The market is a two minute walk from my apartment but is unrecognisable unless you already know what it is. For six months I walked past the shabby collection of closed up boxes wondering what they were. Each only slightly bigger than a skip bin, they were sometimes outnumbered by them. But one day I happened across them in the morning and now shopping at my local market is my favourite activity of the week. Whatever befalls me during the week I know I have the market to look forward to. I wake each Saturday morning excited and happy, looking forward to the experience that I know won’t disappoint me and will be over too soon.
I am standing at the edge of Aldo’s fruit and vegetable counter hemmed in on both sides and at my back with people. Aldo keeps up a non-stop chant, tallying up the prices of the fruit and vegetables as he weighs them while customers impatiently crowd around thrusting their bags full of produce towards him. Hands push out from behind me at the level of my hips, towards the apricots and peaches that are stacked up in front of me, as customers continue to shop while others wait in a non-existent line based on the time they first put their bags down on top of the fruit and stopped filling them. Every time Aldo finishes serving a customer he tells the remaining ones which of them are next, up to the last person waiting. No one ever argues and he never gets it wrong.
All women are referred to as beautiful “bella” and young “giovanne” by Aldo who is well into his 70’s and has regular heart valve surgery. The older you are the younger his description of you is. I am referred to as a beautiful girl “bella ragazza”. I am 55. White haired women bent over double are referred to as beautiful little girls “belle ragazzine” while young women are called “belle donne”, beautiful women.
“Hey don’t forget about me”, shouts out a man.
Only people who are new to Aldo’s stall ever say this. The rest of us know that he knows exactly who has been waiting and for how long, and we patiently or impatiently wait our turns.
“Throw me a bag Aldo”, someone shouts and another hand is thrust out from between the bodies to receive it.
“Are these the only type of apricots you have?”
“Yes they are”, he answers, “they are from my orchard, taste one I promise you won’t be disappointed.”
“Do you have any prepared salad left? Yes we do, Marie, get that young man a bag of salad.”
Along with answering and organising he is still weighing goods and verbally tallying them up.
The stall is open on all sides and shaded with a low canvas that covers the array of tables topped with produce. It traps the sound in. It is very hot and I have been standing here at least ten minutes waiting for my goods to be tallied. But I am not in a rush. I let others fill their bags full of apricots from the mound in front of me not fearful of losing my place under the eagle eye of Aldo and actually hoping it will take as long as possible. Because under this cacophonous, fragrant tent stacked with figs, overflowing with cherries, nuts and lemons, decorated with eggs, honey, mozzarella and lettuce, swimming in tomatoes and zucchini and pegged down with watermelon, eggplant and cabbage, I can feel my aura being gently cleansed.
My shoulders relax and start to ease themselves down from around my ears, my spine straightens and I can feel my feet firmly on the earth for the first time since the beginning of the week. I take root amidst the vegetables and fruit and come back to fully inhabit my body again feeling each part of me gingerly integrating and coming into the present. I watch an old man bend over peppers and inspect each one before putting it into a paper bag. I see a youngish man next to me enthusiastically filling a bag with small deformed apples and ask him in Italian what they taste like. I exchange a smile with a woman next to me and ask how she intends to cook her cabbage (because I don’t know how to even though I love cabbage). I join in a general conversation and answer another man who is wondering what beetroot is and what you might eat it with. The cares and worries of the week cascade off me, puddle in a pool at my feet, and gradually melt away into the earth.
Too soon it is my turn to be served.
“It’s this beautiful girls turn now”, Aldo announces to everyone as he drags my bags over the mounds in between us, and starts to weigh and tally out loud. It’s like listening to a race commentator.
“We have four zucchinis, some peppers and an eggplant. What’s in this bag now? Oh so we have also a bag of salad and some tomatoes along with the zucchinis, peppers and eggplant and now I can see a fennel. What do we have in this other bag? Oh some apricots, peaches, figs and a quarter of a watermelon. Now we still have the zucchinis, peppers, eggplant, salad and tomatoes along with the fennel, and we are now adding the apricots, peaches, figs and watermelon.”
