Posted by: 4initalia | March 29, 2009

Agoraphobia is Another Word for I Miss TJ Maxx

Every Monday there is an open-air market in Modena, from 9 a.m. to 2 p.m. I never see the opening of the market, because I never get out of the house before the crack of noon. It’s not just that I’m lazy and spending way too much time on Facebook. It’s more that when I leave the apartment, stuff happens. Like getting locked out and having to be let in by firefighters. Or having to fight for the right to buy stamps. It’s intimidating, I tell you.

For example, I need to buy jeans, but shopping in Modena stores is frightening. First of all, there are the prices. The jeans in the shop on the way to the supermarket cost $225 euros. Actually, the price tag is attached to only one leg of the pants, but I’m hoping that the price covers both of them. And those insanely expensive jeans are already as faded and ripped as the ones I’m trying to replace. The logic of paying more for tattered clothing escapes me. I’d rather invest in something crisp and classic that could enhance my appearance, like a tarp.

Even the process of buying jeans in a store is scary. My ex-pat friend Melanie, who knows everything told me that when you buy clothes in an Italian shop, you do not browse, have a looksee, touch the merchandise. Italian clothing sizes are consistent, so you walk in, tell the clerk your size, and she gets it for you. The purchase is already complete before you touch the pants.

This is not working for me. Like my husband Andy, (who is 6’4″) I’m not a size found in nature. I’m petite and short waisted, but have long legs. So I have to try things on. In the U.S. I often try on ten pairs of jeans before I find one that fits. And it’s not like clothing manufacturers make any effort to meet my needs: “Okay, designers. Cut something to fit a person who’s freakishly short with long legs but no waist. And she’s been hitting the Cheetos pretty hard lately, so let them out a little.”

I don’t bond easily with clothing, I like to know I’ll respect us both in the morning. I try them on, wait a minute and try them on again to see if I’ve lost any weight in between. At TJ Maxx I try on the whole store; I could die in the dressing room. As long as my corpse doesn’t set off the theft detector as it’s being carried out of the store, I can stay as long as I want.

But not in Italy. My friend Valerie described a harrowing visit to an Italian clothing store: she looked around, and when she attempted to compliment the clerk on the merchandise, the clerk threw her out, shouting something Valerie didn’t understand. If you’re tossed out on your keister for browsing, what happens to people who want to check for weight loss?

But I recently lost a fight with a clump of penne arrabiata that left a smear on my best jeans; I can’t keep walking around town hunched to the right with my palm over the stain. Rather than swan dive directly into the churning rapids of a clothing shop, I’ll attempt to dogpaddle my way into the stream of commerce, through the open air market.

The market is set up in a giant ring around a park just outside of the oldest part of Modena. One minute you’re on a Modena street with all the dignity and bearing of a museum, and the next you’re sucked into the swirling vortex of the Yard Sale From Hell. There are hundreds of stalls selling clothing, housewares, shoes. The stalls are metal frames topped with canvas, with merchandise swaying from the rafters. Under the tents, there are tables loaded with merchandise, either neatly stacked or heaped in a frenzy of fabrics.

It’s overwhelming. Near the entrance there is a heavy metal riot of espresso pots, cooking pans, cheap vegetable peelers. The shiny surfaces are throwing off slivers of sunlight as sharp as knives. Shoe sellers have constructed fortresses of boxes topped with suede boots, sneakers, and stilettos so spiked they threaten to pierce the box lids. The color for this fashion season is purple, so there are racks of drapey polyester blouses in purple and black. Leather jackets, trench coats in black and plum. There are cascades of soft scarves in shades so radiant it looks like a rainbow slipped gently to earth. And in a startling illustration of the Madonna/Whore principle, there are frothy white First Communion outfits sharing rafter space with latex lingerie that would make a street walker blush.

I’m not ready to buy jeans, so I’ll start with shoes. Where are the real Italian shoes? Near the entrance there are countless stalls offering “amazing!” deals for one to five euros, but those are obviously clodhoppers, badly made. There is another stall of well made pumps, but these are designed for the grownup purposes of going to work or looking wealthy enough to not have to work. I am looking for summer flats, for meandering purposes only.

In a stall of summer shoes, I see creamy flats, for twelve euros, about fifteen dollars. These are either a really good deal, or cheap knockoffs, I can’t tell. I’ve been a vegetarian since I was twelve, but I’ve always bought leather shoes, under the theory that no one stalks and kills Bessy for her hide. And with all this walking I can’t afford plastic shoes that shred my feet.

In the United States, the shoe materials are written on the inside of the shoe, but not here. I can’t tell if these shoes are leather. But on the bottom on the shoe, there is a little clear sticker with a symbol for each of the parts of the shoe: the upper, the lining, and the sole. There is a symbol for each of them; that must mean they’re leather.

