Shopping in Rome, Florence, Venice, Italy: Etiquette You Need To Know About European Shops

Shopping in Rome, (well in most of Europe) there are different social norms and customs that patrons are expected to know.  In the United States, people paw the merchandise, carry it around and then usually leave it somewhere it doesn’t belong.

This. Does Not. Happen. In. Italy.

Entering into a shop is like entering into someone’s home.  (While the larger mall like stores are more lax in this custom, for this article, I am addressing the small shops.)  When you enter into someone’s home, you immediately greet them.  This is expected in an Italian shop as well.

Vendors are ready to wait on you.  They want to serve and they are attentive.  When you walk in, say, “buon giorno” and smile.  They will greet you as well and may ask something along the lines of “Che cose’?”  This means loosely, “what would you like?”   It is expected that you do not touch the wares. Italians are very meticulous in their belongings and they frown upon the idea of someone else trying it on and touching it. In fact, if you are choosing to try it on, it is almost an unspoken expectation that you plan to purchase said garment.

Wha?????  How do I know I like it?  How do I know it will fit?  Trust me.  The salesperson will have sized you up correctly the moment you darkened their doorstep.  They will know precisely what size you need.  (An aside here is it may not be the size you want.  Sorry.  Their sizes are different anyway, so it doesn’t matter.)

If you are looking for a particular color, they will be happy to help.  When you walk into a shop, the first thing you may notice is that it is very sparse.  There may be one or two mannequins dressed in an ensemble, but that will be it.  The wall are usually lined with drawers or doors that host the goods.  Italians do not like to be overwhelmed with too much at once.  Much in the way they prefer their meals to be presented in unadorned sequence, they use the same principles for clothing stores.

You may like the scarf or the skirt on the mannequins so you can point to it and say, “Lo mi piace.”  This means “I like it.”  Suddenly, before  your very eyes, there will appear a bevy of this particular skirt or scarf or shirt in an array of colors and patterns and sizes.

If there is a certain color you are looking for, it would be a good idea to learn how to say it in Italian. (Most of the shops are housed with salespeople who can in fact, speak English, but they are so happy and proud of you when you attempt the native language, it’s adorable.)

Once you have decided what you will purchase, you can say something like, “Lo prendo.”  This means, “I’ll take it.”  This is the best part.  The salesperson will whirl you up to the cash register and prepare your new belongings for their journey home.  They use tissue wraps and ribbons and beautiful reusable bags with zippers.  It is a treat in itself to watch them.  The excitement overtakes you as you make your lovely purchase.

Try and maintain your dignity when you leave.  At least go around the corner before you begin squealing in delight.  Once, I purchased a scarf (well I made my husband purchase a scarf for me) on the via Condotti and I was so proud of myself for not tearing the package open and rolling around the streets on my new treasure.  That kind of behavior is an entirely different article.

 

Siena: A Shopping Secret

Siena: Neighborhood flag guarding its territory
Window sills overlooking Siena

Window sills overlooking Siena

Siena is The Quintessential Medieval City.  Shouldered between Florence and Rome, she is the quiet, elegant sister who needs no introduction.  Each year, thousands of people shimmy themselves into her walls to get a glimpse at the famous horse race, Il Palio.  Two days a year, July 2nd and August 16th, she is like a rock star, and then the rest of the year, she is a monarch, perched upon her hilly throne, regal and beautiful.  She beckons you to discover her secrets, because once you think you have discovered her, there is something else that you never knew.  Each alleyway brings you to an entirely new section of the town.  At once, it is crowded and deserted.  There are times when you literally will not see another soul.

Window display in Siena

Window display in Siena

This is when you are able to find the most unique Things To Buy.  On the Via Della Sapienza, there is a tiny little wine shop, La Cantina Del Brunello.  It sells the most amazing…

 

Cycling Jerseys.

It’s true.  You would never expect to see this, but there it is.  The jerseys have the Gallo Nero (Black Rooster) on them, indicating a true Chianti.

