Saturday, October 25, 2003

It’s the supermarkets that are the worst. Sometimes – whilst supping red wine in at piazza, or passing a 2,000 year old Roman amphitheatre on the daily walk to work – it’s a pleasure to be in Italy. But occasionally – like when you want to go shopping at lunchtime but remember that all the shops are closed for three hours – it seems positively backward. And nowhere more so than at the supermarket.

Supermarkets are a study in demongraphics. The Sainsbury’s in Clapham – home to an increasing number of affluent 20-something graduates that frequent bars selling obscure Japanese beers at £4 a bottle – is packed on Monday evenings when its clientele realise that they consumed everything in their fridge over the weekend, the only time they do any home cooking. I once looked around the place on such a Monday and realised that there was nobody there over the age of 35.

Walking around the local branch of Billa this morning I noticed (not for the first time) quite the opposite: I was the only person there under the age of 50. Admittedly, you won’t find many 27 year old British guys in a supermarket at 10am on a Saturday morning, but that’s because they’re nursing a hangover; here, they’re having mama feed them breakfast. I’m not going to digress too far onto the subject of Italian mummy’s boys – I’ll save that for another day – except to say this: Grow up lads. Move out. Join the 21st century. And learn to cook; start going to the supermarket.

Back to Billa. The Italians are obsessed with hygine. I, on the other hand, am a firm believer in keeping my immune system on its toes. As has often been observed, it’s the kids from neurotically clean households that always get ill; victims of the most pathetic viruses ‘cause their immune systems get no practice. Judging by the insistence that vegetables must never be handled in the supermarket – you have to put on a stupid plastic glove to pick them up – the Italians have, it seems, fallen for this false wisdom. The other day I was actually approached by a member of the public – not even supermarket staff – and told I had to put a glove on. I was holding a pre-packed bag of potatoes at the time. And besides, what about the person that picked the bloody vegetable in the first place? Didn’t they handle the food? And they were probably a poor, dirty immigrant: imagine the germs you could catch off them. (That last sentence should be read with your irony detector firmly set to ON).

Those bloody gloves are also bad for the environment. Which is why I refuse to give credit – based on environmental grounds – to the supermarkets for charging us for their plastic bag. Yes, you did read that right: you have to pay for them; 5 cents each. The last time I saw that happen was in 1983.

A recent innovation in a few British supermarkets (normally a Waitrose; core customers: 50-something women wearing too much make-up) is weighting your own vegetables. It’s come about in conjunction with adding up your own bill as you go (hence why it’s only in operation in places where the customers are happy to pay £5 for “parsley-sprinkled sun-drenched autumn vegetables” – two grilled bits of aubergine with a few herbs to you and I – and not in the Oldham branch of Aldi). Needless to say, adding up your own bill hasn’t reached the San Zeno branch of Billa yet but, like all Italian supermarkets, you still have to weight your own vegetables. (Out of curiousity, I decided to find out how much I'd cost if I was a lemon: €101.40, if you're interested; the bar code is stuck to the underside of my shoe). Of course, sometimes people forget – and not just us stupid foreigners (although, admittedly, it often is). This, inevitably, slows things down at the checkout. But not because, say, a spare member of staff is sent to run off and weight the vegetables or even that the customer does so but instead – wait-for-it – the checkout person goes. “No, no, I’ll go” I say in a lame attempt to reduce my embarrassment (I may not understand much Italian but you don’t need the language to read ‘stupid bloody foreigner’ written across somebody’s face) but they insist. Not only is this inefficient but what about security? That till is sitting there unmanned. Now I know there are plenty of customers who’d see me if I showed some initiative and quickly raided it but, as I said earlier: these customers are all over 50. I’m 27. And there are no security guards. Italy must be a very trusting society.

However, once one has negociated their way through the checkout the challenge is not over. One must avoid having the next customer’s things thrown at them. Trying to get things done efficiently, I pay the checkout person as soon as everything is totted-up. Mistake. The change is swiftly dumped on the counter and the next customer’s things begin to get swipted. Experienced Italian supermarket-goers (that is: Italians) don’t pay as soon as everything is through the checkout; they finish packing their bag first, merrily chatting to anybody that’ll listen in an attempt to distract attention from the non-moving queue. This cunningly avoids the onslaught of pasta boxes and cheese that us northern Europeans, following our own customs, are frequently subjected to. The only people I know that do this in Britain are pensioners. Now, there’s a recurring theme here, isn’t there?

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