“Ding Ding!” I put my pillow over my head. “No, it can’t be morning yet”, I assured myself. I went back into a deep slumber again despite the bell call. I had heard my Uncle’s truck leave for work earlier and had learned that this household was a happening one- especially in the morning. The little cafe truck came every morning or at least most mornings to sell the Italian typical breakfast street to street. Coffee, Italian croissants they call a “cornetto” plain or filled with almond cream, custard, or Nutella. But the classic and Sicilian specialty is the “granita”, a crushed ice flavoured drink thick enough to spoon with a texture somewhere across between a sorbet and a snow cone. And with the granita is always served the brioche. Often round and fat and shiny, this baked dough ball of sheer delight is traditionally broken in bits at a time, to use as a spoon to scoop and collect the sparkly ice cold liquid confection. The granita flavours are usually lemon, chocolate, strawberry, or my favourite- coffee.
I awoke again sometime later and this time with more motivation to get up. I saw beside my bed, the very breakfast I wanted. My Aunty had ordered a coffee granita brioche and granita for me and left it in my room. I had been visiting the beach a lot and exhausted each night from my adventures. The nearby infrastructure of souvenir and other specialty shops in Riposto in one direction and Mascali in another sold all sorts of interesting and pretty things worth packing to take home in my suitcase. But I was looking for something. I wanted to buy what Dad had asked for. A “Carettu Sicilianu”. A significant mascot of a donkey pulled Sicilian folk art hand painted cart with kinsfolk sitting inside in full traditional costume, this Carettu souvenir was made by hand in miniature model size and entirely of wood.
When buying things though, I had some serious concerns. I noticed that at least in the shops I explored the items never had price tags, so I would have to ask the store person the million dollar (hope not) question. How much? “Quanto costa?…” My main drama with the shopping experience was I had no clue what a souvenir would cost usually in one shop to another to be able to compare it to a price the shopkeeper told me. And they knew I was a foreigner, so I didn’t know at the time, but they probably made sure to charge me more than they should. I didn’t even think to bargain. I was very ignorant of this cultural practice. Dad ended up treasuring this carettu gift from me so much that he never took it out of its plastic box he stored upon his prized coffee table in the lounge room as a centrepiece for all guests to see. He said he had always since a small boy wanted his own carettu. When he passed away it was the only thing I asked for to now have in my kitchen where I spend a lot of my time each day, being a colourful inspirational memo of la Sicilia bedda to me – and of course my Dad.
I looked at my watch and realised my Uncle would be by now in his fruit and vegetable stall/shop. He would leave in his little Piaggio Ape truck in the wee hours of the morning way before any daylight and go to the markets to bid and buy produce for his roadside shop that he had not grown himself. He had his own large acreage with seedlings and a greenhouse with his own crops and some fruit trees. And in front of this land at the side of the road he had his selling point for his produce so passers by could buy fresh from him. My Uncle’s “shop” was not really a market stall so I couldn’t call it a “bancarella”. But it was too small to be a shop so I couldn’t call it that either. Let’s call it a cross between a stall and a shop say- a “stall-op”.
I gobbled my breakfast and raced down to say good morning to my Aunty and told her I was going to visit Zio. The sun was extra bright and the morning was another scorcher. I walked just 4 minutes to get to his “stall-op”. I wanted to spend some extra time with him today. I had been indulging in the beach, the restaurants, the shops, and tourist must experience such things but wanted to see more of my Dads brother. Unlike my Aunty (my dad’s sister) who spent a lot of time at home and wanted me with her most of the time, Zio was more like my Dad- have a good chat and then have a nice day- liking to have more space and giving me loads of independence.
Grotesquely yet bulging with red bread stainable joy, my eyes were fixed first thing on my Uncle’s collection of well grown tomatoes. These tomatoes are not just huge and round. They are grown in the local volcanic soil. The lava strewn soil is injected with special vitamins that make most things grow bigger, sweeter juicier and better. Is that why sometimes I feel like the spirit of local Sicilian people I met – including my family- are just so similarly to my Uncles produce well- bigger in heart, sweeter, juicier in character and for me, better than some people I have met in other places in the world- though there are indeed good and bad people everywhere.
Living under the constant watch of a cranky and unsettled volcano I believe makes the locals more in the moment, brave and more willing to live the best they can. My Uncle interrupted my love affair with his tomatoes with a wave to me to come in. And I had to in our little chat talk about the “organic” frenzy in my home country. “Organic” he said did exist, but it was not very common because, so many growers just didn’t need to use chemicals in the process of growing stuff. Then he opened a can of worms. The volcanic soil factor. He said the volcanic richness in the soil made it easier to grow them – that the things just grew so healthy and so fast. In his experience, he hadn’t used any pesticides or chemicals, so he didn’t understand the concept of separating normal produce in his stall from “organic” produce because it was volcanic organic – I have coined the term together “Volganic”. Growing in and around volcanic soil makes plants organic naturally. Apparently bugs don’t like the volcanic soil as much or something. More than that, I noted that there were so few bugs at all in my visit to Sicily that summer, not like in the “bugland” back home.
A lady came into the “stall-op” joining in our chat. “There is nothing like volcanically grown food” is how I understood her expressed phrase. She put a large lettuce, some peaches, grapes, onions, and carrots on the counter. Then she went and brought some tomatoes. My Uncle started bagging them and adding them up, weighing each item with such devoted concentration. “Is that everything Signora?”, he asked. She nodded. “€12 please” my Uncle pointed out. And then as she was about to get her money out she exclaimed “Ah! The fagioli!” She almost as it seemed to have raced to the green beans like a long-lost lover, to be reunited in her arms. She went to pay again and placed the beans on the scale. She started murmuring and muttering something under her breath. She went to get more tomatoes. “Good move they look tasty”, I thought to myself. But she went with the tomatoes to the counter and then paced the shop a little (there wasn’t much floor space to pace really) and added more…and then more and each time she added something and at this stage my Uncle while her back was turned rolled his eyes and heaved a heavy sigh as if to say, “this woman is driving me crazy”. Finally, she said “Ok finito. Questo è tutto.”
