If you are going out to shop, you will have to make a decision; stay in town where the shops are smallish and local, or head out to the big city where some supermarkets are so large that their workers get around on roller skates. You may save money at the big box centers, but you will have to calculate the gas and the aggravation. Keep in mind that I am talking about my small area of Italy, and of course Rome, Milan, and even Bari are probably a different matter.
I have never figured out why many items cost what they do. Plastics, everyday items such as washing basins, all manner of molded colorful utensils are incredibly cheap when compared to typical American prices. Someone wrote a song once about Italian Plastic, maybe this is what was meant. Some of the most beautiful laundry baskets, lawn furniture, and kitchen utensils I have ever seen anywhere are here. Why plastic should be so cheap and gasoline so expensive, well, it tells a story about how easily prices can be manipulated.
Bathroom rugs are incredibly expensive. They are ratty and badly-made, ready to fall apart at the first washing, and yet they are costly. Things like band aids, hair bands, brushes, demitasse cups, faucets, door knobs, office supplies, insect repellent, and lamps are all incredibly expensive. Why is this? There are two levels of commerce, the very nice (places where I will not easily be found) and the kind of crappy. It is either custom-made-to-order bookshelves or shrink-wrapped and assembly-required. There really is no middle ground of decent quality and modest price. There is a third option, the market on designated weekdays, which is made up of traveling vans which set up and then leave in the course of the morning. But if you don’t know how to haggle and bluff, or if you have a face like mine, blond and foreign, this might cost you dearly.
In the past few years one area which has benefited greatly from the influx of foreign-made merchandise is doors. The doors which were so lovingly made for our house twenty years ago, no two exactly alike, cost about four hundred dollars each. I can remember having to sit down when I heard what our modest (compared to other houses) component of seven doors would cost. Now you can get very nice doors and frames for about seventy five dollars if you look in the right place. They are made in neighboring countries to the East, and they are now in every new house and building. Walking into a charming old remodeled house and seeing these doors can be disconcerting. It creates the same feeling of melancholy that peeking at a kitchen in, say, Japan produces. You see your exact chairs and table, cutlery and clock, and you understand that we have paid with our identity for our Ikea world, where everyone can choose the same items. And they do, because they are so irresistibly cheap.
However, there are some bargains! Wine flows and flavors most meals at negligible expense. When I first came here there was a Cantina Sociale where you could buy red, white, or rose–these were the categories–by the case. Twelve full bottles for about seventy five cents each. Many areas still boast their wine cooperatives, which is what these are, where all the farmers can pool their grapes with generic but decent results. Unfortunately our cantina sociale is a thing of the past, a victim of in-fighting, location, and the boutique wine industry. But lest you should be forced to stay sober, you can pick up all manner of hard liquors at your local supermarkets. A bottle of Russian vodka will set you back about five dollars and a decent single malt whiskey, imported from Scotland, will cost no more than about nine dollars.
Do you want to buy a nice carpet? It might be very expensive. There are a few televised infomercial sellers who have been around for many years, and one can only assume they do sell their Iranian and Indian-made rugs to someone. From what I have seen, they are four times as expensive as the equivalent in the US, and nowhere near as attractive. Even in high-end shops offering antique hand-woven carpets, red and blue are the colors offered. Unless of course you prefer blue and red. Tradition is a powerful beast.
Strangely, it would seem that television has cornered the market on art sales. All those channels at the high end of the dial, presenting their line-ups of paintings by “quoted” artists, and will they constitute a bargain? Not hardly. I have seen pieces offered, horrendous kitsch and pitifully awkward abstracts, for upwards of fifty thousand dollars. The median price will be high, and never are there pieces of original art offered for less than a month’s salary. Sadly, while purchases are being made in this fashion, galleries are gasping for sales with no hope in sight. So I always wonder, who can be buying this art? Are they satisfied when the pieces are delivered and displayed? Who in their right mind would happen on a station, some afternoon with nothing better to do, and telephone to order a fifty-thousand dollar painting, plus shipping?
Everyone here complains about the inexorable advance of the Chinese in all commercial areas. But there is an almost total disconnect when it comes to consumer behavior, and if anything at all can be had at a cheaper price, then it will be had. Every small town has its storefronts with those red Chinese lanterns hanging out front, popping out like mushrooms after a rain. They are a regular stop on everyone’s shopping trip, mainly to see if that item seen down the street can be bought at a cheaper price. Usually a cheap imitation can be, and so another Italian shoe factory, fabric weaver, button-maker, or small local shop continues its decline into bankruptcy. Yet some hyper-protected areas of national pride are still safe, such as cheeses and olive oil, but you will be well-advised to read the label before you buy. There are always alternatives to the real thing for the unwary.
Today, March 12, 2012, gasoline is going to cost you almost exactly ten dollars a gallon. As far as I see it gas prices are a lot like skin; they both have the capacity to expand almost indefinitely. Over-eaters and drivers have to adjust their intake in order to cope. My car, a relative gas-guzzler at 27 MPG, is used only when absolutely needed for hauling a trailer or lots of friends. After all, there is another solution to high fuel consumption: drive less. In a small town in Italy, this is still possible. I might note, however, that even at this price, the roads are still packed with cars. Sometimes the very thing that we think can be manipulated with pricing will cause unexpected results. Cars are still swarming over the roads, while local economies are suffering the slow death caused by shoppers going elsewhere. In their cars. There is a lesson there somewhere.
“Conspicuous Consumption” mixed media on paper, 2005