On being authenticated

meat on scale, sign
Authentication in the balance

The guys selling the chicken, pork and beef from the stalls outside the butcher’s shop know me now. After eighteen months of me shopping there, they can guess what I’m after before I’ve even asked for it. The chicken guy is the friendliest (if still reserved), and will always give me a smile, as well as a bit of chat, but the little old guy who sells the pork also nods when he sees me coming. “Pork chops, signora? Nice thick ones?” Conversation doesn’t run to much with him, as he seems only to speak dialect and we don’t understand each other’s words, but a smile and some sign language go a long way.

The women inside, on the other hand, make being sullen an art form. There are always the same two behind the counter, weighing the meat and taking the money: mother and daughter, from the look of them. Then there’s a third, whose eyes give her away as another daughter, and who deals with the meat grinder and packing up cuts of meat when the men have their hands full. The daughters’ faces will relax just a fraction nowadays when the strange foreign woman comes in to pay, but the mother is always like stone. I don’t take it personally: she’s the same with everyone.

potatoes, cu mangia patati non mori mai
Sicilian greengrocer say, ‘he who eat potatoes never die’

There’s rain threatening today, as there has been all morning, but the shopping can’t be put off any longer if we want to eat tonight. The dumpy woman at the potato stall shivers while she weighs them out, and the clatter of my coins as I drop them into the plastic scoop that she uses to extend the reach of her arm over the stall seems overly loud in the absence of the usual market day chatter. It’s a slow day for the traders today; most right-thinking Catanese are closeted at home for fear of getting wet.

At the cheese stall a few weeks ago, when they asked where I was from and discovered that I was English, I was drawn into a conversation about the price of cigarettes in London. “They’re really dear, aren’t they?” Today, it’s business talk only. Everyone – not least me – is keen to finish up for the day and go home to get warm.

As I scrabble in my purse for change, the rain that’s been looming all morning begins, pooling on the tarpaulin above and dripping off the edges. With my head bent forward as it is, it won’t be long before one of those drips goes down my neck, but I don’t have a spare hand to pull my hood up. I squeeze closer to the front of the stall. The cheese guy gives an abrupt shake of his head. “Signora!” I look up and he beckons me round to his side, out of the rain. He holds out his hands for my tangle of shopping bags. “Here. Give me those.” I hand them over with a grateful smile, put up my hood, and find him the correct change.

Carrying the weight of the world - or so it sometimes seems
Carrying the weight of the world – or so it sometimes seems

Transaction completed, the cheese guy gives me a grave nod of acknowledgment and looks at the bags in his hands. I make as if to take them back from him, but he frowns and gestures towards the cotton shoppers with which I always come armed. In today’s hurry to get home before the rain started, I haven’t managed to stuff my accumulated plastic bags of produce into them, and they are still slung, empty, over my shoulder. “In there? I’ll help.” He holds the cotton bags open as I stuff the various plastic ones inside, stammering flustered thanks as I do so.

I’m about to cram in the final bag when he grabs it back out of my hands. “Wait!” In my English haste to stop bothering the poor man, I hadn’t taken note of what was in each bag as I shoved it into the shoppers. He extracts a bag of delicate mushrooms out of the shopper and hands them over to me with a satisfied nod at averting disaster. “Carry those apart, yes?” I nod in meek agreement. Bags packed to his satisfaction, he hands them back to me with the hint of a smile and a gruff, “Good day, Signora.”

charlie brown, rain
Maybe not, Charlie Brown, but try telling a Sicilian that

I stride on to the butcher’s shop, where I’m greeted with the usual transactional questions from the men, and dead-eyed cold indifference from the women. While I pay, it starts to pour in earnest. I walk to the doorway, arms full of groceries, and look outside in dismay at the torrents of rain sheeting down. I’m well-sheltered by the tarpaulin over the top of the meat stalls out front, but the pork guy mistakes my expression for one of determination and holds up his hands with a ‘stop right there’ gesture. I don’t catch what he says but his meaning is clear from his hectoring, fatherly tone: ‘there’s absolutely no way I’m letting you leave this shop in this weather, young lady!’ The chicken guy laughs at me. “No umbrella?” I shrug and shake my head, laughing along with him. He points his knife at me, still killing himself with laughter. “You’re stuck here until 2, then, according to the forecast!” I open my eyes wide and groan in mock-horror, then set down my bags and lean against the doorframe to wait out the worst of it.

The meat-grinding daughter comes to stand next to me. “Can you smell oranges?” I don’t realise at first that she’s talking to me, and am so taken aback when I do that I almost forget to answer. “Er – yes! Yes, I can.” She nods across at the kiosk opposite. “Must be from over there, I reckon. Strange how the rain brings it out, though, no?” She grins companionably, and I do the same.

We stare out at the rain, which is still absolutely belting it down. The street outside has turned into a river and the few people still on the streets when it started are huddled in doorways like miserable stray cats, umbrellas up against any stray overflows from above. Chicken guy turns to meat-grinding daughter and says something in dialect too rapid for me to catch. She says something back and disappears. He gives me, still standing in the doorway of the shop, a look of amused concern. “Do you live far from here?” I shake my head. “No, just a couple of streets away.” Meat-grinding daughter returns, brandishing an umbrella with a grin as wide as her face. “You want this …?” Chicken guy nods earnestly at me and I now understand what it was that he’d said to her before: ‘get the girl an umbrella lest she drown’ – or words to that effect.

It seems that I might be – despite previous evidence to the contrary – an authenticated local. And that means that – despite the rain – right now I couldn’t be happier.


This month, as well as the usual Italy Roundtable posts, you have some special bonus ones, as we ladies of the Roundtable have teamed up with the COSÌ bloggers to talk about our ideas on authenticity.

Enjoy …

Italy Blogging Roundtable

  1. Jessica – Where is this “authentic Italy” everyone’s looking for?
  2. Gloria – The odd woman out’s view on “authentic Italy”
  3. Rebecca – Italy Roundtable: Finocchi Rifatti al Pomodoro
  4. Alexandra – Art and Travel: the authenticity of seeing art in person
  5. Michelle – Living Authentically: How Italy Forced the Issue
  6. Melanie – Everything is Authentic


  1. Englishman in Italy – How Authentic an Italian are you?
  2. Rick’s Rome – The Authentic Italian Culture Debate
  3. Sex, Lies and Nutella – How to be an authentic Italian (in 9 simple steps)
  4. Married to Italy – The fear of the fake: What “authenticity” means to a foreigner in a strange land 
  5. Surviving in Italy – What does it mean to be authentically Italian?
  6. The Florence Diaries – Searching for the real Italy
  7. Girl in Florence – Real or fake? Shop smart in Italy
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About Kate Bailward

Kate Bailward is a cat-loving, trifle-hating, maniac driver. You can also find her on Facebook, Twitter, and Google+
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