Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Personal Shopping

Here is a sign from a clothing store in Bologna: “Aquistando 2 camicie, riceverai in omaggio una sciarpa.” This can be translated as “Buy 2 shirts, receive a free scarf as a gift,” but I prefer to translate the second part in a more literal way: “receive in homage a scarf.” I do love that. In fact, from now on when I get my free sandwich back in the United States, after purchasing ten as a select member of the Padow’s Sandwich Club, I am going to say, “I accept your homage. I'll have the tuna fish.”

The shopping experience in Italy is quite a bit different here than in the United States because normally you are patronizing very small, Mom and Pop stores (and restaurants for that matter). What this means is that you are never anonymous. You always say hello and goodbye. Also, no sooner is your toe across the threshold then somebody will approach you, asking if you need help. This can seem rather off-putting if you aren’t used to it. I normally say, "sto guardando” (I’m looking), which seems acceptable.

Sometimes the more personal nature of stores in Italy gets a little too personal. I am thinking of the farmacia (pharmacy). The first difference to notice is that there is very little self-service in pharmacies. For any purchase of any sort of medicine, even over-the-counter remedies, you need to stand in line and speak to somebody behind the counter. (I have even needed to approach the counter to get Kleenex !) There are no secrets here. Constipation ? Diarrhea ? Halitosis (I just threw that in for nostalgia’s sake even though I haven’t heard it mentioned in about thirty years). For all these garden variety annoyances as well as the filling of prescriptions you need to speak to the pharmacist or pharmacist’s assistant. Although I am not Catholic I cannot help but think that going to the pharmacist here is a bit like going to confession; in both cases one has to reveal failings of one kind or another. There have to be hundreds of pharmacies in the city. Seemingly they appear on every other block. I think the reason there are so many is so that you don’t have to patronize the same one too many times. I have nightmares about going into the pharmacy near our apartment and hearing one of the staff say in a loud voice, “So how’s your constipation ?” for all and sundry to hear.

I am kind of confused when I go into the pharmacy because everybody looks so official with their white labcoats, but they don’t wear nametags. What are their qualifications I wonder ? And why is the woman who just counselled me on acid reflux medicine now advising somebody about under-eye moisturizer ? Don’t you think that’s a little confusing ? It would be like your dentist all of a sudden helping you pick a lipstick color.

Brand-name medicines do not exist in Italy. I have had to buy heartburn medicine during our time here, and on each occasion I’ve been given a different product. The names of the medicines sound like somebody just grabbed chemical names at random from the periodic table and strung them together. It makes me nostalgic for Tums…so easy to spell. It has also been difficult for Bill to find a substitute for Excedrin. The combination of aspirin, caffeine and acetametophin just doesn’t exist. He has had to cobble together two or three medicines, paying double what we pay at home. So, my advice to travelers is to bring whatever medicines they think they are going to need for the duration of their stay—prescription and over the counter. Our mistake was figuring that we’d be able to find over-the-counter equivalents here, but that really hasn’t been the case.

Since we have been spending our time in the historical areas of the city we haven’t been encountering too many big box discount stores, although they do exist. Instead, we have been marvelling at the highly specific nature of the stores in the city proper. My favorite is the cartoleria. This would be analogous to an office supply store-- if you were shopping for office supplies in 1965. Here you will find a wonderful selection of pens, art supplies, notebooks and gift wrap. Speaking for myself, and possibly for most of us who dwell in the twenty-first century, I generally go to office supply stores for printer paper or printer cartridges—things I never find in a cartoleria. Bill and I joked that there’s probably a cartridgeria somewhere, and darn if I didn’t come across just such a store today. It was about the size of an elevator and simply full of printer cartridges and printer cables and the like. (Actually I don’t think it was called a cartridgeria, but that was pretty much what it was.) My guess is that if you need a pen though, you’ll have to stop off at the caroleria across the street. Or if you find yourself on Via Farini, you could always go to the Casa della Penna. I'll bet you've figured out the translation: House of the Pen. You'd better get there quickly though. Before they sell it.

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