It’s Friday afternoon, and I’m standing in the cramped aisle of a tiny supermarket, staring at the shelves with what is probably a look of utter confusion on my face. I’ve been here for half an hour already, and the only thing in my basket so far is a carton of eggs, because eggs are the only item on my list that doesn’t require trying to decipher a label in Italian. I know what you’re thinking. Why not just look at the pictures? Surely it can’t be THAT hard to tell what everything is. Well. That’s one way to approach shopping, sure, but I learned my lesson about that the hard way on one particular instance when I thought I was buying makeup remover and ended up with mouthwash. That was one eye-burningly painful mistake I’d prefer not to repeat in any way, shape or form, though my face did smell delightfully minty fresh all day afterwards. Laugh all you want, but I’m one of those people who is a very careful shopper, and things get increasingly difficult when not only do I not know where or what anything is, but I also have to decipher Italian ingredient labels.
So without further ado, I present, five tips for Americans trying to grocery shop in Italy….
#1- Make sure you have ample time to do your shopping.
Like set aside at least an hour, maybe more if you’re me. Maybe this will seem ridiculous to some people, in which case, feel free to skip this tip. If you’re one of the few people who is capable of actually being in and out of the store within five minutes, with only the items on your list, then more power to you. Actually, I’m jealous, and you need to teach me how you do it immediately, but I digress. From my experience, there’s no such thing as a quick shopping trip here.
Every time I go to the supermarket, knowing exactly what I need, I still find myself wandering up and down the aisles, distracted by displays of exotic items that I’d never seen back home, (like giant, keg-sized jars of olives or giant slabs of meat hanging from the ceiling by the deli section), while trying to decipher Italian food labels.
#2- Be prepared to search for things that might not be where you’d expect them.
In a way, this ties back to #1, because even if you have a clear list and aren’t prone to distraction, you might end up spending more time than you anticipated actually tracking down the items you need, as Italians have their own, well-thought-out grocery system that is somewhat different from standard American practices.
I remember on my first shopping trip, I spent ten minutes looking for eggs, because much to my surprise, they aren’t refrigerated. I remember roaming up and down the refrigerated dairy section looking confused, and wondering if I was just extremely unobservant, and blaming jet lag for missing something that was probably extremely obvious. I stared at shelf after shelf of pasta, wondering why on earth spaghetti was in the refrigerator and eggs weren’t. In desperation, I even looked at the deli, and, (grasping at straws at this point), in the freezer section. I was on the verge of assuming that Italians just didn’t eat eggs, or perhaps eggs were reserved for the elite world of pastry chefs, at not something that ordinary people consumed on a regular basis, and resigning myself to an egg-free semester when one of the other American students was kind enough to help me out. Even after being shown to the correct aisle, I still walked right by the eggs at first, because I didn’t for one moment think that the eggs would just be on an ordinary shelf, I figured there had to be a refrigerator at the end of the aisle, or something.
So yeah, eggs apparently don’t actually require refrigeration, and here in Italy, each egg has a date stamped on it as well, presumably as a reference to freshness. Though it only took once to learn my lesson about the eggs, as embarrassing as it is to admit, it’s still always a bit of a process each time I go shopping at a different store, because even if I can rule out the refrigerated section, it’s always a mystery as to which exact shelves the eggs are on in each store.
Even if this means that I am forever destined to look like a clueless idiot while shopping, my current goal is to, even if I am wandering around without a clue, at least not look like that’s what I’m doing. I’ll admit, I have yet to perfect my casual (as opposed to completely clueless) shopping demeanor. But hey, I’ve got three more months, so we’ll see how it goes!
#3- There is proper etiquette to buying produce.
When I first came to Italy, I was beyond excited when I saw how fantastically cheap some of the fruit was in comparison to where I’m from. As an avid fan of fresh produce, I couldn’t keep a stupid-looking grin off my face the first time I saw a sign advertising peaches for 99 cents per kilo. That was what, 60 cents a pound roughly, in US dollars, and back home, peaches were a luxury reserved for people who weren’t broke college students, and willing to shell out $1.69 or more per pound for often mediocre, (not to mention possibly filled with pesticides and weird genetic modifications), fruit.
I was about to start filling a bag with peaches, but I stopped short when I got my first dirty look from an elderly woman who was also perusing the fruit. I was instantly confused. Perhaps she just didn’t like foreigners? But then again, I hadn’t opened my mouth, and I wasn’t toting a map and a camera, or anything else that might have marked me as a tourist, so what was I doing wrong?
