Sometimes things work out for the best. Skipping the bike tour I had been planning to go on allows me time to visit Florence’s famed Mercato Centrale, and it is the perfect way to end my first stop on this somewhat whirlwind tour.
I wander through a tent filled with tables of produce being sold by different vendors. There are fruits and vegetables in every color of the rainbow, and they make me want to prepare a huge summer feast. Anyone interested in a dinner party?
I try to buy one Sicilian lemon, but the woman selling them tells me no. Once again, the concept of solo proves difficult. So I buy a small container of fragole – strawberries – dark red and longer than the ones I’m used to seeing in American grocery stores, from a tiny, elderly Italian lady.
From there I wander through stall after stall of leather goods, pashminas and cashmere, jewelry, and of course, random kitschy trinkets. I buy a black leather wrap belt, buttery soft, from a sweet, patient man, bargaining him down from ten euros to seven. Days later, I will regret not buying one for my sister as well.
The male merchants call out, eager to flirt with a potential customer. Several of them compliment my eyes (is this in the International Handbook to Being a Guy? I’ve had more men tell me I have pretty eyes than probably every other possible attribute combined). All of them say they’ll give me a good price. I shake my head and say no, I don’t have the money, I need to pay for a train. I need to buy food. I can’t afford a leather jacket, even if it is genuine Florentine leather, and si, si, it is indeed bella. If I had the money and the room in my suitcase, I could do some serious damage here. Maybe another time I’ll come back with an empty suitcase. It might be worth the customs nightmare.
I bargain a man for two pashminas for 12 euros, a forest green one for me and a peacock blue for Abby, and pace back and forth among the selections of leather goods. I finally select a wallet in a rich purple and bargain ten euros off the price. Many of the leather goods are stamped with the words vera pelle, which I think is the name of the company or the designer. I realize later that vera pelle means “real leather.”
As I walk amongst the stalls, some of the merchants ask my name, and I pull out the first Italian names I can think of – Anna, Natalia, Emilia… My own name is not particularly translatable, like Joseph in Italian is Giuseppe. Holly can be pretty in English, but I despise foreign attempts to pronounce it – the dropping of the H, the lengthening of the O… it’s just unpleasant.
I’ve always taken a great personal interest in nomenclature, examining the significance of names in literature, the meaning behind names, the imagery associated with them. I’ve been taking note of how the images of some names can be altered in translation. Our homely, stringy Claire becomes sensual earth mother Chiara. John, steadfast and kindhearted, translates to flirtatious cad Giovanni. It fascinates me.
Soon, I come to an indoor market place, akin to the Atwater Market in Montreal, and I am in gourmand heaven. I walk around marveling at everything – cheeses, produce, dried fruits, braids of garlic, colorful pastas…
Sapori – flavors – one of the most important words I will learn during my time here. There are so many simple, complex, rich, wonderful flavors here. I find my groove, telling each merchant exactly how much I can spend on a particular product. For less than one euro (80 cents) I buy a wedge of pecorino fresco that would cost me $5 in the States. I spend 50 cents for two hearty slices of bread, 20 cents for a clementine and one euro for a generous portion of biscotti for dessert. My epicurean splurge of the day is three euros for a bag of sundried Sicilian cherry tomatoes – pomodorini Sicilia.
With my strawberries, a bottle of water, and a few small packages of Nutella I saved from the breakfast room at the hotel, my purchases will make an ideal train-time lunch.
At the Santa Maria Novella station, a friendly and helpful conductor makes up for broken ticket machines and a less-than-helpful woman at the slow moving counter. I settle into a seat and dig into my bag of treats. My strawberries have become slightly smushed, and my fingers are sticky and stained red with sweet juice.
I find I don’t care for the slightly bitter pecorino, with its almost spongy texture, as much as I do for a harder, salty Parmagianno-Regiano, but when in Rome, or Tuscany, so I break off pieces of bread and cheese, eating them together, sometimes with a sudried pomodorino and tell myself to enjoy the experience. The pecorino begins to taste better, and it is the best meal I have the whole time I am in Italy.