21 June, 2006

28. Billa

It doesn't look much like it from the outside, but this shop on the Zattere, a wide promenade facing Giudecca on the southern side of Dorsoduro, is a Venetian supermarket grocery store.

Despite the dearth of trolleys and neon street signage, Billa is a substantial sized supermarket inside, with a row of checkouts, fresh produce, meat, grocery aisles, freezers, specials, dump bins, and frequent shopper discount loyalty cards. All it lacks is customer service.

In the supermarkets I am more familiar with, the checkout operators scan the goods standing up on your level so that they can talk to you while they bag your groceries. In Venice, the operators are all surly and sitting down behind their conveyor belt and barcode scanner, so that you would be lucky to get any eye contact at all, let alone a greeting and some cheery banter. Instead of providing complementary plastic bags and a bagging service, these operators charge 0.05 Euros each for their red and yellow 'sacchetti', and they literally throw them at you along with your groceries. They also expect you to bag your own groceries and get away from the checkout area quickly, or they will throw the next customer’s purchases down on top of yours.

It takes some skill and some practice to do all this and get your credit card out at the same time. Trying to be prepared for the moment when an outstretched hand expected rapid payment, I momentarily held my credit card between my lips while I put my wallet back in my pocket and then put the card down on top of the till as the operator finished scanning my groceries.

She looked at me and looked at the card like we had both been dragged in from the cowshed, and made a big deal of finding a tissue to handle my now disgustingly soiled card, then she got another one so that she could use both hands to orient the card correctly for the reader. She was tutting and raising her eyebrows and shaking her head at all the Italians in the queue behind me, like it was obvious to all that I had an advanced case of the plague and what was I doing trying to contaminate her with my foreign diseases.

In case you need to cook crumbed veal one night in Italy, breadcrumbs are called "pangrattata". I mention it because in Billa they aren't where you would expect to find them, it's not the sort of word you find in phrasebooks, and hospitality is not a word that means much at Billa.

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