Monday, May 28, 2012

Market day in Allerona: Catch it while you still can

This is a sad post, not because anyone dies, but because a way of life is dying. Tourists to Italy may revel in the novelty and charm of weekly outdoor markets. But for small towns like Allerona, they are a fraying link to a quickly vanishing past.

It's a small market, for sure, and with a baby carriage that
looks strikingly similar to Naomi's.
Allerona’s weekly market is held every Wednesday morning, rain or shine (except for snow), unless there is a state holiday. Vendors arrive in small trucks and quickly begin to set up shop. For the fruit and vegetable vendors, one side of the truck opens up and serves as an awning. The vendor stands in the truck bed, surrounding by crates of fresh produce. The townspeople, mostly women, gather in a disorderly fashion in front of the truck, but each one keeps track of who was there first and who arrives after, and no one tries to butt in line.

Fresh, local produce from Roberto
The favored produce vendor, Roberto, has been selling at the Allerona market since he was a teenage boy accompanying his father, who plied the same trade. The other produce vendor, “the Napolitano,” is not as trusted as Roberto and in truth, he is a little sneaky – trying to hide a moldy orange or two at the bottom of the bag, or sneaking in five apples when you ask for three. He tricked me – the unwitting Americana – that way once, and I never bought from him again.

Roberto totals an order.
So the women gathered at Roberto’s truck engage in a lively banter with him and with each other, exchanging recipes, reporting on the state of this one’s health or the other one’s sick mother-in-law or newest grandchild. To Roberto, they’ll say, “give me 10 good oranges” (as if they would otherwise want bad ones), or “give me five pears that are good for cooking,” or “how’s the spinach today?” He weighs each group of items, calculates the price in his head, and adds it to the tally on the cash register. He almost always rounds down to the nearest whole euro. If you are a regular customer, Roberto throws in a carrot or two, a few stalks of celery, and some sprigs of fresh parsley for you to use to make broth or minestre (vegetable soup). I knew I’d finally staked by claim in this little burgh when I finally got up the nerve to ask for the same handful of vegetables he handed every other woman, without her asking. Now I no longer need to ask, either.

Michele in his truck
A truck or two down from Roberto in Michele, who sells items for the casalinghe (housewives). His truck opens at the side and the back, and he stands on the truck bed above his customers, and behind a glass display case filled with shampoo, face creams, deodorant, cheap perfume and makeup. On the shelves behind him are more toiletries, along with sanitary products, cleaning products and solvents. On tables and shelves under the truck’s awning are toilet paper, brooms, mops, garbage bags, laundry detergent, sponges, and just about anything else my mother in law might need to clean her house or mine.

Michele has a little bit of everything.
Roberto and Michele are regulars, as is Luca, the prosciutto and cheese salesman whom Paolo and I refer to as my “boyfriend.” Luca is easy on the eyes, and he always calls me “Cara” (Dear), and I confess that sometimes, I buy prosciutto from him just to catch a little of that glimmer in his eye. But alas, Luca comes to our market only every other week.

On intermittent weeks, there’s a woman selling bras, underwear, swimsuits and pajamas, for both sexes, out of her truck. She’s usually flanked by a humorless man selling pots, pans and kitchen gadgets. Across from them, there’s a fellow selling sheets, towels, bedspreads and comforters. A little bit farther from the center of the market is a guy selling flowers and vegetable plants from his van. Farther still, and very likely because he is “straniero” (foreign) is a Moroccan selling clothes. He knew I was pregnant before most people in town did last year, as he kept trying to talk me into a smaller size of a billowing print top, and I finally had to convince him that I would, indeed, be filling out the larger one. “Incinta,” I whispered with a finger at my lips, the other hand pointed at my then still flat-ish stomach. “Auguri,” he whispered back.

Every woman in town owns one of those plastic bowls
with the sunflowers on them. Most are melted from being set
too close to the stove. 
So this all sounds perfectly quaint and lovely, doesn’t it? Except that our half dozen or so vendors – when that many show up – are a fraction of what the market here used to look like. Even a year or so ago, a shoe vendor would show up regularly. Now, he doesn’t bother to come, nor do the guys selling winter coats, or curtains. Paolo remembers the market stretching all the way down our main road, from the piazza where it’s now held, down past the parking lot and past the carabinieri station. There were competing vendors, as well as more clothiers, farmers selling livestock and freshly made cheese, and a traveling shoe repairman. Now, we’re down to our diehard handful of vendors, and I fear the day will come that they, too, won’t bother to drive up the hill to our little town, because it just won’t be worth the time and gas.

Sheets, tablecloths, and blankets
There was a time that weekly markets were vital to life in towns like Allerona. Before every household had at least one car – or before the casalinghe had their daughters or daughters-in-law to drive them to supermarkets in Orvieto, the markets provided them with everything they needed. Or so they thought, maybe, until the supermarkets opened, with their 200 varieties of dried pasta, 10 types of prosciutto, 15 shapes, sizes and brands of maxi pads, plus baby-food and readymade pizza and entrees. Why settle for what the market vendors can offer, when they can pick and choose from brands, sizes, and flavors?

I admit that I am a contributor to the demise of the market culture. I go to our weekly market just every so often, when I need something and don’t feel like driving “to town” – Allerona Scalo, just 7 minutes’ drive from us – or when I just feel like getting out of the house a little bit. But as often as not, I forget the market is there until Wednesday morning has come and gone. Instead, I go to Scalo or to Orvieto, often with my mother-in-law and an odd cousin or two in tow, and we do our “big shopping” where we can get it all done in one place.

