Tag Archives: shopping

Land of giant everything

2 Aug
An embarrassment of riches aptly describes the retail scene in the U.S. What an amazing thing it is to walk into a Safeway store after 3 years’ absence and see aisle-after-aisle of options! Acres of wine, miles of frozen foods, yet a rather humble selection of pasta types. The Safeway was at least five-times the size of our “big” neighborhood grocery store, DOC Parioli, but DOC has five-times the pasta.
The wine aisle in a Safeway store.  Una scelta imbarazzante!  (A     selection so grand it's embarrassing!)

The wine aisle in a Safeway store. Una scelta imbarazzante! (A selection so grand it’s embarrassing!)

Going for coffee at an independent coffee house in Portland, we chuckled over the large cappuccino one patron was nursing. Ric took a picture with her hands and laptop in view for perspective. I was excited to get espresso over ice without the barista cocking an eyebrow and looking down her nose at me. It just isn’t done in Italy. You can have a shakerato or a sweetened caffe’ fredo, but over ice? I had more ice in my single drink than I can even fit in my Roman freezer.
Iced, iced iced! In the foreground my iced espresso, which is a sacrilege in Italy. Ric's "small" iced coffee (rear) was not only huge but undrinkable due to a burned taste.

Iced, iced iced! In the foreground my iced espresso, which is a sacrilege in Italy. Ric’s “small” iced coffee (rear) was not only huge but undrinkable due to a burned taste.

Coffee in the U.S.  is even more expensive than I remember, and it takes a long time to make an espresso. In Roma, from ordering to drinking is the blink of an eye. At Starbucks the other day I waited at least five minutes. What takes so long to pull a shot?
Land of the giant everything, a "bowl" of cappuccino at neighboring table.

Land of the giant everything, a “bowl” of cappuccino at neighboring table.

Buy Italian

15 Sep

Three months ago I wrote about our experiment in weaning ourselves from the habit of buying online from the U.S. You can read about it here, but in summary, we decided to try to confine our consumerism to Italy and not use the U.S. Diplomatic Post Office to ship in goods from Nordstrom, Amazon, Zappos, etc. So how did it go? It was a mixed success.

On the plus side

Always beautifully displayed merchandise. I think there's an Italian gene related to beautiful displays and wrapping packages.

Always beautifully displayed merchandise. I think there’s an Italian gene related to beautiful displays and wrapping packages.

We learned we can live in Italy, as Italians do, without buying a special brand from the U.S. We Americans can be addicted to our own brands of toothpaste, deodorant, shampoo, lotion, etc., but Italians need that stuff too and the stores carry many fine international and European brands. We gave up 8 ½” x 11” paper for the common A4 size sold in Europe. It’s a setting on the printer so no big deal.

Some products are better than the U.S. equivalent. I found an amazing olive-oil based lotion, for example, and Janie, our senior cat who is picky about her treats has come to crave a treat we found as a sample inside a carton of her packaged food.

We found new stores and sources. We went on

A few of the brands I switched to as a result of our experiment.

A few of the brands I switched to as a result of our experiment.

forays into stores we’d not entered prior, neighborhoods we’d passed through but not really shopped in. We discovered you can go looking and not find, but you have to be ready to buy when you pass a shop with promising merchandise. One Saturday we spent 4 hours looking for a dress for me. I tried on 8 or 10 at various stores. Niente! But the next day, walking to a museum, I spied a dress in the window of a tiny little boutique, walked in and 5 minutes later walked out with the dress.  You have to be opportunistic.

We bought less because it took more time to go looking the old-fashioned way, in stores. Oh Zappos, how easy it is to find black heels, size 7.5 with a 1” heel and ship three pair overnight! But try to find a pair going shop to shop. It takes hours! Days, even!

In July and August "i saldi" are everywhere. And prices get lower as the weeks go by....

In July and August “i saldi” are everywhere. And prices get lower as the weeks go by….

The July/August saldi (sales) offer some good buys and even the opportunity to bargain, something I’d not done before. One day on the way home from work we popped into a boutique because I saw a lovely dress in the window. I slipped it on and it fit like a dream, but I nearly fainted when they told me the price! “But signora, it is on sale,” and she quoted me a price about 30% less. Still high, so I started to walk out shaking my head. “Signora,” she called, “Wait. It’s specially tailored… but I can sell it for €XXX,” and she knocked another 15% off. Score!