At that point, still new to Italy, I shrank back, and decided that my best bet would be to just wait until she was gone, and I did. As soon as the woman had left with her bag of grapes, I furtively looked both ways, and started stuffing peaches into a plastic bag as quickly as possible, (and probably looking extremely sketchy in the process), worrying that I’d get more dirty looks from the natives if I was seen. It wasn’t until later, when I stepped up to the scale to weight my fruit, and saw a discarded pile of plastic gloves, that I realized my faux pas. Or as the saying goes in Italy, ‘passo falso‘. (I later read on the internet about how it’s seen as unhygienic and rude to handle fruit with your bare hands in Italy. Oops.)
I tried to console myself with the fact that even if I had screwed up on how to properly handle the fruit, at least I’d managed to figure out the complicated scale system, which involves weighing your fruit, putting in the code for it, and getting a printed sticker with the weight and price. Except….as it turned out, I actually hadn’t, as about ten minutes later, to my extreme mortification, I found myself holding up an entire checkout line as the cashier informed me in broken English that, no, I’d actually done it wrong, and went back to fix my mistake himself. Ouch. Oh well. At least my lack of ability to speak Italian meant that I couldn’t understand whatever the annoyed people behind me in line were saying about me, so there’s something, at least.
#4- Read the fine print.
Or, more specifically, if you’re buying something that contains multiple individual packages, make sure you understand whether the price listed is for everything together, or for each individual item. For example, soda. On that same, mortifying first shopping trip, before I found myself horrifying an old woman with my poor produce-buying etiquette, I found myself in the beverage aisle, because at that point, I was still afraid of drinking the tap water in my apartment. (I’ve since conquered that fear, I’m proud to say. It’s been three weeks and the tap water hasn’t killed me yet, so far so good!). Since coming to Italy, I’d noticed that soda seemed to always be much more expensive than it was in the United States. At that point, I loathed the idea of buying bottled water. Having grown up drinking perfectly good tap water at home, the bottled water industry to me seemed like nothing more than a huge racket cooked up by some capitalist looking to make a quick buck by stirring up irrational fears about tap water into gullible Americans. Even knowing that it was perfectly reasonable in Italy, and that no one drank the tap water here, and often it was non-potable, it just felt fundamentally wrong to me to pay money for bottled water. But I digress.
Point is, I was thirsty, and I wasn’t about to buy plain water. Most of the soda seemed pretty expensive, until I stumbled across a six-pack of liters of Coke Zero for only a few euros. Assuming that the price was for the entire six pack, I happily plopped it into my cart, still eyeing the bottled water suspiciously.
It wasn’t until I was in the checkout line that I realized that no, apparently the six-pack was comprised of three two-packs, and the price listed was per two-pack. Had I known, I never would’ve bought it, but since I’d already held up the line with my peach mistake, I didn’t want to cause even more of a scene by asking the cashier to un-ring up the soda, (and I also didn’t know how to ask in Italian, so there was that too), so I ended up paying almost eight euros for what would’ve probably been less than four dollars worth of soda back home. Lesson learned. And on the plus side, I am proud to say that I seem to have kicked my unfortunate soda habit because of my unwillingness to pay such steep prices again, so that’s good, right?
#5-Italian food usually isn’t processed nearly as much as it is in the United States.
Now, I think this is a very good thing. I’m no fan of consuming chemicals, and I was quite happy when I read that Italy tended to have stricter laws regarding chemicals and processing when it came to food. However, I will admit, it did come as a bit of a surprise the first (and only time, so far) I bought milk, only to have it spoil within two days. Same with yogurt. Apparently, it’s a lot more common here for people to go to the store every few days for a few items, rather than loading up for a week or month like we do in the United States. I didn’t want to have to go to the store very often, so that first time, I got several bottles of milk, as well as yogurt. This turned out to be a mistake, as I quickly learned the hard way that if you’ve made the mistake of buying yogurt in bulk, it’s imperative to check for mold every time you open a container rather than expecting it to keep well for more than just a couple days.
It was kind of weird getting used to having to go shopping every few days instead of once a week or less like I used to, but hey, at least this way, I can be pretty much guaranteed that everything I’m eating is fresh and not loaded with preservatives, and that’s definitely a huge plus, in my book!
Now, good luck shopping! Here’s to hoping I make it through the next three months here without any further embarrassment (but I wouldn’t bet on it….).