son coughed. The pharmacist frowned. "I have something for that cough, if you'd like."
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So now you know why it takes 90 minutes to get two bags of groceries. And why it takes a village to cure a cough...

9 comments:

laurie_ saloman said...

Oh, goodness. Sigh. Here in America we have surly teenagers and young adults working the registers--we're lucky if we can get them to crack a smile, let alone make pleasant conversation. I understand that all that standing around making small talk with people might seem odd to perpetually rushed Americans, but it sounds like a heavenly way to spend a morning to me!

Natalie said...

Hi Laurie,

It is nice, actually, now that I'm used to it. It used to be frustrating if I was in a hurry and had to stand in line listening to the cashier shoot the breeze with each customer who checked out. But now that I'm the one they shoot the breeze with, I enjoy it. :-)

C.K. said...

Everybody sounds so homey and friendly. Are you sure you're not making any of this up? :-) Forgive me, but I know you're a writer and I live near a big city. Getting a "thank you" or a pleasant look is a big deal.

olmue said...

Ahhhh....THIS is the big difference between where you live and where I live. Sometime since we last lived here 7 years ago, someone got the bright idea to introduce a little customer service into the whole system of capitalism. Gone are the days when a checker would scream for ten minutes at a 90-year-old lady for checking if an item on her receipt was rung up right. Oh, no. We're all friendly now. You check out, and as they hand you your receipt they ask you if you found everything all right. You can tell by where the question falls in the whole exchange--as well as the canned expression and the look of pain on the checker's face--that the manager is making her say this against her will.

(Okay, maybe I'm being harsh; if you start a conversation with the checker she is usually friendly back to you--but I'm not exaggerating about how the whole "did you have a good shopping experience today?" question is not quite natural yet.)

Natalie said...

Hi CK,

I know, the whole thing seems like the Italian version of a Maeve Binchy novel, doesn't it? Trieste has approximately 250,000 residents, but there are several tiny villages on the outskirts, ours being one of them. I never asked how many people live in the village, but my guess is it's not more than 250.

When we first moved here almost 4 years ago, people weren't overly friendly right away. Their first language is Slovenian, and as a minority in Italy, they tend to close themselves off as a community. But I think the fact that I'm the only American most of them have ever met makes me somewhat of an anomaly, and people who normally wouldn't talk to Italian "outsiders" do talk to me--perhaps they view me a a sort of fellow outsider?

And the whole cough thing was why my son got extra attention that day. Italians tend to tell others what to do if someone isn't feeling well--they don't intend to be bossy, I think they just like to help. And they don't hesitate when it comes to doling out advice for kids--my American friends here can attest to the fact that Italian grandmothers, especially, say things like "Don't you think your child needs a hat?" to complete strangers.

Once when I was tutoring a child in English, I had a slight cough. The mother had been listening to the lesson from the other room, and after about 15 minutes, she marched into the room with a spoon and a bottle of cough medicine. As she measured out the medicine, I turned to my student and said, "I didn't know you were sick!" And the mother clicked her tongue, shook her head, and said, "He's not sick--this is for you!"

Hi olmue,
Your comment made me laugh! Customer service is not a huge priority here...I'll get more into that when I talk about waiters in restaurants. :-)

Natalie

cynjay said...

Loved it! Sounds like an article to me....

murielle said...

Since my first experience 2000 and to the present day I take my time to enagage others while shopping
Italian style..it brightens my day and others. In fact just how do you get to live in Italy..plenty of Euro...a great job?
I am a part of a organization that takes groups to Rome for pasqua every year but would love to spend more then 10 days!

Emanuele said...

You write very well.

Natalie said...

Thanks, CynJay...maybe it will be one day. :-)

Murielle, Both my husband and I teach at the international school here. My husband is from Trieste, so that helps, too. Pasqua a Roma--I went one year and we had tickets to mass at the Vatican. It was fantastic...I thought it would be solemn and calm, but when the Pope walked in, everyone cheered and whooped and hollered! It reminded me of an Italian soccer game. :-)

Thanks, Emanuele!