I practiced my Italian. Always a vocabulary builder and an opportunity to tune my ear. I can talk about the features of our new food processor and of our new Italian iron, purchased to replace the one clogged up with calcium after a year of ironing with this hard water.

On the other hand…

EurosThings cost un’occhio della testa (an “eye of the head,” or as we’d say “an arm and a leg”). VAT (a tax) is 21%, driving already high prices up significantly. And the exchange rate makes everything 30-35% higher in dollars. So a €100 item is $132.00 plus-or-minus U.S. The amount we spent on shorts and hiking shoes we bought up in the mountains in July could have clothed a small child for the school year if you shopped at Walmart.  

It takes a lot of time to shop in stores, especially when you don’t know brands, you don’t know sizes, and boutiques are small with limited selection. I am a size 10 U.S., but a 42 or 44 Italian and a 3 French.  Everything has to be tried on.

Customer service is…different. Sometimes we are warmly greeted and professionally served. This is especially true upon return visits (regulars!) or once they realize we are not tourists. Sometimes we are totally ignored until we ask for help and then it is given begrudgingly. Also, this is not a culture in which returns are gladly accepted, so do not have buyer’s remorse unless you shopped at IKEA.Color coordinated

You have to run around to buy some items. For example, you cannot buy cardio (baby) aspirin at the grocery store. You have to go to a farmacia and ask the druggist for it.  Thread? Not in a fabric store, but only in a special sewing notions store.  Tell me, who would think it is not a good idea to sell thread where you buy fabric?

Some American things are better than Italian equivalents. American plastic bags, whether for lining your trashcan or wrapping up leftovers, are far better in size, durability and functionality. Give me my Ziplocs! There’s huge problem with calcium in Rome and everything gets clogged and spotted. But good old CLR declogs a shower head better than anything I’ve found in Rome.

 Will we continue to buy Italian? Absolutely, but not exclusively. Food is no-brainer. Other than peanut butter and white vinegar (Which is hard to find here. We are awash in fine balsamico, but plain white distilled? Not available at the supermercato.), we buy all of our food in Italian markets. But then most of our food is fresh. Ric has been buying Italian clothes since we arrived and has some go-to places, but even he turned to Lands’ End online for his fall shirts and to

Ric and I at Piazza Navona. Photo by Derek

Ric and I at Piazza Navona. Photo by Derek

Zappos for some walking shoes. It’s just easier to buy online at 3:00PM on a hot afternoon than to walk all over Rome looking for shoes. But if we didn’t have the Diplomatic Post Office, we’d not be able to buy this way.

I am still searching for go-to shops for myself. But I’ll return to shopping a piede (on foot) as the cooler weather hits for some Italian fall fashions. And when we are in Venice this week, I’ll stop in at my favorite glass-maker and pick up some new jewelry. 

American Bubble

29 Jun
Typical Roman clothier - very small store. This is the entire store, not a section. Well organized, beautifully displayed merchandise. But you have to visit a dozen stores to see a broad selection. Success is happenstance.
Typical Roman clothier – very small store. This is the entire store, not a section. Well organized, beautifully displayed merchandise. But you have to visit a dozen stores to see a broad selection. Success is happenstance.

We live in an American Bubble. Yes, it’s a lovely bubble, totally surrounded by this great Italian city, but we do not live completely on the Italian economy. We can buy peanut butter (Skippy or JIF) for a reasonable price at the Naval Exchange commissary at the embassy. In fact, we can buy many many products commonly found in the U.S. at the commissary: smoked bacon, American cheese, cleaning products, Advil, frozen dinners (yuck!), squishy white bread (double-yuck), canned baked beans, taco shells. We only buy the peanut butter, BTW. We do not buy any of the other crap items America exports and calls food. 

We can order almost anything we want from the U.S. Thanks to the wonderful U.S. Postal Service Diplomatic Post Office, customs isn’t really a problem and everything we order online is shipped to New York for forwarding. (We cannot order nail polish, perfume, or certain other combustibles.)  If we have trouble finding the right cat treats for our 17-year-old cat Janie  — and we have been unable to find “her brand” in Rome — I can order them online. Need a new dress for the Marine Corps Ball? Nordstrom is a click away. 

On June 1, Ric and I decided to embark on what we now call The Great Experiment. We are not buying anything from the U.S. for two months, June and July. No more Zappos (sniff!), Nordstrom, Talbot’s, Lands’ End, Drugstore.com. No more online shopping to speak of. Back to shopping the old-fashioned way: we hit the streets. 