If you are a cycling fan, then Italy is your long lost home.  If you are a wine lover, well, Italy is your long lost home, too.  So there we were, a cyclist and a wine lover.  We had to go in.  The most adorable, quintessential little old Italian man was at the register.  We greeted him, (remember what I said about shopping in Italy.)  He was about 5 feet even.  My husband is 6’3″.  As this beautiful man flitted about him like a tiny bird trying to find the correct size jersey, my husband begged me not to take his picture.  I obliged him out of love, but can I tell you, it was a spectacular moment.  We had found The Most Beautiful Cycling Jersey….in a wine shop!

The man spoke very little English, but we knew from his mumbling that he could not find an XL.  His face lit up as he lifted his finger to us, and took the jersey right off the mannequin.  We purchased the jersey, of course, but honestly, I can’t remember if we even bought any wine.  He was so gracious and kind to this oversized giant American with a heart for cycling as big as his own.  He smiled and smiled  and took both of my hands.  Then he offered us some olive oil in tiny precious bottles.  “Un assaggio” he advised me.  (A taste.)  We took the tiny bottle with us and savored it with some bread after we had returned home to the States.  Long after the olive oil was gone, the memory is still so rich.

That’s the way it is window shopping in Siena.  You feel as if you are browsing for a new long lost friend.  They are so gracious, and they are thrilled when you try to speak a bit of Italian to them.  You feel comfortable trying because they are so encouraging and delighted.  It’s like taking your first steps or something the way they cheer you on with each phrase.  Of course, some things cross language barriers; handshakes and smiles, of course, but eye contact, and knowing that “Il Campionissimo”  was Fausto Coppi.  If you are a cycling lover, you know what I’m talking about.

Neighborhood flag guarding its territory

Neighborhood flag guarding its territory

 

The Basilica of San Domenico and Saint Catherine of Siena

Basilica of San Domenico with the head of Saint Catherine of Siena

Basilica of San Domenico with the head of Saint Catherine of Siena

One of the major draws of Siena is the church that houses the head of Saint Catherine of Siena.  She is a patron saint of Italy, a patroness of Europe, and she is one of a handful of women who were named Doctors of the Catholic Church. (Saint Therese of Lisieux and Saint Teresa of Avila are two others.)

It’s confusing when you are walking through the city because there is a magnificent basilica made in pink, blue and white marble.  It is spectacular and breath taking.  It’s the Duomo of Siena.

That’s not it.

If you ask someone where St. Catherine’s church is, you will become more confused.  They will answer, “Domenico” because they are being helpful.  However, my Italian is not fantastic, so when I was listening for  “Caterina” all I heard was “Domenica.”  This word means Sunday.  Wha???  Is it closed?  Do we wait until Sunday?

This is where it pays to do your homework, my babies.  The Church WITH Saint Catherine is The Basilica of San Domenico.  Oooohh.  That’s why I can’t find it. Via Campo Regio is the nearest street.  While it is sometimes called, “Cateriniana” this Gothic church was built starting sometime around 1226.  Saint Catherine did not die until April 29, 1380, and it was some time after that her head was returned to Siena.

So.  In order to view the head of this amazing woman, you need to say, “Dove’ Basilica di San Domenico.”  Like all of the roads in Italy, they tease you into insanity.  Via Campo Regio.  Say it with me, now!  It’s confusing and nothing seems to go straight left or right.  The roads kind of bump up against a building and then vanish into a piazza.  This road is the closest to the building, but if you try and put the church into a GPS it will tell you “Piazza San Domenico.”

Whew, you made it!!!  An aside.  Before you go in, there’s always a bunch of vendors nearby selling beautiful scarves.  You won’t know you need it until you see it.  The dress code here requires arms and legs covered so you can rationalize buying said scarf.

It is here that one can find the side altar, Cappelle della Volte, which is the melodious Italian name for The Chapel of the Head (Face.)  Ever the macabre ones, the Italians managed to smuggle her head out of Rome and return her to her home town.  They could only get the head….and a thumb.

The rest of her is buried in Santa Maria Sopra Minerva.  This is Italian for Saint Mary’s Over Minerva.  When the Roman Empire converted to Christianity under Constantine, the Roman gods, well, were ruined.  They put Saint Mary’s OVER Minerva.  That’s what “sopra” means, above, on top of,that sort of thing. (That’s another church for another day.)

In this beautiful church, you can feel a tangible connection to Catherine.  This woman overcame sickness and death, marriage and heartache to become one of the greatest vessels the world has known to carry The Gospel.