LIFE/Natalie Hutchison: What grocery shopping taught me

There are reasons people do things a certain way, you know? It’s not that your way is better, or “poor them, they don’t know any different.” No if they have a certain method, maybe don’t rule it out. Especially in a country foreign to you.

I survived my first visit to the grocery store, I made it checkout… which really was just the beginning. Why did I have twice as much stuff as the family behind me? Why is there no bagger person? Why did the cashier deny me from buying fruit? Questions that would be answered after seriously messing up Italian grocery store etiquette.

Luckily a woman who spoke Spanish explained to me the deal with produce, it was an entire process I’d have to practice next time. Long story short, I brought my fruit expecting the cashier to weigh it, click some keys and basically do it for me. That is not how things are done in Italy.

Selecting fruits and vegetables, is a process. There are gloves for perusing the stands, it’s considered unsanitary to have bare hands touching the produce all day-grossly true. I definitely ignored the tiny numbers on the signs above each item, which apparently correspond to the scale customers use. After one strike and failing, I learned I had to take my things, weigh them, and press the button with the item’s number. The scale prints a barcode with the cost of the item. Noted: cashier needs the cost of item in order for me to pay for it

So as I was standing there with all my things, minus my fruit, I realized something had again gone wrong. Where were the bags? Well Natalie it’s a b.y.o.b situation, or you should’ve done like the family behind you and paid 15 cents for a biodegradable bag. There I was, just taking up space, everyone beating me in the race to get out of the way and I’m just strategizing how to fit a frozen pizza and cantaloupe in my purse. It wasn’t going to happen. Naturally I decided to push the embarrassment a little further and ask for bags in my broken Italian, surrounded by the Costco sized load of groceries I had, in front of this line of people. Luckily I screwed up enough for a few people to laugh so at least someone had a good day.

I fled the scene, to be dramatic. I walked out of the air conditioned store, and into the sun. My upper lip’s sweating a little more and these groceries already feel heavier at the thought of my fingers having to grip the tiny plastic handles for another half a mile. Oh, just re-realized I don’t have a car.

It was a warm walk in the heat with my four bags, uphill, downhill, then six flights of stairs. I made myself feel better by cooking a large dinner, and over a half kilo of gelato, reflected on how I will never buy more than five items at a time again.

Everything in between the rules of weighing produce and bagging my goods was just a matter of finding things. Milk for example is not refrigerated, you’ll find most brands on a shelf. And it’s not because Italians are not aware of the rules of spoiling, but it’s processed under high temperature so for some science reason has a shelf life of about six months. Eggs also aren’t refrigerated and the reason for that is simply “why would they need to be?”

Pastas however come refrigerated… not refrigerated, colorful, small, huge, you name it-and cheap. Peanut butter has been difficult to find, most stores don’t carry it and when I finally found it I was so excited I didn’t care about paying six euro for a small jar.

As for the rest, the visit to the store is close enough that of America-I’ve felt comforted finding Kellogg’s, frozen pizza (yes even in Italy), and oh my goodness Oreos. I’ve told myself my next visits would be more frequent, for less food, but I still find myself sweating my way back home. At least now I’m aware of the consequences. Buying in bulk isn’t the most convenient in every country, and if I’m convinced that my way is the best way, I likely have a lot to learn.

*Student USAC (University Studies Abroad Consortium)