Consumer Time Travel

romecampodefiori.jpg(This is another in my series of dispatches from Rome. If you are getting tired of the concept, don’t worry: I’m coming home in a week.)

Two aspects of life here offer a nice comparative story about the way life in the United States used to be, and might become.

The first is the specialization of food shopping in Rome. Small shops for seemingly every type of food – cheese, meat, fruit, wine, cereals – line the streets in Rome’s old city center. In each shop, one (or two) employees dispenses food from behind a counter – it is not a self-service experience. It seems like these tiny shops, rather than the occasional small supermarket – are the primary way that citizens get their food. In a way, shopping here is like stepping back in time in the states to around 1940 or so. And there is something charming about the experience: the interactions (me in pantomime) are personal; the food is fresh and delicious; and you are less likely to slip and fall on a banana peel left on the ground. But the food is expensive, especially fruit, and if I were a busy citizen instead of a less-busy tourist, I’d find going to five different stores to complete my shopping to be a daily irritant.

Why does this specialization persist? I know less than I should about the risk of supermarkets in the United States, but I’ve a few preliminary thoughts. The first explanation denies that Italians shop at small stores outside of the cramped confines of City Centers. That is, just in the States, it is difficult for supermarkets to obtain purchase and economies of size in expensive urban cores. So, maybe, most Italian citizens do go to supermarkets, just not in places that tourists spend their time.


But this doesn’t explain why in the States some supermarkets have entered cities, or why butchers, cheese-mongers, fruit-stands, and bakeries are generally dead or gourmet institutions.. So then I was tempted to think that Italy’s rejection of supermarket organization reflects the comparative strength of Italian labor unions, and the comparative inability of Italian businesses to easily franchise. Or maybe there is a tort or agency law explanation?

On the other side of the spectrum, I’ve been struck by the security measures at Italian internet cafes. As Solove noted here, a recent Italian security act requires owners to collect personal information from users, usually in the form of a passport. From my experience, owners will not accept a paper copy of a passport but instead will take and hold the real thing for the duration of your time online.

On the whole, this is a chilling experience, and reminder that every link you follow can be, and maybe will be, later seen by the authorities. In the current political climate it is difficult to imagine such a law passed in the United States, although given the relative lack of internet cafes, the better analogy probably would be to require wifi hotspots to collect personal information about users. I imagine that in that hypothetical world, I’d get used to the loss of privacy, just as the Italians have to the loss of theirs, but it would surely rankle at first.

[Photo Credit: Campo de’ Fiori Market, courtesy of A Young American in Rome]

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6 Responses

  1. My impression was that the persistence of small, specialty food shops, and the willingness to spend the time shopping in them, reflected greater appreciation for and insistence on freshness and quality in food. I think it is still prevalent in France as well as Italy, and probably other countries as well. It is easier to do in a densely populated city where people walk instead of drive from store to store. Personally, I would give a lot to be able to buy good bread at a bakery.

  2. Bill says:

    I agree w/ Jennifer. As a slow food member and Italian food afficionado, Italians take great pride in the freshness and quality of their ingredients/food items. As Moraio Batali always says, the cooking culture there is a culture of grandmas and not professional chefs and they feel they are entitled to the best, highest quality things in each respective store. The thought of the supermarket is just alien, where you get meat wrapped in cellophane on toilet paper to absorb the blood, where chicken is soaked in water to increase the weight, and where they have a nerve to charge $6.00 for moldy “organic” strawberries. Many Italians (or at least used to as it may be fading w/ newer generations) even make their own specialty items like prosciutto or other cured meats and the like. Some of the best wines are teh ones or made by the local restaurants (usually classified as vino di tavola). How do you get the best cheese? Go to a cheese shop. The best culatello? Go to a salumeria.

    And it is easier to get around to the many shops as they are much closer together in tight city centers. It takes only a short amount of time to walk from one end of Florence to the other. I live in NJ and to get specialty items to make an Italian feast, I have to go to Murray’s, Whole Foods, Biellese Salumeria etc… I have to go to two different stores soemtimes to get the olive oils I like. Not very feasible here and probably cost prohibitive.

  3. Matt says:

    When you get back to Philadelphia make sure you go to some of the many farmer’s markets around the city. My favorite is the Clark Park market. Fresh foods from local farmers and producers, wonderful stuff, not too high of prices, etc. You can get some of the goodness right here.

  4. Larry says:

    Lived in Italy 3 years, Belgium for 2. Your guess is right – you simply aren’t going where the Italians go to shop. There are some big stores on the outskirts of Roma, Napoli, and many other cities, but tourists don’t get there since they don’t have the ancient sights/sites most of them are visiting. Nor do most tourists go looking for them. There are also bigger stores in city centers but think 7-11, not Wally-World. And, Bill, I wouldn’t get to excited at the ‘cooking culture.’ I’ve had too many mediocre meals in Italy and many other Euro-stops.

  5. Concerned Student says:

    To Joe: The reference to the professor in your comment is a senior associate dean at the unaccredited Drexel Law School. Does he have tenure/promotion power over colleagues? If so, does “the relationship” create morale, ethical, legal and accreditation conflicts for Drexel? Do you know if Drexel is aware of this?

  6. Concerned Student says:

    To Joe: The reference to the professor in your comment is a senior associate dean at the unaccredited Drexel Law School. Does he have tenure/promotion power over colleagues? If so, does “the relationship” create morale, ethical, legal and accreditation conflicts for Drexel? Do you know if Drexel is aware of this?