One of the best lessons I’ve learned living here is: watch where the crowds go. And I don’t mean crowds of tourists, although this can help you know where NOT to go.
Every crowd tells you something different. I follow the students when I want a quick eat that will be cheap. I follow the housewives to find the merchant with the bargain. And, I follow the older ladies to know where the really good items, the ones worth waiting for, are sold. Since many of them have a lot of time on their hands, they are willing to brave the lines and waits to get the best.
I do an entirely different form of window shopping than I used to. I like to be the observer, especially in new areas. I feel a sense of victory when I find a new bakery, a store selling every color of scarf imaginable, another with the brand of “this” I have been looking for.
So, I look all around, and at everybody. How many people are going in and out the door? How often? Are they carrying a bag from that store? How many people are inside? What kind of people? Usually these things are more telling than actually looking at the goods themselves. Most cookies look appetizing in the window of a bakery. Throw in a little yeast smell and most (hungry) people will buy something once. But it has to be good for them to be coming back.
And you can tell who the repeat buyers are. They are not browsers. They are focused, usually steadily watching the servers, and anxiously waiting for their turn to rattle off a shopping list they’ve been working on since the last visit.
This type of observation takes a particularly nosey person, which I manage to handle (no comments from the peanut gallery). When I have time on my hands and don’t have a train to catch, I allow myself to relax, meander and really watch what other people are doing.
One day, walking around the local market in Pavia, I noticed a substantial line in front of one of the food carts. A cheese cart. There were three people working the small cart, so I knew the line wasn’t for lack of service. I took a look at the demographics – older women with full shopping bags. I stepped closer. Was there something they were all buying? I watched person after person order 4-5 different cheeses in abundant quantities and the workers continually being sent back to the big wheel of Gran Padano to pile the shavings into small plastic containers.
As I mentioned in a previous post, fresh-shaved ribbons of Gran Padano are one of the best gifts on Earth. I couldn’t help myself and as my observing moved me to the front of the line, I ordered a “container” (scatola) of Grana as I felt it best to let him fill it as he saw fit. It was only a few etti (an “etto” is 100g, a standard measurement in the metric system) and to my surprise, quite cheap, a little above