Most foodies would be thrilled by the prospect of doing their weekly shopping, even in winter, at an outdoor Italian market. Two years ago when Barbara came to visit me in Bologna in December, I remember taking her to the Mercato delle Erbe, a huge indoor market selling just about anything you could want in the dead of winter, and her remark while eyeing a beautifully arranged stack of artichokes, “If I could shop at a market like this, I’d be the best cook ever,” (even without all that fresh produce I still think she’s the best cook ever). In theory, I would be thrilled, too.
What could be better than interacting with locals and learning the tips on and recipes for that new variety of radicchio or that strange, cone-shaped cabbage, or those black Spanish radishes? What could be better than locally-grown, fresh produce?
If only going to the market were that simple. Being a young woman in Italy is challenging enough, but being a young American woman fluent in Italian presents a whole new string of obstacles. Whether it’s the old man ogling and greeting me with “Ciao bella,” or the young Pakistani asking me out for a drink while handing me a squash, or the old woman asking me 300 questions while I try to order a bunch of kale, my market trips have become a source of anxiety and stress.
A few months ago, after one of my first trips to the market, I came storming home and swore to myself that I would do all my shopping at the grocery store from now on. I had decided to go to a different vendor that day, a robust, elderly woman who introduced herself with my least favorite question, “Di dove sei?” After a short pause and a long sigh, I responded, “Sono americana.” “Aha! I thought I heard a foreign accent!” Then she continued to shower me with questions — “Are you a student? No? Where do you work? Ah, a teacher! What do you teach? Do you like Italy? Why did you decide to come here? Where do you live?” and she continued on and on. Finally I interjected with my order but that didn’t do much to quiet her. I was enraged. I wanted to shout, “Mind your own business! I just want my dang vegetables!”
While Emilio understands my anger and discomfort, he urges me to take these encounters lightly, explaining that the vendors are just curious and friendly and don’t mean to be offensive or intrusive. He also tries to comfort me by saying that people constantly ask him where he’s from because of his accent. He says this is because of Italy’s divided history, because of the fact that different languages were spoken in each region and that local identity is still so strongly tied to the dialect and accent. I agree with him. Visitors rarely understand, advising me to use these encounters as a way to interact with locals and make connections. I agree with them, too, but I can’t seem to see it that way, at least not yet. I’m no longer a visitor. I live and work here, I go to the same shops week after week and have created a temporary home in this city; yet I’m always an outsider, always la straniera.
Last week at the organic Saturday-morning market, I stopped to buy a loaf of fresh whole-wheat bread. I handed the young man my money and my stomach tightened as I heard, “Di dove sei?” I didn’t respond. I clenched my jaw and kept my eyes fixed on the loaf of bread. As he handed me back my change he asked, “Did I offend you?” and I responded, “No, but sometimes I like to just buy my bread.” That’s exactly it. Sometimes I would like to feel a part of this culture, to be anonymous while running errands, to not be constantly reminded of how different I am.
Ever since I was a little girl and made my first family trips to Europe, awestruck by the elegant clothes, the artistic and cultural heritage, the traditional cuisines, I longed to be European. As a teenager, I couldn’t stand the thought of being identified as American and spent all of my free time in Europe. I think that only now, after all my time away and the difficult realities of living in Italy, I can finally say that I’m proud to be American. There’s something in me, though, that’s still resistant to that label, especially when it comes from others. I’ve never been fond of labels. So I keep asking myself, how can I become less resistant? How can I embrace Italians’ curiosity? How can I make peace with being an outsider?
Well for one, I decided to return to that insistent old vendor. First of all to show her that she hadn’t scared me off, but also because she was the only one who sold cavolo nero to make my beloved kale chips. Slowly we have begun developing a friendship. She has started offering me tips on the produce she sells and is curious about what I’m planning on making with the different ingredients. Yesterday I had to send Emilio to the market as I unexpectedly had to substitute another teacher and knew that the markets would be closed over the weekend. I sent him to her stand with my usual list — leeks, squash, potatoes, kale, spinach, onions, radicchio — and as he was leaving, without him having said a word about me, she called, “Now I know who sent you!” I guess I’ve made my mark on her, too.