We are four weeks into The Great Experiment. What’s happened so far? The constant stream of packages delivered to the DPO has stopped. It was a rare week we didn’t receive a shipment…or two…or three.  We are seldom seen in the embassy commissary anymore and I walk home “lighter” because I am no longer serving as a pack animal, ferrying stuff we ordered online. (All of our mail comes to the DPO.) On Gmail, my deleted folder is full of unopened promotional email from American clothiers. 

What we are doing is increasing our shopping time in the streets of Rome. This is time-consuming. I need some summer clothes and a new pair of hiking boots for an upcoming hiking trip. Rome is a boutique-shopping kind of city: the largest department store is not of the size seen in an American city of >3 million people. So one wanders a neighborhood, and explores new neighborhoods, checking out stores, hoping to find a place or two that can become “your” clothier. (Ric has three clothiers now; he started early in adopting Italian fashion.) But you have to look at a lot of places – a lot of very small stores. You would not believe the number of shoe stores in Rome! There are more shoe stores in Rome than Starbucks in Seattle.

The upside is that this approach to shopping makes us slow down. We may go out on a shopping mission (Laurel needs a black dress!) or we may walk to the museum a little slower, noticing what is in the windows we pass and stopping in when we see something of interest. Shopping is work — and exercise — when you don’t have a car. It is also good together-time, wandering hand-in-hand, helping each other with fashion decisions, which is very important because the culture is not one where buyer’s remorse is honored with an easy refund the next day. 

There are malls, but they are the suburban soul-less wonders one finds in the U.S., and an hour each way by bus. We’d prefer to spend that time on foot, exploring.

We have allowed ourselves a couple of exceptions. Peanut butter from the commissary is one, because although it is available in some Italian stores, it is crazily expensive. If Janie runs out of “her” cat treats we will order them online. At 17 she deserves to eat her preferred brand. Ironically, our Italian housekeeper has specifically requested some cleaning products from the store at the embassy: She loves Easy-Off oven cleaner, and she also favors a floor product from there. So we will indulge her. We still buy Kindle books from Amazon. We don’t really consider that cheating since no package hits the DPO. We still receive Netflix (can’t stop a subscription we’ve had for 15 years). But that’s about it. 

Today I finally found “the” little black dress at the store pictured above. I have to continue the search. I saldi (the sales) start in Rome on July 5, so maybe there will be some bargains to be had. If I can stand trying on clothes in 95 degree heat!

Things are different here

30 Mar

Banking, shopping, mammograms: there are many differences here in bella Italia.

Banking was invented in Italy. In fact, the oldest bank in the world is Monte dei Paschi di Siena, which is in deep doo doo over some questionable transactions…but I digress.  We needed to open an Italian bank account so we could pay some local doctors’ bills. The process of opening the account was akin to closing on a house, only more difficult. It took several days and 3 visits to the bank, but no money was deposited until the account was open and we had a fistful of documents in hand to prove it. Only then were we allowed to deposit money.

And about depositing money: We get reimbursement checks from various sources that we deposit here rather than send back to the U.S. for deposit. One day I popped into the bank with four checks, totaling about $150. No deposit slip is necessary; you just tell the teller your account number. For a deposit of four checks, 10 pieces of A4 paper are generated. Each check requires two (one for me, one for the bank), and the deposit itself requires two (same drill). I signed five times to deposit four checks. They are very nice people, very accommodating, and the experience is very personal, as opposed to the no-human-touch-required ATM deposit.  As long as our balance is correct…but many trees sacrificed their lives.

On the other hand, no trees are harmed in creation of bank statements: everything is electronic and self-service. When we opened our account, we received a random-code-generator token for secure access. It’s quite efficient and more advanced than the 3 online banking systems we access in the U.S.

Paying bills is a matter of making a wire transfer. If you want to pay a doctor’s bill, unless you are paying in cash which is quite common, you need the doctor’s International Banking Number as well as bank name. Simple and not too costly. I marched into the bank armed with this information only to be asked by the teller “what is this payment for?”  Hmmm, seems a bit intrusive and personal to ask what I am paying a doctor for. How detailed to get? I mean what if you had something rather, um, sensitive and personal done? Do you blurt out “pap smear” or “wart removal?” (Neither of which were involved I might add.)  I opted for a rather vanilla “medical consultation,” then hours later realized that without an invoice number, perhaps the recipient of the payment might find information beyond the patient name useful in matching payment to service.  Still, a potentially awkward moment; No HIPAA rules here. I’m sticking with “medical consultation.”

