Words by Tara McLaughlin
Negotiating your way around a market in Southern Italy can prove to be somewhat of a daunting task. You’ve figured out when it is, at what time, how to get there and you’re feeling quite proud of yourself for managing to arrive to the market in one piece despite the numerous attempts of driving homicide from the locals. What’s more, you have even dragged yourself out of your holiday bed at ridiculous o’clock to make the most of the local produce on offer.
So you think you’re prepared? Think again.
First, you need to be aware of “le nonne”. For those who are still working on Italian language skills, these are the senior female citizens who wait all week for the market to come to town. They rise before the sun on market days to ensure they get the best pick of ingredients for the precious males in their family. God forbid they should present their strapping sons with a bitter banana or an anomalous aubergine.
“I can handle that,” I hear you say - but you haven’t quite counted on picking the same juicy tomato which they had their eye on. At this stage, what started as a casual trip to the market can turn into a catfight. You can bet that they will snatch it from your very hands if needs be and will stop just short of nothing to get that all-important tomato you wanted. I know it’s just a tomato but to her it’s this very tomato that will provide the sumptuous flavour for her son’s lunch. It is this very tomato which will make her “bruschette” a cut above the rest and help her win one over on signora Crivellaro next door. Trust me, it’s much easier to just surrender the vegetable.
Just when you think you’ve seen it all, you move on to the next stall, only to discover that there’s a hold up and no-one’s going anywhere fast. The problem? The same group of experienced senior chefs have stopped to compare notes on tonight’s dinner and discuss the pressing issue of who is going to carry the statue of our lady at the next “festa”. Try as you may, they will not hear your polite requests to move aside, so your best option is to simply push past. I assure you, they will not think you remotely rude - in fact they will not even notice. They have much more important matters to worry about.
Next to catch your attention is the sound of a bell ringing. You instinctively turn to the church tower expecting it to be calling the locals to worship until you discover it is getting louder and closer. Then your shopping bags are thrown from your hand as the source of the sound makes its way through the crowded marketplace on a rickety old Vespa. You’ve long since learned not to expect him to be wearing a helmet and you wouldn’t mind particularly, except that his friend, who was riding pillion, has succeeded in knocking your shopping bag from your grasp, and the precious tomatoes that you fought so hard for are now rolling around the filthy ground.
But wait! Closing time is approaching now and the street traders are beginning to pack up for the day. Why is this a good thing, you may be wondering? Because if there is any stock left, they will be keen to get rid of it, so you can get the same goods for a fraction of the price. It might be worth turning around and trekking the whole way back to the vegetable stall to see if the kind man takes pity on you now that all your prize tomatoes are playing substitute to a neat little spaghetti sauce on the ground.
Shame that, when you make your way back to the car, you discover a stark white piece of paper trimly tucked under your window wiper. Damn it! It’s a parking ticket. Apparently you can’t park in your usual spot on market days, as the road has limited vehicle access and most of the spaces are reserved for the vans and trucks of the vendors. Of course no-one told you that, they just assumed you would know.
Well you have learned the lessons and you certainly won’t be making the same mistakes twice. I promise that now that you have been there, done that and bought that t-shirt, future market days will be much more enjoyable and you will come home with much more than you bargained for. Just be sure to park your car as far from the marketplace as possible - or even better bring your bike and arm yourself with the bell (if you have the courage).
Do you share the same thoughts and feelings? Please, join the Italy Community to tell us your experience at the local market!