When I lived in Rome, my husband and I did much of our weekly shopping on Saturdays. We often began at a stand set up on the sidewalk near our apartment, where an old woman sat on a stool trimming artichokes while her husband helped shoppers select the freshest tomatoes. But once a month we trekked to the covered market in Testaccio, a working-class area full of traditional Roman restaurants because it was located near the slaughterhouse where organ meats were inexpensive. The complex is now an arts center but still maintains the disconcerting statue of a bull meeting his end looming over the main gate. The neighborhood is named for Monte Testaccio, a 100-foot-high terraced hill made of broken amphorae that originally contained oil, wheat and other commodities imported to ancient Rome. The newest additions to the pile are dated to AD 140.
The market, open to the breeze, was so much more appealing than looking at goods neatly arranged in a cavernous supermarket with deadening fluorescent lights and dearth of human interaction. Wandering past merchants calling me to look at their produce — along with fish, meat, pasta, cheese and piles of useless trinkets for our apartment — took my mind back into history, to visualize an ancient Roman housewife being harangued by vendors as she picked over the grapes and bargained for fish and figs. No tomatoes, squash, coffee or chocolate for her but still a cornucopia of delights filled the stalls.
After my food shopping was finished, I could not resist heading to the shoe stalls along one side of the city block. They were a gold mine because they sold the previous year’s styles or overruns for bargain prices. I thought that shoes were a peculiar inclusion in a food market until I recognized that they were a staple as important as pasta and vegetables since the dawn of Italian history. One memorable fresco in a museum in southern Italy depicts Venus wearing a pearl necklace, red shoes and nothing else. It was probably painted around the 5th century BC but it was easy to visualize a more modern Roman mistress in the same attire. Studying the variety of sandals on Roman statues could take a lifetime. Romans could buy shoes during the Second World War when Italian troops were fighting in snow without boots. Even a recent pope was concerned with shoe styles, favoring red ones like ancient emperors.
Following long-standing tradition of being shoe-proud, I often left the market with a pair or two of shoes along with zucchini. But like looking over the vegetables before buying, I learned that it is best to curb one’s enthusiasm after a catastrophe. I found a splendid pair of bright blue leather and black patent high heels and snapped them up after trying on the right one. I paid while the vendor placed the mate in the box and handed it over. When we returned home I tried them on only to find that one had a black sole and square toe and the other a light-colored sole and round toe. Maybe someone scrounged them from the garbage can after they landed there that afternoon. “Buyer beware” as the ancient Romans said.
As an offshoot of EPIC’s Monday morning writing sessions held at the Edmonds library, the EPIC Group Travel Writers meet at Savvy Traveler once a month. Participants of this fluid group love to travel and write stories about their journeys. You are invited to attend on the second Wednesday of the month from 3:30-5 p.m. Free to members and non-members of EPIC Group Writers.