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Living Slow in Italy - A Pain in the Pants

Valerie Schneider

While living in Italy can be stimulating and fulfilling, there are many adjustments expats must make when residing in a foreign country. Little tribulations arise daily to remind you that you are no longer in your comfort zone.

To be sure, bureaucracy is one of those situations. Infamous lines, impolite employees, miscommunication, and misdirection of required paperwork are just a few of the challenges we must face on a regular basis in order to maintain our legal status of residing here. Trying to locate the little unmarked shops that are necessary for certain goods and services is another example. Just how are you supposed to know that the nondescript door to a small stone-hewn room tucked away in a narrow alley is where you find the shoe repair shop, for instance. Or that the only place you can purchase red thread is at a stall at the Saturday market, but whose exact stall location changes weekly. These are some of the little hurdles of daily life that the sunny armchair memoirs don't tell you about.

But the greatest challenge I have faced, Post Awful procedures notwithstanding, is shopping. More specifically - as almost any female expat will agree - the near-impossibility of locating a decent pair of pants. Finding some that will fit my frame takes on momentous proportions akin to a big game hunt. While many visitors love the prospect of trolling the designer stores, shopping on vacation and shopping from necessity are two very different beasts.

It must be said that I have never been a big shopper. The old adage "shop 'til you drop" makes me answer, "Why the hell would I want to do that?" I don't have the stamina for it, don't enjoy the hunt, and despise the atmosphere and eye-aching lighting of malls. Here, where shops still line actual streets sprinkled with nice cafes and gelaterie, I can tolerate the experience a little longer but the end result of frustration and deflated ego remain the same. Because, it is an unfortunate truth that a hunt of this magnitude must always end in disappointment. So elusive are the coveted Affordable Pants That Fit, that they could be entered onto the endangered species list.

Affordable being an operative word here. I am sorry to say that I am not one of those women who have the wherewithal and lack of anything better to do with their funds than toss down €500 for one clothing item. Even if I had the financial ability, my conscience wouldn't allow it. There are high end boutiques here in Ascoli with lovely window displays that change nearly weekly. You know a boutique is high end when they rotate the featured goods that frequently. You know it is way out of your reach when they cover the glass to obscure your view while they doll up the mannequins. Signs declaring that they are preparing to soon unveil the very latest must-have duds exclusively for you create a sort of anticipation among the passersby who strain to try to see around the coverings and who will pass that way daily waiting for the grand appearance of new, outrageously expensive and often outlandishly hideous fashions. But "fashion" is not always synonymous with "taste".

These stores discourage the likes of us from entering. One time I dared such an act of folly as passing the threshold into a dark-wood interior where the floors were strewn with Persian rugs and the clothing racks amounted to three total, with about ten items of clothing on each. Minimalism means mucho moola. Mirrors that were lit just perfectly to hide imperfections lined an entire wall so every client primped and admired herself for every moment of her shopping experience. I realized my error immediately; I tried to casually peruse the barren racks but let's face it, there wasn't much to look at and the clerk had me pegged from the get-go. She eyed me with a long up-and-down and a look of near-disgust on her face. No greeting and no farewell; she was obviously relieved when I stopped sullying the place with my unfashionable presence. Even if these stores were more affordably priced, I couldn't really shop there as their merchandise seems almost always geared towards either the Old Lady or The Tramp.

So what about the rest of us? Well, I have been told, the masses shop in the mercato. The weekly market where one can find all manner of goods, such as prosciutto, porchetta, pashminas and even pants. I staked out the piazzas. I stalked among the racks and tables, elbowing my way in like the locals. I drew the line at yanking the clothes of others' hands, but no such scruples were displayed to me. Just as I began to hold up a pair to assess the size and material, a lady grabbed them and walked along the table clutching them to her chest. She waited until she was a safe distance away to look them over and then chuck them back to the table from whence they came. Cut-throat shopping, those mercati.

If you do happen to find something to your liking, the next issue is, does it fit? Holding it up against you only goes so far. Is the rise really high enough? Will they be able to make it over the bum? To try them on you are shoved unceremoniously into the back of the vendor's van and plunged into darkness when he slams the door behind you. Left to feel like you're about to be the victim of a kidnapping makes you forget about the stinkin' pants. Once you've managed to shimmy into them (or not, depending on how poorly you've misjudged the size) you must fumble to open the door to assess your image in the wavy mirror propped up behind the driver's seat. The mirrors always make things look bigger than they actually are and your ego shrivels in proportion. Then you heave shut the door and extricate yourself from the offending product.

