September 8, 2009

Stories that need to be told: Sant'Ambrogio Market, July 1999

The market is the only thing that consistently inspires me. I am living in the middle of Florence in a beautiful Palazzo with Piazza Signoria and the Uffizi five minutes from me, yet I choose to spend my time at the Mercato di Sant’Ambrogio. There I feel at home.

My meloncholia threatens to keep me under water or perhaps its just my sensitivity to constant change. But I am pulled, attracted to the source of light like a moth. Or should I say the source of color, texture, and the sounds of life of the market. Not for selling wares, but selling food. All types of wonderful, fresh, tasty food. There I don’t feel stupid for asking a question about something I don’t know. Americans don’t like to appear ‘uninformed’. They prefer the prolonged humiliation of going around in circles when they are lost, than the brief vulnerability of admitting err. On the other hand, I have come to salivate my ignorance at the market, for I always find out more than I expected, and no one takes notice. As a matter of fact, if I ask a vegetable vendor for advice and he doesn’t know, he turns around and ask whomever might be shopping near him. “Senora, lo sai come prepare bene questi cipollini bianchi?” The Senora replies, “Of course, you simply boil the small white onions first, then toss them in a frying pan with olive oil and a pinch of salt. If you put a touch of vinegar or lemon it becomes even better.” For me it is a living free University, a private study of learning just what I want to know. I have learned about cuts of meat and how to cook them. “Well, if you are going to cook it in the oven, you need this one.” Says the butcher.

I am spending all my money in the market. I love the way they greet you. “Mi Dica!” Tell me! Or, “Ciao bella, dimmi tutto!” I feel like a kid in a candy shop. “I would like un etto of procuitto dolce, and un pezzo da questo formaggio, per favore.” The lady behind the counter whispers and cocks her head to the side, “Io adore questo formaggio!” I feel like I’ve just won the lottery. I have touched her heart. I’m in.
Or the young man who makes a bouquet of ‘odori’ (parsley, rosemary, basil, a stalk of celery, a carrot) extra special just for me, and I think, ‘hes in’. How could I go somewhere else with this kind of gentilezza?

A man walks swiftly by the eggplants with a tray of compari’s. I think to myself “where is he going with those at 9:00 in the morning!

Meanwhile, I stop in at the local cafe’ to see Franca and have something warm to drink and there is “Chammomila”. A short man, balding, with hair that flips up in the back looking very scrooge like, but much nicer, having his martini. They call him Chammomila because that’s what he asks for, knowing that is not what he will get.

I would feel lightweight all of sudden leaving the market, if I didn’t have five or six bags lugging me down. As it is, I leave reluctantly, only by the fact that I know that I can return tomorrow.

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