Consumer Time Travel
Two aspects of life here offer a nice comparative story about the way life in the United States used to be, and might become.
The first is the specialization of food shopping in Rome. Small shops for seemingly every type of food – cheese, meat, fruit, wine, cereals – line the streets in Rome’s old city center. In each shop, one (or two) employees dispenses food from behind a counter – it is not a self-service experience. It seems like these tiny shops, rather than the occasional small supermarket – are the primary way that citizens get their food. In a way, shopping here is like stepping back in time in the states to around 1940 or so. And there is something charming about the experience: the interactions (me in pantomime) are personal; the food is fresh and delicious; and you are less likely to slip and fall on a banana peel left on the ground. But the food is expensive, especially fruit, and if I were a busy citizen instead of a less-busy tourist, I’d find going to five different stores to complete my shopping to be a daily irritant.
Why does this specialization persist? I know less than I should about the risk of supermarkets in the United States, but I’ve a few preliminary thoughts. The first explanation denies that Italians shop at small stores outside of the cramped confines of City Centers. That is, just in the States, it is difficult for supermarkets to obtain purchase and economies of size in expensive urban cores. So, maybe, most Italian citizens do go to supermarkets, just not in places that tourists spend their time.
But this doesn’t explain why in the States some supermarkets have entered cities, or why butchers, cheese-mongers, fruit-stands, and bakeries are generally dead or gourmet institutions.. So then I was tempted to think that Italy’s rejection of supermarket organization reflects the comparative strength of Italian labor unions, and the comparative inability of Italian businesses to easily franchise. Or maybe there is a tort or agency law explanation?
On the other side of the spectrum, I’ve been struck by the security measures at Italian internet cafes. As Solove noted here, a recent Italian security act requires owners to collect personal information from users, usually in the form of a passport. From my experience, owners will not accept a paper copy of a passport but instead will take and hold the real thing for the duration of your time online.
On the whole, this is a chilling experience, and reminder that every link you follow can be, and maybe will be, later seen by the authorities. In the current political climate it is difficult to imagine such a law passed in the United States, although given the relative lack of internet cafes, the better analogy probably would be to require wifi hotspots to collect personal information about users. I imagine that in that hypothetical world, I’d get used to the loss of privacy, just as the Italians have to the loss of theirs, but it would surely rankle at first.
[Photo Credit: Campo de' Fiori Market, courtesy of A Young American in Rome]