In Florence it is raining, round heavy drops that soak the uneven cobblestones of one narrow street (among others) behind the Palazzo Vecchio. Under streetlamps before dawn, a man leans his umbrella against the stone wall and bends down under an awning to raise the metal gate that covered his shop for the night. Around the corner, another gate lifts as another man, slightly stooped from consecutive mornings of this same routine, drags a rusty food cart onto the street for a day of work. The pasticceria next door is wrapping up business, having poured the smell of baking butter into the alley since one a.m. Now it’s about six. The pastries are baked, now on their way to cafés around town, and a small crowd loiters by the non-descript door hoping to purchase leftovers before the baker, in his sweat-stained apron, heads home.
According to my friend, Peggy, who has lived in Florence part-time for 18 years, supermarkets arrived in Italy sometime in the last decade. Now, there’s a Bangladeshi-owned corner store by her apartment, convenient for picking up last-minute dinner ingredients—a stick of butter or handful of parsley, or for finding shampoo and tea bags in one go. But the way shopping has been done for ages, and still seems to be done by most, is in a series of specialized shops. We buy cheese in the cheese shop (where else?), the woman weighs hunks of fresh-made pecorino or crumbling gorgonzola and wraps them in butcher paper. Vegetables at the market, from a collection of farmers at fold-out tables. Pasta is found alongside the olive oil, among the four walls of a small shop crowded with various varieties from different regions, most harvested within the last two months. The pasta hangs from the ceiling on hooks, and lays dried and bagged in baskets so big that only two or three customers can fit inside at once.
Malls are an American invention. We are comfortable swooping in and filling our carts and trunks with everything at once. In Morocco, I bought spices from a man who handled each one like a child he had named himself, pouring scoops of yellow and whispering “saffron,” “tumeric.” His life’s work. His brother’s too.
In Florence, it sometimes took Peggy and I the better part of a morning or afternoon (with stops to say hello to old friends on every corner, of course) to assemble the food that would feed us for a few days.
The result, I think, is that in America it’s harder to find experts. I don’t mean people who know a lot about a certain subject, but people who live just one thing. Who know the difference between ground and crushed cloves by the smell, with their eyes closed. Who will hand you a leg of lamb as if it’s a piece of his or her own heart.
Not only food. The other shops are small, too, stacks of wood squares leaning against the window of a frame shop. Toys in the toy shop. Art supplies. Shoes. Knives and scarves, alone in separate small rooms sold by a person devoted to only that. And I wonder what it might be like to own such a shop, concentrating so fully on one item day after day. Maybe the framer sees the world in terms of how to best center everything between pieces of wood? I like to think that the butcher goes home and expresses his endearment in terms of meat. I love you like a flank of veal. Tender, sliced thinly with a sharp knife. Best cooked with butter, so it will dissolve slowly on the tongue.
Back in Colorado, my artist friend Tristan used tweezers and thin-tipped brushes, peered through a microscope to make a series of miniature paintings and sculptures. Tiny chairs assembled from hair, sitting on a mountain of salt grains. He told me that one weekend he was house sitting in the mountains, working to finish a group of new sculptures for a show. After hours bent over his magnifying glass, he went outside for a walk. The already vast Colorado sky, the silence of being at altitude, away from the road—everything seemed impossibly huge. His eyes adjusted to the afternoon sunlight and a spontaneous thought popped into his head: “I am the point of a very fine needle.” Which reminds me of being a little kid studying an ant in the gravel to intensely that looking up, the playground was a universe, every little detail a world unto itself, full of possibilities.
I don’t know if this is how the sommelier feels, nose emerging from a glass of deep chianti. Closing up his shop now, dusting the bottles and packing one last order to be shipped. Or the man who sells mushrooms at the market, in a coat that smells like damp earth and pine needles. But I do know that becoming intimate with one thing can be a way of accessing everything else. What have we lost in the name of convenience, scooping handfuls, instead of choosing one at a time? Perhaps a world where each object is alive, containing a world of its own.
Update 8/1/2010: An extremely well-written article, “Is Italy too Italian?” from the New York Times, examines the economic consequences of choosing tradition over growth.