Monday, 12 December 2011

To market to market

We have lots of markets in Italy, it is a much more traditional way to shop there than it is here.

You can essentially buy everything at a local market: hats, shoes, haberdashery, pots and pans, fresh produce (loads of fruit and veg stalls), deli produce, meat, poultry, toys, jewellery, underwear, plants, I even remember stalls selling small appliances.

image source here

I worked in one in my hometown when I was in my late teens; it was held every Saturday afternoon and I was employed at a leathergoods stall. We all knew each other at the market and there was a great sense of camaraderie.
It was my first real job, which I held for a couple of years, and was an invaluable experience: that's where I learnt what REAL customer service is. You are building a true relationship with all of your customers, most are local and you will probably see them week in week out; you are the face of your business, no hiding behind the anonymity of a big employer; you must provide a courteous service and good quality goods, as word of mouth is the only advertisement that stallholders can afford.
My boss was a lovely guy with exceptionally polite manners; he had a young family to support (a sweet wife and a little daughter); often his elderly father would come to market too, mostly to get out of the house and meet people, he was such a pleasure to talk to. We became good friends, and I felt a bit like I was extended family, you do when you work the markets together.

winter does get nippy in Northern Italy

Life of a "vagrant" stall-holder is tough, there are so many more variables and hardships than in a shop.
You have to set up your stall every day (or twice a day if you go to two different markets). It takes a long time to set up the stall, it takes a long time to pack everything up in the van at the end of the day (particularly if you haven't sold all your goods, which happens most weeks).
I remember the winter markets, with extra woolly socks and thick boots, the cold in northern Italy really bites at your toes when you're standing for hours on the pavement.
Livelihood is dependent on the weather as most markets are not under cover: many times we had to pack things earlier because of particularly inclement weather; sometimes we wouldn't even unload the van if the weather was that bad, like a lasting thunderstorm. Thankfully that didn't happen often, but when it did, it was such a big loss: it meant zero income for the stall, and only losses because the boss still had to pay for petrol and my "wage". Which used to be around $50 cash in hand, some days more depending on the takings. I was happy with that sort of arrangement, it made me work harder at my sale skills... 
But because of the closeness to them and the fact anyway I had nothing better to do on a Saturday afternoon, on the bad days I really couldn't bring myself to pocket the whole amount knowing he hadn't earned a thing himself: he was supporting a family, I was a 19yo uni student living at home and just working for pocket money for booze ;) So if it was one of those really bad no income days, I just told him not to worry about and "see you next week and let's hope the weather's better". 
I know he felt awful about it, but he also really appreciated the gesture. So on those days, we'd just call it quits and go to the cafe near the markets, with all the other stallholders that just like us could not work with the downpour. And we'd have a panino and a beer or a coffee, which he'd always pay for because even if he couldn't afford my wages, he was always a decent person. 
It was sad having to quit but Australia was calling me...


I love farmers' markets. I love all the fresh produce. I love seeing products that are someone's labour of love. I love talking to people that are passionate about their job and produce, because really, if you're selling at markets you're not really doing it to get rich...

It is just so much more human than some establishments where the shop assistants seem bothered by your presence, and a much better shopping experience than supermarkets. Particularly if you have kids: no over-crammed shelves full of items that mummy has to put back every 2 seconds, no trolleys to watch out for, no stupid trinkets and treats neatly positioned at a toddler's eye level...

The market has a slower pace, a bouncier rhythm about it, it has enticing smells and colourful people, and often has a child-friendly entourage of petting zoos or bouncing castles.

The kids and I have made it part of our routine. Our first market was a bit daunting, but I soon realised we were onto a winner: the kids were so happy with the open spaces, they felt free to explore everything (and of course, because there are less restrictions, there are fewer temptations to touch everything!) and they were overjoyed in sampling produce and products, and most of all they loved talking to all the stallholders.
petting zoo at the market, back in April: how little does Casi look!

We've now become market pros. The kids are always excited to be going to market, regardless of which one it is. There's always something interesting to see and do and eat. The only downside is that Sosi has an obsession with handmade soaps, possibly inherited from me, and every market has a handmade soap stall, and she always has to buy at least 2 soaps every market we go to... Guess what all our family members are receiving for Christmas? ;)

If you've never been to a farmers' market, you should! These are Victorian websites I check out regularly to see what's on, have a look to see which market is nearest to you, and then start venturing out and trying new markets.    this is a great website if you're in greater Melbourne and further: you can select a date and it'll bring up almost everything you can do around town, from markets to exhibitions to festivals, museums, fetes, sport, arts, seminars, tours etc etc

Don't be shy, come say hi if you see us at some market stuffing our faces with lemon tarts :)


  1. I love hearing about your life as a customer service assistant (?!) at markets in Italy, and the lovely cameraderie you had with your employer. :)

    I love markets here too. We've got a fairly good local one. Most other markets are too far to travel to (I think I live on the "wrong side" of the city! - but would really like to venture further one day. As my kids are a little bit younger than yours, they've not been that interested in markets... except when there's a petting zoo involved! Perhaps when they're older! :)

  2. I enjoy markets wherever I travel in the world, they are a great way of learning more about what is available locally.