hen I walk in, the sheer size is what dazzles me the most. The walls tower above me. The floor looks like it continues into the next town. Already petite among this race of relative giants, here, I feel completely dwarfed — not only by the people, but also by the monuments they build.
Not to mention disoriented.
Then I see it: the shampoo aisle. “Oh, Dad, right here,” I call, just so he doesn’t lose me again, and head over.
I’m visiting my father for the holidays. It’s my first time visiting the United States in a year. Missing friends and family aside, it didn’t feel like an inordinate amount of time; the seasons passed by in a blur.
Some things, though, remind me I’ve been gone for a while.
Like size. You’d think, being lucky enough to live a stone’s throw from the Coliseum, or passing by the monstrous Vittorio Emanuele monument every day, I’d get used to the bigness of things. And, somehow, I’m no longer surprised by the greed for space that’s marked Italy’s past empires (late 19th-century attempts included).
But put me in an average, run-of-the-mill CVS or grocery store in the United States? Even though I grew up buying blush and bread from large-scale chains, they now strike me. The variety! The options! The… size!
Italy, of course, has chains and big stores. And, unfortunately for the artisans and family-run locales so integral to Italy’s texture of life, it’s getting more of them all the time. Via del Corso, known (bizarrely) as the shopping street in Rome, is now a veritable slice of life-in-any-city-in-the-world — H&M, Zara, and even the (newly-arrived!) GAP all line up along its banks, like soldiers ready to take Rome into the age of globalization, enemy protests be damned.
Still, in the heart of Rome’s centro storico, even the city’s biggest department store remains smaller than your average American Whole Foods. The “big” grocery store near me has only four or five aisles.
And finding a pharmacy, or beauty-products store, that’s anything like what you have back home? Impossible. Pharmacies are pharmacies: Small, surprisingly-intimate spaces (I usually know more about the ailments of the person in front of me in line than I’d like) where a white-coated pharmacist or two takes prescriptions or issues their own advice. Yes, you can buy dental floss or moisturizer there, but don’t be picky; options are limited, and prices high. Beauty products are sold mainly at a couple of higher-end stores or department stores.
When a friend recently told me about a place in the centro that had everything you could possibly need for hair-it’s where, she said, salons go to get their products-I couldn’t get over it. The no-name store was like a cave of wonders, if wonders came in the form of brushes, shampoos, glosses, shines, dyes, mousses, conditioners, and hair masks. I’d never seen anything like it in Italy. Never one to even be very precious about my hair (unfortunately for my hairstylist), even I had to cut myself off from going overboard.
The entire store could have fit in one aisle of the CVS in my dad’s town.
In some ways, being surrounded by so much variety reminds me how simply convenient it is — and how much I miss it. Being able to choose between 40 different shampoos, or 30 kinds of cereal? I never noticed it while growing up, but that’s truly extraordinary. And extravagant. And excessive.
But, in a way, almost falsely so. I have to remind myself that there’s not actually that much choice in these aisles: All of these products are produced by the same three or four corporations. That’s easy to forget when you’re facing such a plethora of packaging, each color and shape and snappy description declaring how very different this product is from the rest.
After I get what I need (something that follows 20 minutes of hemming and hawing over which of a million products I do actually need), my dad and I go to lunch. “Folks, sit anywhere you like!” a young man chirps at us.
We’ve barely crossed the café’s threshold. We sit; within 15 seconds, two menus are not thrown down, not plopped with a grunt, but placed carefully in front of us. I’m almost afraid to lift my gaze to meet the dazzling smile of our waiter. “How are you folks doing today?”
“Uh, great. Thanks,” I say, realizing I’ve grown unused to this chitchat.
“I’m so glad to hear that! Can I get you both your drinks? What would you like today?” “I’ll have, um, an iced tea,” I say.
“Great! Thanks so much!” the waiter beams. It seems to be genuinely the best news he’s heard all day.
As he walks away, I look at my dad, who seems unperturbed. “Thanks so much?” I say, under my breath. “Really? Don’t we thank him?” My father just chuckles.
Oh, right. It’s a service culture. That’s what happens here.
That’s when I realize: I spend a lot of time thinking about how “different” Italy is. But here’s the thing.
America? I never knew this about you when we spent the vast majority of my life together. But, in a lot of ways, you might be even stranger.