The undeniable factor to the death of market culture is also the death – literally and figuratively – of little towns like ours. Allerona, which once housed more than 1,200 people in an around its castello walls, and brought hundreds more in from the countryside on market day, is dying. There are about 400 people living in centro now. More than half the houses in the town center stand empty, with far away owners in Rome, Genoa or Milan who inherited the homes from a late relative and have barely a passing interest in Allerona. Some come during the Christmas holidays and festas to “get away from it all,” others haven’t turned the key in a door here for a decade or more. Paolo rightly fears that Allerona, in another 20 years or so, will be a ghost town, more so than it already is.

And the accompanying truth is that in another 10 or 20 years, when the last of the generation of women who never learned to drive – and I’m shocked at how many of them there are here – are gone, even the younger women who stay at home to raise their children will still drive to the supermarket rather than frequent the weekly market here.

I spoke to Michele about this the day I took pictures of the market. He lamented the dying tradition here, but said to me, half-questioningly, “Markets are becoming popular in America now, aren’t they?” And I thought of Eastern Market in DC, of the popular Saturday farmer’s market in Sarasota, and how Americans now seem to be seeking out more opportunities to shop local and support small businesses just as Italy is abandoning the same tradition. It may ultimately be the U.S.’s fault – with our permeating pop culture that so entices and offends Europeans – that the market traditions in Europe are dying. But maybe it’s the U.S. that will bring them back, too, who knows.

The fishmonger in our driveway.
I’m happy to report that not all hope is completely lost. Roberto still comes twice a week, on Wednesday market day and on Fridays, when instead of parking at the piazza, he makes the rounds, and stops in several places around town. We he nears the cluster of houses near ours,  he sounds the horn, and by the time he’s parked and opened up the side of his truck, a small group is waiting to him.

On Saturdays, the fishmonger comes and makes his regular stops. Since I’ve purchased from him before, he now stops at the top of our driveway and honks his horn. I step out on the balcony and either wave him off if I don’t need anything, or wave him down if we want fresh fish. He maneuvers the truck down the driveway and opens up the side, to reveal a banquette of fresh fish and shellfish on ice. Our unspoken accord goes something as follows:  I ask for a half kilo of shrimp or four fillets of fish or something along those lines, and he always loads at least a third more than I want onto the scale. I yell at him to stop, he throws on a few more shrimp or another fillet, totals up the bill for far more fish than I intended to purchase, then gives me a “sconto” (discount) of a euro or two.

But really, I don't need that much fish!
I’m probably being taken advantage of by the fishmonger, in the way that Italian vendors like to prenda per il culo (basically, take for an ass) those Americans who are too busy taking pictures and oohing and aahing over the damn quaintness of the scene to realize they’re being ripped off. But that’s okay. It’s our deal, he and I. And if his selling me 10 euro more fish than I want (and discounting 2 euro, of course) means he keeps sounding the horn every Saturday, then we’ll just have to eat more fish.


  1. Hello Elizabeth
    I stumbled across your blog via another blog and have enjoyed reading your posts. Great work! I'm planning to visit Tuscany and Umbria next year, so what you write is of great interest. This post about market day in your village reminds me of a film I saw not long ago. I can't recall whether it was a French or Italian film but it was about two brothers who return to their village and one of them takes over his dad's business, which involved driving a van from village to village selling goods much like Michele. On another note, do you feel Italian shop-keepers should we say...sly (LOL)

    1. Thanks for reading. I do know that film! French, I think it was called "The Grocer" or something like that. Very sweet. I don't think the shopkeepers are so sly, but a lot of the market vendors are. An unwitting foreigner can wind up paying 5E for a kilo of carrots, if he/she is not careful! Not with our little market, but at bigger, busier markets (like at Orvieto) it's easy to get taken advantage of. If you use Twitter, I am @villageinumbria. Also, I'll add your blog to my list - would you do that same? Thanks!

  2. Hello Elizabeth!

    A reader of my blog sent me a link to this post and I so wanted to connect with you after reading this. I'm an American living in Spello for a year (with husband, 3 children, 2 cats), and just this morning before reading your post two things happened that I wanted to share with you, in the hopes that they are of interest. One, my ortofrutta vendor gave me 3 etti of olive when I asked for 2 (to round it out, he said), as he so often does, and I've learned to just groan and shrug (because the other ortofrutta only gives me free parsley with a huff…I'd take it personally, except she huffs at everyone). And two, while I was waiting for the navetta to take me up the hill after my trip to the ortofrutta and macelleria, I saw the spot where our Wednesday market is, and I thought to myself that I would really like to find a new time for my Italian lesson on Wednesdays so that I can make the market. I caught it while it was breaking down 2 weeks ago because I was coming home from the train station, and I bought the most marvelous artichokes from the most delightful man. After reading your post, I'm inspired. I'm going to make a concerted effort to get to the market! After all, I am sort of in need of a wallet, and I'm always in need of porchetta.

  3. Hi M -
    Thanks for reading! I've learned over time which vendors are a bit heavy on the scales and which are more honest...and, I'm sorry to admit, the less-than-honest ones are more likely to try to pull one over on me and other the fruit vendor who, when I'd ask for 5 apples would give me 7, at least 2 of them already starting to rot!

    But I do enjoy the markets and always vow that I should go more often. They're certainly good for socializing, for buying locally and for helping to sustain an old, old tradition. What is the name of your blog?