Flavors & Surroundings - Super Mercato Shopping in Florence

I'm a jill of all trades when it comes to shopping. I love a good shoe, to me Sephora is the closest thing to Heaven and a supermarket can be a blinding oasis for my inner chef. I never thought of stores as challenges or safe havens but while abroad they became just that. Places for cultural exploration (or confusion), air conditioning, money changing, phone recharges and refreshment. In London, it was the newsstand with lemony water and Clark bars. In France, it was the open air market with strange smells and tasty delights. In Spain, it was the plethora of ham and tropical flavors of every yogurt imaginable. In Italy, it was just bad. The only supermarket we entered was dark, dismal and had warm Cokes. The alternative was dark, dismal and gourmand. Surely, I want jars of olives, sauces and pasta that was stretched by hand but it isn't practical. What I missed was the variety of a Publix and the access of a Super Walmart. If Rome was bad, Florence was worse and for all the same reasons. There was the dismal and the inaccessible. Then it became whatever works and Sapori & Dintorni.

The first afternoon near Duomo we'd entered a supermarket. I wasn't going to buy anything at that point we'd simply entered for air con and to browse. I quickly grazed the fruit, prepared meats and snack sections to see that particular supermarket was low in quality and overpriced. This was unlike other experiences where there was some choice and alternatives. However, I really didn't find any walking the streets of Firenze. Open air markets were more like bazaars with goods vendors. There were no produce stands or prepared foods. In fact there was more cheap leather than anything. There was the occasional "general" store with liters of water, chewing gum and crisps but not anything worthy of buying. I needed a life saver. A place were I could get a few basic things for the hotel room - foods to tide me over for the next few meal less days. A salad, some crackers, cheese etc. I felt like we were in a food desert and I'd have to survive solely off complementary breakfast. Apparently, allegedly there was an Eataly near the Cathedral. There just wasn't anything decent other than the Dollar Store nearest to the hotel.

I'd been mistaken. There was a place just outside of the train station. A place we'd passed and eyed on the way to our hotel. Just after the bank, park and fort I'd found myself back at square one. Just next door to McDonald's #2 were the blue awnings of Sapori & Dintorni - a spin off of Italy's supermercato chain Conad. The place we had entered that first day was more than likely a regular Conad. I didn't really put two and two together in that moment. I had a 20 burning a hole in my pocket and I was thirsty. I could see the place was bustling, bright and not too badly priced so I entered. I didn't know I was going into Italy's version of Whole Foods, Fresh Market and Dean & Deluca all wrapped into one. I guess I was fooled by the decent prices and the presentation. Just inside the main door was the produce section and everything seemed to be glistening. Men kept bringing crates and cartons of cherry tomatoes, carrots and dewy champagne grapes. So as much as I hate fruit I realized a carton of green grapes would not only be inexpensive but hydrating and filing. Everything was placed in little plastic containers, clearly marked and still life ready.

Most European markets reel you in on one side and you have to go through a maze to check out. You peruse the rest of the aisles and then find yourself trapped in a long excruciating one way exit. So I had to pass the deli counter. There were women in fluffy chef hats turning chickens, slicing salami and displaying gourmet salads. Just next to them were more clear cartons of sweets including thick Italian cookies and panattone. By the time I'd touched and ogled at everything I only had my grapes, a few sodas and some crackers. I then made it to the last aisle corralling into the registers. The line was horrifically long. I waited about ten minutes creeping up the beer and wine aisle. Towards the end of the aisle was an ice cream case and I placed my items in it so they would stay cold. It seemed like the moment I relieved my arms of carrying everything I realized I had to pee. Torn between leaving the line to ask for a restroom or leaving to search the city I resorted to squeezing my thighs together. I had been holding my pee since the park and I guess the concept of eating made me forget.

I looked behind me and it was too deep of a line to cross. I looked in front and I was no where near check out. So I chose to leave my items in the freezer and go forth into the unknown. I had a McDonald's directly next door and a train station across the street. I'd been spoiled having shopped in gigantic French malls or been at Spanish markets just doors down from our hotel. In both of those scenarios I knew how to say "where's the restroom" if in a jam but now I was only equipped with "scuzi". From prior experience I realized restrooms in overseas McDonald's are most always on the second floor. I can't explain as to why that is but they all have 2nd floors and the restrooms are there. So once I got half way up the stairs I thought about the code thing. Because some public restrooms require a code or coins or both. Thankfully, this was your average push the door and you're in type restroom and I was able to go with no special arrangements. I took my time in the rest portion - wiping the sweat off my brow and splashing my neck with water. I left the McDonald's with no interruption and waltzed back into the supermarket with the pretty blue awnings. The line was downsized and my stuff was still in the freezer nice and cold.

As trained in France my reusable bag was stuffed in my purse. I think I spent about 8 Euros and had a sizable amount of change. I then walked the long way back making sure to stop and smell the roses per se. I came to a standstill at this fountain of gargoyles. There was scaffolding and some construction guy washed up from one mouth while I rinsed my grapes in another. We locked eyes as to say "hey it may not be cold but it is water and it's free". I made sure I made way for those leaving the train station with their bags. When I heard their wheels behind me I just hopped onto the street eating my handful of grapes. Each time I heard the sigh of relief of not having to ask could they get by in whatever language they thought I spoke. Once back at the hotel I took pictures of the mini bar (so it could be "fixed" when we left) and stuffed it with my wares. I sat on the bed and realized I would be having crackers and grapes for dinner … for two days. When she came in I told her I'd found a good one and the bar was finally well stocked. However, each picnic meal was consumed alone and I never found any remnants in either of the two wastebaskets. Trust me I looked. 

Lesson Learned: Pee before you leave and have real money and friends when you travel

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