My Uncle told her the total to be paid and she started what I have come to call the “Volganic Bargaining” game. You act like Volcanic soil enriching the crops, convincing the vendor that you are a valuable customer and they need your purchase, so you can manipulate the vendor to seize your item of longing for the best price. There are certain steps to follow in this game as the buyer.
How much? After the seller tells you his first price you innocently ask him to repeat his price with a polite “how much?” To make them think you are not sure. Then when the seller confirms their set price again, you question the price given and compare it to other times you bought the same goods at a lower price.
“I’m sorry”, the lady buying half his shop said, I don’t think that is right”.
“No?” Questioned my Uncle.
“No”, she quickly answered, “It wasn’t this expensive the last time and I bought the same amount of things”.
The next step is to wait for the seller to start bargaining his original set price down or if they ask you what price you are willing to offer.
“You think I charged you too much?” My Zio argued. “How much do you have?” Zio reasoned.
Next step as a buyer. Be sure of the lowest price you are willing to set and then don’t budge.
“Just this note here. It’s good no?” the lady said with pleading eyes.
“Ok”, Zio replied with a sigh.
My cousin swiped past the content lady customer as she left the shop. “This lady giving you trouble hey” she smirked. “It’s okay” I teased, “She bought half the shop so there is only half produce left now to sell”.
Zio grinned – “she’s alright but a little err, you know- (he made signs with his finger swirling around his ear meaning she’s crazy)”.
“Come on, let’s go to the markets”, my cousin said dragging me away.
“Here”, my Uncle gestured and gave some money to my cousin, “Buy her something but make sure they don’t charge too much”.
“Of course”, my cousin assured him, “I’ll be with her don’t worry!”
Along the way in the car, my cousin explained that we were going to the markets where things were all very cheap. She said that all the sellers would see me coming and know I am a foreigner, so they would try to overcharge me. She said, “Leave the buying part to me and I will make sure you get what you want for a lowest price possible.” If I liked something she advised that I let her know with a code word. We agreed I would use the word “forse” to mean maybe in literal terms but in our code language it was to mean “I like it and want it.” Then she instructed me with these wise words:
“When you like something don’t show the seller that you like it. Pretend you haven’t decided yet. Even pretend that you are not interested at all. And then leave the rest to me.”
“Why?” I timidly asked, thinking she may think I am stupid for not understanding.
“If the person at the bancarella thinks you like his things even a little, he may think he can have better bargaining power and charge you more.” She has a lot of experience in bargaining, I thought to myself.
As soon as I got out of the car the senses in my whole body knew I was somewhere fun. I could hear traditional Sicilian folk music and smell charcoal smoke from the grill. The colours hit my eyes like paint on a canvas, but this was not an art gallery, but an exhibition made up of little tents and stalls – many of them made from a wooden cart on wheels with the brightly coloured umbrella like rooftops.
Walking through the line of bancarellas all shouting vendors could be heard saying “buy this” or “buy that” or “taste this”. My cousin grabbed my arm and linked hers in mine. “Fresh fish!” yelled one vendor and “Pears pears! Ripe and delicious and so cheap!” exclaimed another. We came to the clothing and I knew what I wanted. It was staring at me. A typical Italian leather jacket. “Ti piace?” She implored. “Forse”, I said trying to look like a snob and using the code word we said I would use. I really liked it and was screaming with delight inside secretly. The vendor sure enough came our way. He tried to speak to me, but my cousin (thank goodness) cut in and answered for me. “50 euros for that one, its real leather”, the vendor said. My cousin picked up the jacket and looked at it carefully, feeling the sleeves and looking at the underside. “Not bad, but we have seen jackets like this one in another place cheaper”, my cousin replied. “Cheaper, no you can’t be serious! I give you the best price”, the vendor insisted. “Thank you, but we will find a better one for a better price elsewhere. It’s only worth 35 euro”, my cousin debated. I was enjoying the show. She was good. “35 euro then”, the vendor said. “30”, my cousin said. “It’s yours!” the vendor hesitantly agreed. As soon as we were clear from the vendor’s ears I squealed with delight. “Grazie, cugina! You are too good! That was marvellous!” I cheered.
I couldn’t wait to get into my new Jacket and my jeans when I got back to my Uncle’s place, and just when I was getting changed I heard my Aunty shouting at me from downstairs. “Mareesa, come down you have a visitor!” I came outside to find a red Ferrari in the driveway. It was my cousin who had taken me to the markets with her husband, this time in their Ferrari. My cousin introduced me to her husband and we had some photos in front of his car. “How was your day?” he asked. “It was great. Your wife taught me quite a lot about bargaining”, I said playfully. “Oh, did she now”, he said glaring cheekily at his wife. “So, you must have used your bargaining skills too Mr, when purchasing this red beast”, I teased. He grimaced. His wife gave a good chuckle and my Aunty standing nearby asked my cousin to repeat what I said. My Aunty gave a short giggle too. “How much was it?” I asked him. He went a little serious and quiet before changing the subject. I feel a little embarrassed and that it was rude asking him how much his Ferrari was but really, it was a little funny because how would you seriously bargain for a brand-new Ferrari? And only “Volganic Bargaining” would do. The type that gets you a best price. Period.