Campo dei Fiori

Campo dei Fiori market. Let the vendor select your produce or risk a scolding.

Shopping has oh-so-many differences from the U.S.  First, it can be rather disjointed. Megastores are few, and out in the suburbs. One may need to go to many stores to accomplish what a stop at Target would do. I like small businesses and wandering around Rome, so it’s an opportunity to poke my head into various establishments. But sometimes it is hard to know where to go to get what. Light bulbs, for example, are most likely in an electrical shop, although there are some in the larger grocery stores. Need a curling iron? Don’t try a beauty supply store; go to an appliance and electronics shop.  Cosmetics? A profumeria of course.  If all else fails, try a ferramenta, which is a household goods store with everything from toilet paper to wine glasses, but in the tiniest stores!

Store hours also need to be considered. The larger grocery stores are usually open continually, but a ferramenta or an electrical shop might close from 13:30-16:00. A large wine shop near us does this, even on a busy Saturday, as does Ric’s favorite men’s clothier. They re-open from 16:00-20:00. Since one does not eat before 21:00, these are prime shopping hours.  Even the electronics giant Euronics takes la pausa on Saturday and they close on Sunday, limiting recreational shopping. Quality of life versus consumerism: interesting concept.

At the outdoor markets, like Campo dei Fiori (think large Farmers’ Market in the U.S.) one never touches the produce. Let the nice vendor help you. Be prepared for questions like “What are you going to use them for” when you ask for tomatoes: “For sauce or to eat?” You’ll get different tomatoes based on the answer.  Or the fish monger might ask “How many people is this for,” then argue with you about whether you are buying enough. (He’ll also want to know your method of preparation.)

Rabbit babyfood

Pat the Bunny? No eat the bunny, Babyfood in flavors attuned to Italian tastes. I have not seen equine….

In the grocery store produce department, one dons a plastic glove, then bags, weighs, and prices one’s own produce. You won’t forget to do that more than once,because if in a moment of American-ness you get distracted and head for the checkout, the cassa will send you trotting back through the store to price the goods, holding up the entire line while you do so. Che imbarazzante! (I’ve only done it once.)

Milk is sold in shelf-stable cartons that do not have to be refrigerated until after opening, and eggs are always on the shelf at room temp.  There is a staggering variety of pasta of course, and the best tuna ever, packed in olive oil. Who needs mayonnaise? Ethnic foods (Mexican, Thai, Chinese) are impossible to find in a regular store. There are specialty shops, but I have not sought them out yet. However, if your infant likes parmesan cheese, salmon, or rabbit, there’s a baby food for that. 

mammografiaThis picture says almost all you need to know about getting a mammogram here: there is no virtually useless “gown.” Just strip to the waist and belly up to the bar. I was warned by the Embassy Health Unit what to expect, and provided a paper gown to take along, but geez, really, did I want to be la Americana there with the Italian women, the only one shielding her girls with a flimsy gown that was mostly coming off anyway?  So I went along with local custom.  But there’s one more surprise for those of us from a sheltered, HIPAA-indoctrinated, North American, law-suit inspired environment: many of the mammographers are men. 

As I entered the office of the senologist (breasts are their only business), I saw a man in scrubs with long gray hair, a little wild, who resembled an aging 60s rock musician. “Please God, don’t let that be my mammographer,” I pleaded silently.  I waited with the other women and was relieved to be summoned to an exam room by a lovely young woman; Take off everything from the waist up and so we begin. But could this be a straightforward get-it-done process? Of course not! She’d get me arranged in the machine then open the door to the adjoining suite and ask a question. She set me up again, and with my breast pressed inextricably between two plates of glass, open the door to the reception area and talk to another person. At one point she left me hanging (literally and figuratively) for about 2 minutes while she went through yet a third door and talked to someone else! At the end of the session she motioned to the chair where I had left my clothes and said I should make myself comfortable (Si accomodi usually means make yourself comfortable, have a seat;  but I now know it can also be used as for “lay back and relax”) and wait for the doctor. To me comfortable  (and relaxed!) is fully dressed, so I began to suit up. I had just put my bra on and had my arms in the sleeves of my blouse when a man in a white coat opened Door Number 3 and my tech beamed with a cheery Ciao bello! Buongiorno! As they consulted over some technical issue (I don’t know if he was a doctor or a computer technician), I buttoned my blouse and donned my sweater. Standing there awkwardly I asked if I should wait. “Sì” and another wave to the chair.