The shoe seller approaches. Of course he is so adorable that of course I will buy these shoes, I may even pay extra for the box. Melanie gave me a size conversion chart, so my shoe size should be a thirty seven and a half. I ask for that size, and his eyes never leaving my face, he insists “thirty eight.” No, thirty seven and a half I say, but he hasn’t stolen…doesn’t have that size in stock. Thirty eight he says, and hands me the shoes.

I take them to the trying-on area, a folding chair deep within the fortress walls. He’s right, they fit, and they’re comfortable. I pay for the shoes, and noting that I’m a savvy shopper, he throws in the box for free.

I am so good at this market thing.

Except that at the next stall I notice that the real leather shoes have an odd little symbol that looks like a cow hide. I check my sticker again, my symbols are all diamonds, so I lost that round. But at least I didn’t pay for the box.

Fortified by my new market savvy, I survey the clothing options. Some of the stalls have neatly folded shirts and sweaters, or jeans, but many have heaps of clothes all mixed together. The unstacked clothing is often just as good as the stacked stuff, but is less expensive. At the lowest end of the scale, the cheapest clothes are sold for one or two euros a piece. The fabric looks good, and there may be bargains lurking, but on closer inspection there are defects, a small stain or a tiny shir in the cloth. I don’t have much time, and I want to focus on the good stuff.

How do you find it? After a couple of orbits of the stalls, I notice that the good stuff is hidden behind a short but impermeable wall of Italian women of a certain age. These women know quality, know how to get the best deals, and they take time to look through the masses of clothing at the stalls with the best merchandise.

Next week I will get here earlier, follow them around, and hope that I am not the same size as someone they know.

I find a stall with summer shirts. Perhaps out of gratitude for all of the fabulous religious art, God gave Italian women large chests and small waists. I have neither, and there’s no place to try on the shirts. So I choose a size medium, hoping that the discrepancy in body parts will even out, especially since I have a huge appreciation for religious art. The seller assures me that if the shirts don’t fit, I can come back and change them, next Monday. And if the slot machine comes up three cherries, you can always ask for your money back. But I keep the receipt, just in case.

In Italy, the handing out of receipts is a serious business. There is a law that if you are stopped by the fiscal police within 50 meters of a shop, and have merchandise but no receipt for it, both you and the shopkeeper can be fined. So even the flower seller in front of the train station is fastidious about receipts. He might sell you a handful of wilted petals, but you can be sure he’ll give you a record of the purchase.

I buy two more shirts, also size medium. I’m on a roll, and it’s time to try my luck with jeans. There are jeans sellers everywhere, but there are few I want to buy. Most of them are encrusted with crystals, like barnacles from the hull of Vegas. I am too old and too cranky to draw attention to my aft, so I look for something simple. In a stall run by a slender Asian woman, I see a pair of basic jeans.

According to Melanie’s pants conversion chart, if anything is going to fit, it’s probably sized 32. I ask for a 32, and the seller’s eyes narrow in disgust. “Thirty two is too big!” she says, although how she can tell that from glaring directly into my pupils I have no idea. She holds up a 28. I haven’t had hips that narrow since I was seven. “No, they’re too small. Thirty two.” I repeat, and she digs out a 32. It’s huge; I’d get a closer fit with the tarp. I ask for a twenty nine, but she hasn’t stolen…stocked that size. I hold them up and they could fit…perhaps her career in shoplifting has made this woman a good judge of sizes. And besides, I can always bring them back….I buy the jeans. Only when I’m more than 50 meters away do I realize she didn’t give me a receipt. This makes me feel like an outlaw with very narrow hips.

Although it’s only 1:30, most of the clothing sellers are packing up, so I move on to housewares. I need some clothespins, some thread, some tape. I find the clothespins and tape, and am struck by the size of the sewing kits. In the US, cheap sewing kits offer a few needles and three inches of thread in black, white, red and blue. Here, for a euro, I get enough needles and thread to make several quilts. And the colors are dark and muted tones. There’s black, grey, beige, brown and olive. And greige, and grolive, and grown, and brolive. Apparently the “buy purple” craze hasn’t hit the thread makers yet.

I beam in triumph: I’ve shopped the market. I have shirts, jeans and shoes. I walk home, excited to try on my new clothes.

The jeans will fit if I cut out all of the eating I do when I’m bored, and most of the eating I do to sustain life. Only two out of the five shirts fit. But the shoes are comfortable, and I can always make a quilt out of the stuff I can’t take back. That must be why they sell you so much thread.

Greeks have a word, agoraphobia, that means “fear of the marketplace.” In Italian, it must mean “I still need to buy pants.”

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