08 Feb The Italian Supermarket Experience
At 7.54 p.m., you arrive at your regular supermarket looking windswept and flushed having realized, six minutes before the store closed, that you have nothing at all left in the cupboard, except for four strawberries, the dregs of a tub of pesto, two litres of olive oil, a curiously large quantity of anchovies, and about eighty assorted teabags.
You walk through the shop door and fight your way through the inexplicable wall of trolleys that blocks your path, grabbing a big green basket from the impossibly tall pile, lowering it gradually to the ground, avoiding the hordes of people who are all standing in the entrance, where management has conveniently placed not only the trolley mountain and the basket beanstalk, but the checkouts as well.
This store, like many others, is set out in the form of a maze, with an unmarked, unspoken, but well acknowledged one-way system. If you pass an item and do not pick it up on the way round, don’t even think about swimming back upstream like a lone lost salmon to obtain it. This is strictly senso unico.
First straight completed. Milk, fruit, vegetables, and cereal all in the basket – an absurd, cot-sized contraption which you’re dragging along behind you, snaking it around the aisle to minimize the grazing of other customers lower legs, as it is too awkwardly shaped to hold as a basket, making you question why they even bothered to put a handle on the bloody thing.
Time for the first bend and oh super, there’s an obstruction in the form of a dozen shoppers huddled around the deli counter. Being as the deli is the one stop spot for olives, cheeses and – most importantly – fresh focaccia, you take a ticket. That’s right, a ticket. A system that I personally last saw in an English supermarket circa 1995, presumably because we Brits have it instilled in us from a young age that if there is competition in any kind of public arena, the most sensible thing to do is form an orderly line. In Italy, not so much, and so you pull #6422 from the dispenser and wait patiently while every other customer is served, and little old nonne take their time in requesting 14 different varieties of freshly cut ham, after asking the salesperson’s opinion on absolutely every one available.
All important local delicacies safely in the basket, and with two minutes to go, you push through more shelves of pasta than you ever thought possible, pick up some biscuits and some more teabags – you really can never have enough of those – stumble over a woman puzzlingly repacking her trolley just around the blind bend by the detergents, whizz down the home straight, throwing all manner of random objects into your basket as you go, and join a gigantic queue which, as always, does not indicate who will be served first (if there was supposed to be an order, somebody would have installed a ticketing system, after all).
When you get to the checkout, which has taken a while as the customer before you was paying with half a million coupons, each of which she had to sign individually; and it’s almost closing time. You’ve piled your goods on the conveyor belt, received a half hearted “buona sera” from the guy at the till, and the beeping begins. “Un sacchetto, per favore”, you ask politely. Beep. Beep. “uh… un sacchetto?” Beep. Beep. Nothing. “MI DAI UN SACCHETTO PER FAVORE?”.
Cue the launch of a plastic bag and immediate demand of €17.36. You start haphazardly shoving your purchases into the bag, simultaneously rifling through your purse for money, wishing you had eight arms, and finally chucking a crumpled twenty into the cashier’s palm (sorting out that change should buy you some time) and returning to the task at hand. He asks if you happen to have those 36 cents, because clearly that would make life so very much easier. For him. No, purely on principal, you do not have any change at all, so you continue packing like it’s an Olympic event. Two more items in the bag and he’s handing over a lot of coins. You shove them straight in your pocket; this is no time to be faffing around with a wallet.
Beep. Beep. Oh Jesus, he’s started serving the next customer, and your items are still occupying the entire collection zone (incidentally, the case each and every time you visit the supermarket, and not in any way limited to the pre-closing-time-rush).
You shove the rest of the items in the bag as quickly as you can and clear the exit as fast as possible, praying that your peaches don’t get bruised and your hastily packed eggs stay intact until you have a chance to publicly repack on the bench outside, away from the chaos.
Shame you forgot the one thing you went in for really, isn’t it?