About 40 seconds later in sweeps another young woman who escorts me into the room where I thought the aging rocker was. Yup; He’s the doctor. I figured he was going to give me the “all clear” and I’d be on my way.  Huge office with a desk on one side, mammograms up on the large computer screens, which the doctor is studying. On the other side of the office is an exam table, which the nurse escorts me to and tells me to undress. I ask: “What are we doing?” “An exam” she says, perplexed. I had heard they do ultrasounds on most everyone…. So I strip to the waist again and lay down (Si accomodi!), only to be left there, half-naked and certainly not comfortable, while the doctor makes a phone call and the nurse comes-and-goes a couple of times. They ask me for my last films (not handy – they are in Oregon), and finally the doctor does the ultrasound.  I give great credit for thoroughness.  My favorite part (tongue firmly in cheek) was when he motioned bare-breasted me 20 feet across the huge office to see my mammogram close up, and then back again to the complete the exam.  My only question is why they even allowed me to dress between the two exams. I suspect an Italian woman would not do so, would know she was moving on through Door Number 1 for the sonogram.

In our own environment we know pretty-much what to expect, and I think in North America medical personnel tend to explain — maybe even over-explain — what you are to do, what is going to happen, what to expect. Here there seems to be a great assumption that one already knows what to expect. And of course in North America we have huge body-consciousness/privacy issues. Not worth having here….

I can hardly wait for a trip to the gynecologist.

Scenes from a Roman Saturday

23 Dec
A view from Piazzale Napoleone. across P.za del Popolo to the Vatican. Bellissima!

A view from Piazzale Napoleone. across P.za del Popolo to the Vatican. Bellissima!

Saturday we headed out into a beautiful crisp clear day. Our routine each Saturday is to go on foot from our home to Piazza del Popolo, then on down via Ripetta, stopping for caffè e cornetti, and on to Campo dei Fiori where we shop for our fresh fruits & vegetables  (also occasionally baked goods, cheese, salumi).  It takes about 75 minutes for the walk, and we often stop at Piazzale Napoleone to take in the view of the Vatican from above Piazza del Popolo.  Yesterday the view was enhanced by a huge Christmas tree towering above the piazza.

We are “regulars” with some vendors at Campo dei Fiori after so many months of shopping there. Emanuele at the dried fruit-and-nut booth always has something extra for us, or a discount. The family that runs the produce stall I favor, constantly calling back-and-forth. “Zio, how much for La Signora?” or “Papa where are the cranberries?” Hard-working people, appreciative of return business.  Last week Ric had to work on Saturday so I went alone. The guys at the salumeria we patronize missed him and asked me to tell Ric hello for them! We seldom experienced this in Portland, even after half-a-dozen years of going to the PSU Farmer’s Market almost every week. Yet here, in a city many times the size of Portland in population, we are warmly and personally greeted at shops and restaurants we frequent. And they put up with my Italian, God bless them! Emanuele even tries to teach me.

Lights run from Piazza Venezia all the way to Piazza del Popolo, this year in white with blue twinkles. Absolutely stunning!

 In the evening we headed for dinner, walking through the serene Villa Borghese all the way to the Spanish Steps and on into the Centro Storico. Much to our surprise, even at the peak dining hours from 21:00-23:00, there weren’t many people out and about. Perhaps private parties and final weekend preparations took precedence over the usual dining frenzy of a Saturday night.  We meandered the back alleys and enjoyed the lights relatively crowd-free.

Almost every street is draped in lights.

Almost every street is draped in lights.


Panettone from Roscioli. None better!

While at Campo dei Fiori Saturday morning we stopped at Roscioli to buy their incredible bread, still warm from the oven, which I will use for the Christmas Day stuffing. The warm, fragrant, pane integrale (whole-wheat bread) enticed us all the way home. As soon as we arrived, I sliced into the middle and we feasted on that good warm bread. We also picked up an artigianale panettone, the traditional Italian Christmas bread. Ours is made with frutti di bosco (berries) and we could not delay our gratification. Had to cut into it for Sunday breakfast.

Completing our Sunday, a trip to see “Big Bambu” at MACRO Testaccio, followed by a Natale organ concert high atop the Gianicolo at San Pietro di Montorio.

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