Despite this experience, the market does a brisk business in clothing sales because they are inexpensive. Since the vendors line the streets and piazzas all grouped together, the hunt is fairly easy but the result is sort of like road-kill. Cheap they may be, but they are also mostly chintzy synthetic fabrics, many of which feel downright oily when rubbed between the fingers, belying the base product that is used in their manufacture. They are also almost exclusively made in China, so the cheap goods come at a high cost morally when you factor in the sweat-shop factor.

Then there is the real matter - Italian sizes. Jeans are cut for 12-year olds without hips, thighs, or hineys. Average, normal women cannot fit into them. A friend who is so skinny she is practically flat doesn't understand my laments. "Try Blah-Blah store," she will say. And then "Blah-Blah" turns out to carry only clothing that would be a size 0 in the US. While I've seen a lot of very slender Italians, the majority of them have curves. Like the rest of us. So where do they find jeans that fit? Seriously. Where? It must be in one of the mysterious, unmarked stores that I haven't yet been allowed to discover.

Thusly, I had pretty much given up on the prospect of replacing my threadbare trousers, thinking I'd need to make a trip "back home" to find some sensible sizes. But my washing machine turned suddenly evil, devouring for no apparent reason several garments. The little monster singled me out for its anger, as Bryan's clothes were completely unscathed. Things turned desperate.

We decided to make a trip to Rome, where at least there would be choice if not bargains. A shopping street near the Vatican seemed promising, a friend assuring me that I would certainly find something at a semi-decent price. Bryan, bless his heart, kept up the encouragement as we chased the elusive prey. He played the spotter, scanning windows to determine the price ranges ("this one is dangerous, retreat!") and holding my purse while I tried on a discouraging number of flops. I was ready to call it quits. "Let's just finish up this side of the street," said the chipper voice of my husband. You really know you desperately need new clothes when your husband is urging you to continue shopping!

It was raining; I feel feeling soggy and frumpy and I was seriously questioning the sanity of this entire affair and wanting to go back to the hotel when Bryan stopped short in front of a store with business-casual wear displayed. Some pretty nice stuff, actually. Could be dressed up or worn casually, too. Just as I was eying an outfit trying to decide if I had the strength to even ask about it, my hunting partner shoves me into the store where a clerk quickly approaches and looks me up and down. But this was not a judgmental stare; she stated a number and I realized that she had taken one quick glance at me and correctly assessed my size. Off she went with Bruno, my suddenly-Italian husband, to pick out slacks. Meanwhile I became smitten with a pretty jacket that casts off a coppery hue.

The clerk and Bruno return as best friends. She hands me a single pair of pants and orders me to put them on. While I'm changing she's outside the door chatting with Bryan and singing out, "Valeria! Vieni! We want to see you!" Out I emerge with a look elated surprise on my face; I was good and really shocked to find that they fit. Well, except for the length. In Italy, trousers are never hemmed. Naturally, I would be buying them, but had no indication yet of how much they'd set me back. The clerk proudly told me they were made in Italy. "See, they're perfect." Yes. Amazing. But she wasn't done. Snatching up a blazer she glided it onto my arm while fussing with the collar of my shirt, arranging the blouse and blazer skillfully to create a little ensemble. "Guarda Bruno! Che bella!" He was sold on her and them both. He trotted off in search of another pair he'd seen in the window. Surreal! Could this really be my husband? Shopping? And getting into it, no less!

The second pair fit well, too. Well-made right here in Italy, well-cut, and with actual service to boot. I gulped and asked the price, bracing myself. They were so well-priced I nearly collapsed. The clouds parted and angels sang. I nearly teared up. It seemed nothing short of miraculous. I threw in the coppery jacket for good measure and marched out into the rain with my prize bagged and a sense of real victory, Bruno swaggering proudly at my side.

Jeans continue to be elusive. They are shy creatures, but the success in this outing has given me confidence that they do, in fact, exist and that I just may track them down yet. I think the secret is in the method; I need only expand my hunting grounds and take along my trusty spotter.


Italian Fashion

Valerie Schneider is a freelance writer, who lived in New Mexico for twenty years before trading the high desert for the medieval hill towns of Italy in May, 2006. She is a regular contributor to Slow Travel, pens travel agency newsletters, and has written for Arthur Frommer’s Budget Travel. She and her husband, Bryan, currently reside in Ascoli Piceno where they conduct small-group tours called Panorama Italy. Read more on her blog, 2 Baci in a Pinon Tree. See Valerie's Slow Travel Member page.

© Valerie Schneider, 2007

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