Wednesday is market day here in our little town. Yesterday, as I was sharpening my elbows in preparation, I started to reflect on the naïvety with which I approached my first market day almost five years ago.
I think in general Americans have this idyllic notion of little Italian mammas with their wicker baskets and bicycles, heading down to the piazza to gossip with each other and bring home bread, fruit and veggies. And while I don’t want to ruin that image – there definitely is some of that going on – I feel that it is my duty to tell the whole story. I think it’s necessary to understand that these usually small and seemingly fragile women are powerhouses of strength when it comes to picking out the best tomatoes.
This power seems to come from deep within… some kind of culturally instinctual desire to source the best ingredients for that day’s pasta. Trivialities such as town gossip have their place, but only after the nicest looking pomodori have been placed in the basket.
I still remember it quite well. I had spotted the stand with the plumpest, reddest, yummiest looking tomatoes… also the busiest stand on the square, which is always a good indicator. The music started playing, and I began my approach.
That’s when I noticed them. Like the classic Velociraptor hunting description from Jurassic Park, they attack from the sides first. Then they jump from behind.
I didn’t stand a chance.
As I stood back, in shock, observing the descent upon the tomato flesh, I couldn’t help but laugh at the scene that was unfolding in front of me.
Two of these ladies had wedged themselves square in front of the crate and were jabbing each other back and forth with their pointy little elbows, all the while never taking their eyes off the tomatoes. All of the sudden, one of them – the smaller one, got in a pretty decent jab. Decent enough to provoke the other woman to look up in disbelief from her task and flash an angry look at the lady next to her.
The best part was that, upon casting her eyes towards the competitor, she realized that (of course) it was a friend, and so they immediately erupted into what I call ‘Ciao and Baci Mode‘. It involves a lot of kissing and loud ‘eeeehhhhhhhh!!!‘ sounds.
The very important lesson I learned from this little drama went on to become the foundation of my future Market Day Game Plan (which incidentally may be implemented in any number of lining up or queuing situations throughout your daily life in Italy). It’s a 3-step game plan, with a follow-up 3 point response plan.
1. Number the players before you start.
It’s very important that if you are going to stand your ground you don’t make any mistakes in knowing who arrived to the line in what order. Identify and memorize the last person in line, and at least 3 people ahead of her. Then firmly plant your feet on her heels.
2. Position shoulders, hips, and elbows for blocking.
It helps if you’ve ever played basketball. You need to think of your body as a blockade that has to be swiveled back and forth depending on the direction of the force against it. You want to maintain as close to a 90° block as possible. It can be tricky if they’re coming from two sides. That’s when an outstretched leg comes in handy. Just swing that foot over in front of hers to remind her you haven’t forgotten about that side of the play.
3. Make eye contact and hold it until she looks away.
An Italian woman is far less likely to continue butting in front of you if she has looked you in the eyes. ESPECIALLY if you held her stare and she is the first to look away. Generally speaking, a woman who is attempting to cut in front of you knows what she is doing, and she backs down when confronted. However, sometimes you’ll get a little old signora who believes that she has been on this earth long enough for common decency not to matter. When encountering una signora così, staring doesn’t work. Mainly because they just stare right back at you without noticing anything strange is going on. And that’s not singular to elderly women. I actually asked a young woman one time if I could help her because she stared at me for two minutes straight while waiting in line. Her reply was, “no, I’m just looking”, as if it was rude of me to notice.
In this situation – when staring doesn’t help, there are a couple of options… none of which are ideal, but hey… ‘è così‘.
a) Make a scene and call on others to back you up.
She knows she’s cutting. Call her on it. See what happens. I take no responsibility for the outcome, but I would like to hear any related stories.
b) Guilt-trip her into submission.
Hey, it’s a Catholic country. Let’s use that. Loudly announce that you are allowing her to cut in front of you, even though you were there first. Half the time she’ll insist – “no, no, no – you, please, go ahead… (I’ll cut in front of the lady behind you)” – so she can look like the big person. The other half of the time, she takes you up on it, but you get the satisfaction of knowing that you took the high road (kinda).
c) Submit. Go home with your tail between your legs and the worst tomatoes. Wake up tomorrow, and try again.
I think all my expat readers here in Italy can identify with the frequent feeling of defeat. Ya know, some days, I’m just not up for it. It takes a lot of energy to balance the act of confronting/adapting to another culture. Sometimes I wake up and just don’t have it in me to sharpen my elbows that day. The consequence? Well… some days, I have to live with the second – or even third – best tomatoes. E’ così.
(By the way, if she really is elderly, maybe just let her go ahead of you… )