29 May, 2006

4. The Cheese Shop


The "House of Parmesan" is a cheese shop, near the San Polo fresh produce markets. Even with only one or two people in front of you waiting to buy cheese, it still takes an age to be served, but there are two reasons for this.

One of those reasons is that it takes two people to serve each customer. All of the shop assistants that actually handle the cheese – describing each piece's virtues and shortcomings, shaving off slivers for the purchaser to taste, then cutting, weighing and wrapping the portion of chosen formaggio (cheese) – are men. Hovering next to, well, behind really, each of these highly skilled 'customer relationship managers' is a woman, similar attired in a professional-looking hygienic white coat. No matter how busy the shop is, or how many people waiting, the female shop assistants never serve customers. They wait until the purchase has been decided upon, and then, on the instructions of the male cheese server, they handle the money, each completing the financial part of the purchase for their partner, and their partner alone. Is one of these tasks a ‘skilled’ job and the other only ‘administrative’? Is it a union labour demarcation, a hygiene regulation, or just a sexist cultural thing peculiar to Venice? I decided that either the men can’t count, or it makes them feel important not to have to actually have to handle money and give change. Given that Venice is (sort of) part of Italy, I think the latter is more likely.

The other reason for how long it takes to be served is that every piece of merchandise chosen is carefully wrapped in 'Casa del Parmigiano' paper, like it was a gift. Would you feel better towards your cheese when you get it home, savour it more when you eat it, and care less about the cost of it, if it was beautifully hand-wrapped rather than precut and vacuum-sealed from a supermarket? I think you would. And so did I.

Next to the cheese shop is 'Al Marca'. It is not immediately obvious what sort of business this is, but whatever it is, it is a very small business. In fact, it is a very small bar, where all the customers stand up for the simple reason that there is nowhere to sit down. The people in front, under the awning, are not waiting to be served, they are drinking a small glass of wine, or grappa, or cinzano, and probably also eating one of the tasty bite-size nibbles from the display cabinet. What food do they serve at Al Marca's? Whatever happens to be on the plates on show. Half an hour from now it will be all different. You take pot luck, but this was a very busy business. On market day, hundreds of people would stop for a few minutes for a quick drink and a snack, and because there is nowhere to sit, move on.

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