It’s market day in Siena. Every Wednesday the area surrounding the park at Fortezza becomes the social, commercial and culinary center of this medieval Tuscan town. Juxtaposed next to the massive stone walls of the ancient fort, hundreds of awnings rise and spread in the early morning darkness.
Rain or shine, merchants of every sort set out their wares, flea market style. In this section there may be purses, shoes and other leather goods. Tablecloths over here and garden tools over there. Clothing vendors provide makeshift dressing rooms with full length mirrors tipped precariously against nearby boulders or trees. Women pour over tables with massive piles of coats, shirts, T-shirts and even bras and underwear. At one end, food sellers offer prepared foods, produce, herbs, meat and fish. My favorite, the ancient man who sells honey of every sort imaginable, wraps the precious jars in sheets torn from old phone books, slowly, carefully creasing the paper around the glass with his thick fingers.
I’ve come to the market this morning to look for a birthday gift for Costanza, the grand niece of my Sienese sweetheart. But truthfully, I would have come without any real reason at all. I love the mercado. It is early April and the weather has been stubborn about warming. Today’s sunshine has brought out both tourists and locals…we are elbow to elbow in the narrow aisles. The pace is a slow shuffle. Older italian men wander and watch with their hands clasped comfortably behind their backs. Young women with little ones balance their bags and their babies on their hips while searching for bargains. Older women shop in pairs or small groups and are more aggressive about quickly sorting through the offerings, commenting to one another and the vendors regarding quality, style and value. Mostly value. I’d like to stop and savor the little bits of sun filtering through the patchwork of awnings but as slowly as the traffic moves, it continues to flow and stopping for long is impossible.
Drifting by the tables and listening to the market sounds, I note that my italian has improved a bit. (Piano piano, they say in italian, slowly, slowly.). I smile as I recognize snippets of conversation. The ever polite italian discourse between two donne continues after one has provided her counter opinion to the other; comunque, hai un punto…(however, you have a point…). A vendor describes a frying pan as il migliore, the best, as a doubtful gentleman listens politely. A quartet of old friends converge near the gorgeous bundles of baby artichokes and create a knot in the flow of shoppers as they catch up on family news. (There’s a new baby! A brother is just home from the ospedale.) They are oblivious to the jam they have created.
I see a gaggle of tired tourists with their giant camera lenses bouncing off of backs and shoulders in the crowd. They grow frustrated as they discover there is no fast way out once tunneled in here with the masses. Relax, I want to tell them. You want to see Italy? It’s right here, all around you. Look. Listen. Go slow. And for heaven’s sake, stay the course. People watch. Taste a sample of salami and pecorino. Savor the sweet smell of fresh strawberries. Part with a few euro and bring home a jar of the best honey you’ll ever taste. Souvenier page of old italian phone numbers included, no extra charge.