No matter what I buy it’s always the same price, twelve euros. He throws the money into the red plastic bucket he uses as a cash register. Sometimes he doesn’t even add on half the vegetables in my bags. I try and hand him more than the twelve euros and he responds by putting another few peaches into my bag and then stacking it full of lemons, thrusting the bags back at me and turning to the next customer before I can protest.
“You can’t pay whatever you want you know”, he admonishes me.
“Well you charge me whatever you want”, I counter.
“It’s my store”, he responds, laughing.
My husband takes the heavy load of fruit and vegetables from Aldo’s garden and we move away together, me slightly sad as it will be another week before I get to stand in the aura cleansing tent again.
“What do we need next?” my husband always asks.
I don’t know. All week my days are about ‘to-do’ lists. Some weeks, each day is divided into half-hour slots of time where I have to produce, do, or attend something for every slot. So when I am not at work I don’t have lists. I buy whatever takes my fancy and I follow my intuition.
The fish lady knows this.
“What about these salmon and “orata” fish burgers that I have just prepared, or the fresh anchovies marinated in vinegar and celery? Or how about this blue fish “pesce azzuro”, that I have just finished frying with red onion for lunch?”
The first time I tasted the salmon, I rushed back the next week and demanded to know why it tasted so different to any other salmon I had ever eaten.
“I know”, she said, winking at me and pushing her blond curls off her face with the back of her plastic gloved hand while holding a long thin knife that never seemed to leave her palm.
“It’s from a special farm in Norway where they raise the salmon to be relaxed. They play music to them. That way they develop a lot of fat just under their skin.”
Each time I am cooking the salmon I watch the layer of fat between the skin and pink flesh melt and spit, flavouring everything. Today she hands me the package of salmon that her father has already prepared in anticipation for us. It has ‘Australia’ written in black biro on the paper that the fish is wrapped in. Like Aldo she wishes me a good Sunday and tells me she will see me next week.
Unlike the fishmonger, the butcher and I regularly need to brainstorm together before any purchases can be made.
“What kind of meat would you like?”
“How would you like to cook it signora? Baked, grilled, casseroled, with or without potatoes (my favourite so if you were wanting to invite me over that’s what I would like you to cook), vegetables, or with a little wine and olives?”
Together we come up with something and he grabs the relevant animal and prepares the cut. He doesn’t wear gloves and cuts with a blade that could double as a paddle, some pieces are so thin you can see through them.
He is the head of the market and in charge of its comings and goings so he updates me on anything relevant and then asks what season it is in Australia, what temperature it is and how many hours flight it is again?
I linger at the grocer’s counter eyeing the array of fresh mini ricottas made from sheep or cow’s milk, some of them baked and standing up in little plastic sieves, some oozing and gooey like white butter starting to melt. My eyes gaze upwards to the pink rounds of prosciutto, salamis and hams that would go magnificently with any of them, each one with their own salty, fatty, chewy taste. Today I spot my favourite cheese, a camenbert made with buffalo’s milk, so subtle and yet so delicious it takes control of you and makes you finish the entire round in one sitting. Everyone I introduce this cheese to has the same experience, and in a nation of experienced cheese tasters I am delighted to be able to offer something different and new. It goes a long way to building up my credibility as a resident of Italy, and being worthy of my visa.
But too soon it is over. There is nothing left to buy unless I want a cotton handkerchief, a velvet dressing gown, or bleach, all housewife staples which are on offer and which I wish I needed, if only to keep me looking at the market for longer. But my husband knows we have mortadella in one of the bags and is inching me towards the exit. And we have to stop at the flower seller on the way out.
Each week it is the same. I moon over the herbs and flowers knowing full well we have no balcony and that all three of our window boxes are full to overflowing and threatening to take down one side of the building if I fit one more pot in there. So I settle for blooms that cost less than one day’s worth of public transport and thank the vendor as he adds a few more in for free.
There really is nothing more to do except go home, enjoy the produce and look forward to the next market shop, one full week away.