Italian version English version
Friday night was set aside for shopping at the supermarket.
As soon as the family had finished dinner and the table was clear, the housewife would take the shopping list that she had prepared the night before and would look in the cupboard one last time to make sure that everything she needed was already on the list. Then she would open her purse to make sure she had all the coupons for the specials. My aunt had a thing for coupons, or “cuponi” as she used to call them, which were cut out from the store ads in the newspapers. The day the paper was out, she would spread open the newspaper on the kitchen table, check the coupons one by one and then decide which products she would buy with them. If one coupon was more convenient than another, she would cut it out immediately and put it aside to go shopping with it; even if the coupon was for something that, ordinarily, she would have never bought in million years, the fact that she would save money was enough to make that product worth buying!
If there was more than one coupon for the same product, but only one per family could be used, she would give one to me. At that point, it became my job to do that part of the shopping so that I could use the coupon she had given me. As a matter of fact, getting the most out of the coupons as possible had become a ritual, or maybe I should say a game, between her and the sellers. My aunt knew every possible way to sa
and the sellers. My aunt knew every possible way to save money. When she was at the checkout, she would say that she had forgotten the coupon at home, but despite that, she would fight to pay the discount price and the majority of the times they would allow her to.
Then, often, a few days later she would come back with the “allegedly-forgotten” coupon and she wanted another discount. My aunt had become an expert in using the coupons.
Those were the first years of supermarkets and there was no automated, electronic system like there is today.
Today it would be impossible to do this, since coupons are all scanned and deleted once you use them.
When I went shopping with my aunt, I had to push the cart. My uncle Tony would drive us, leave us there and then would come back to pick us up after a while.
The shopping cart, like the supermarket, was something new and we, who had just recently arrived in America, were absolutely unfamiliar with it.
We were trying to get along as best as we could in this strange and different world.
It wasn't always easy to adopt new habits and customs; we were still bound to what had been for us a simple and normal world, and that was nothing like the new land. Now we had Leone Di Porto, which was stocked with everything you could think of, but we didn’t even have a clue as to what a supermarket was back then.
Our community, which was made up mainly of farmers, was not preoccupied with a strict schedule. In the village, if you needed something, you went to the shop and bought it with the little money the women had in their aprons. The old 1000 Lira bill, the one that was as big as a handkerchief, was usually covetously kept inside the girdle. Of course, you had to be one of the few lucky ones to possess one to hide it there in the first place. The others who didn't have change in their pockets or a 1000 Lira bill hidden in their chest would only buy the things that were absolutely necessary to survive. I can't remember a discount or a coupon at the shops in the village; however, they would give credit based only on the hope that one day maybe…their clients would have had the money to pay. There was more than one shop and every one had its specific customers.
The products were displayed in big boxes and in windows that were not always clean.
The owner of the shop would get the products you were interested in and weigh them wrapped in a piece of paper; the housewife would then take them home carrying them in her hands or wrapped in her apron. We didn't know what a cart was and we didn't need one.
Between the two worlds, the one we had left and the one we were in now, there were huge social and environmental differences that were often in contrast. It was as if we had come down from a mountain into a valley, and then as if we had to claw our way up another mountain scrabbling with our hands and our feet to reach the top. The top was getting used to the new culture; accepting it and applying it to our daily life.
Accepting it: this was the hard part.
Accepting it felt as if we were giving up or almost betraying our origins.
As much as we, the younger generation, wanted to get settled and be “Americans”, there were always those innate, deep feelings that were hard to ignore.
When they gave me the cart and asked me to push it, I used to complain all the time and I would say I didn't want to do it, hoping that someone else would do it for me. I would have wanted to just say no because of how much it bothered me. It reminded me of the cart of the road sweeper of the village, with its rusted wheel that squeaked when he pushed it onto the mown field. That strident squeak was completely in contrast with the whistling and singing of the sweeper. He would stop and sweep with his broom made of branches and brambles tied to a stick. After he was done, he would start walking and whistling again.
Unfortunately, pushing the cart and following my aunt around among the aisles of the big store had become my job. No, I wouldn't have whistled or sung while I pushed, but many times I pushed it too hard (on purpose) against the heels of the person who was in front of me, slamming them against the shelves. My aunt thought I wasn't paying attention and didn't know where I was going, and would warn me to be more careful.
The supermarket was full of a great variety of products and food; everything was lined up on clean shelves and there wasn't even the shadow of a fly. The shelves were full of every type of fruit in both summer and winter. It was great to stop and choose the best fruits and vegetables for yourself. You could take it, turn it around in your hands, feel it and then put it back to choose one that was better. This was the normal way of doing things.
It was completely different back in the village; the few that had the luxury of buying fruit and vegetables had to ask the seller to get the amount that they wanted. He made the choice, weighed it and gave it to the customer. Only after you took it home, could you realize that he had also given you fruit that was almost rotten.
Paying at the supermarket was very interesting.
They had electronic calculators with a glass window and when the clerk pushed on the buttons, the price appeared in the window, which could be checked carefully by the customer. After everything was done, we would load the full bags into the car and go home. The Friday night routine was over….almost.
When we would get back home, I noticed that everyone who was sitting at the kitchen table would quickly get up and go into another room. How discreet they were, I thought; they go into another room to make it easier for us to put the groceries away. But I was wrong. They, the men, moved away from the kitchen to avoid being forced to do calculations again. Aunt Giovannina, who was always very careful with expenses and who always thought that even with electronic calculators calculations could have been wrong, would add everything up again with a pencil.
So, the procedure was to empty one bag at a time on the table before putting the stuff away. Then my aunt would take the receipt and with a pencil checked the prices while I read the ones that were on the items. If everything was ok, that is if the price on the receipt was the same as the one that I had read on the products, then we could put the groceries away in the cabinets. If we found a mistake of even 25 cents, then we would take everything back to re-do the calculations. The check outs were often more precise than we were and usually they didn't find any mistakes, but sometimes they did and they would give us back even 10 cents. For my aunt, it was a personal triumph to prove that she was better at math than an electronic calculator; not only that, but maybe she could also make 25 cents.
When I would help her re-do the calculations and count every single cent, I would think about my grandmother Rosa who would always go around adding and subtracting in her head.
Grandma, however, even though she was a genius at doing calculations, didn't know how to write and did everything on her fingers and in her head; and she was always right.
Maybe my aunt had inherited that gift (?) from her mother.
Delia Socci Skidmore