When I arrived in Florence several years ago, I thought of myself as independent and headstrong. I was a graduate student and I was going to be living in Italy for an entire year. I was older, I was committed, I was brave. On settling into my new life abroad, the adaptation process went as quickly as nature allowed. I sipped my caffellattè at the bar alongside locals, watched children’s movies in Italian and explored the striking towns Tuscany has to offer, becoming a native of the transportation system in no time.
Despite all this, there was one thing I just wouldn’t do. When it came to grocery shopping, I refused to shop anywhere than the local supermarket. I wouldn’t even entertain the idea of exploring one of the more traditional aspects of Italian food culture: the simple yet complex-to-my-American-eyes individual product shops, the macelleria, the panificio, the fruit and vegetable vendors. Though it seemed a romantic practice in the movies, the Old World stereotype was terrifying to me and my limited language skills in real life.
At the end of my first year here, I moved to a new neighborhood with a supermarket much further away from my house. Tired with the struggle of carrying all my bags, I resolved to visit the fruttivendolo around the corner, hopeful it would lighten the load. Walking out of the vendor’s shop a few days later, it was as if I had just discovered the secret of Italy. I had tomatoes and potatoes, zucchini, onions, peppers, apples and bananas, all for a shockingly low price and the shortest of walks from my house. The more I shopped there, the more I got to know the vendor himself. We became fast friends as we discussed my home country and how I had come to be in Italy. The real-life conversations were a far cry from shopping at the supermarket, where there was no one to talk to. I began to sense I had missed out on a year’s worth of eye-opening cultural exchange.
When I moved into my current apartment, an entire street lined with conveniently located individual shops has proven ecstasy incarnate. The family-run atmosphere provides insight into a culture that I get to know a little more every day. My vocabulary continues to expand, with words like the puzzling etto and untranslatable meat cuts like scamone, controfiletto and cappello di prete. I listen to the familiar chit-chat of neighborhood friends, with their lessons in conversation behavior and appropriate topics, and I observe what people buy, influencing my own purchases and recipes.
I often lament the year I lost to nervousness, failing to venture into such an authentic side of Italian food culture. Would I have learned the language quicker or understood the more puzzling aspects of Italian life sooner had I given these shops a chance? Now you’ll find me happily spending my Saturday mornings moseying from shop to shop, my vendor friends greeting me with a patient smile while I choose what food vocabulary I want to use. And with a whole street of individual stores just due passi from my new home, my appetite for both culture and cuisine is satisfied in no time at all.