I’ve already got a tub of ricotta in my shopping basket, but then I notice some others. They’re bigger, and look to be made locally, rather than by big brands. I bend down to take a closer look. I’m not sure what alerts me to the old man’s presence, but I become aware of him hovering behind my left shoulder. Thinking that I’m in his way, I step back and gesture for him to take whatever it is that he needs from the shelves of cheese. “Prego, signore.” Instead of moving in closer, however, he points to the ricotta and says something. His speech has that fuzzy edge that comes with great age and ill-fitting teeth, so I don’t catch the words. Not wanting to be rude, I nod politely and look back at the cheese, hoping that he’ll get the message and go in front of me so that I can go back to deciding which one to take.
He says something else.
This time I’m more tuned in to his voice and I realise that, far from trying to get to the cheese himself, he’s giving me advice about the ricotta and how bad this make is. I start to listen properly. He’s gesturing towards the tubs and pulling faces. “I tried that one once. It tasted horrid! With pasta, in ravioli, on its own – however I ate it, it was just awful.” I nod in gratitude. “Not good, then?” He shakes his head emphatically. “No! Not good at all.” I say thank you; in reply he gives me a curt nod as he shuffles away, leaning hard on his walking stick and mumbling into the collar of his smart winter coat. “Horrid! Dreadful stuff!”
Another shop, another day. I’m here to buy a pack of butter and a tub of lard, in an attempt to turn myself into a Sicilian pastry-making goddess. As I leave the glare of the sunlight outside and my eyes adjust to the gloom, I see two men in their late 50s shooting the breeze with the shop owner over the glass of the deli counter. “… and Antonio wants a bottle of that wine. What was it called?” I’m aware of their eyes following me as I walk through the shop, but don’t pay much attention. I’m used to being scrutinised by now.
Having found the two items that I want, albeit at an eyewateringly high price, I stand to the side of the two men, holding my packages of cooking fat, waiting for them to finish. The one closest to me is thin and elegant, dressed to the nines in three piece suit and tie under a navy-blue camelhair coat. “Prego, signora!” He waves me up to the counter. “Antonio, you’ll have to wait a moment. The signora would like to pay.” I smile and thank him as I put my shopping onto the counter. The shop owner turns to me and starts to ring my two items up. His hand hovers over the wine bottle with a questioning look. “Is this yours?” Before I can say no, the elegant man answers for me. “No, that’s Antonio’s: the signora is buying things to cook with, not to drink.” In indirect, formal Sicilian fashion, he addresses his next comments to his companion and the shopkeeper, but they’re meant for me. “Chivalry is dead nowadays, isn’t that right? Gentlemen don’t exist any longer.” I shake my head. “Oh no! They exist. I’m sure they exist.” He glances over at me, seemingly surprised that I’ve answered. I duck my head and pay for my purchases, worried that I’ve overstepped the mark by speaking directly to him. As I turn to leave, however, he recovers his poise and wishes me a good day, accompanied by a small, controlled inclination of the head. It seems I’m forgiven, but I still walk out of the shop with the feeling that I’ve just been involved in something that wasn’t quite what it seemed.
Images: creative commons on Flickr