Rebecca Helm-Ropelato
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Thursday, December 14, 2006
Just Standing Around Buying Things
A young man wearing a baseball cap squats on his heels measuring the length of a desk. He's talking on his cell phone and describing his findings to someone on the other end. A young couple walk by so engrossed in each other and their conversation, they don't see anything or anyone. A thirtyish mom with her dark red hair cut short is browsing the shelves in a corner of the housewares department. She seems oblivious to the toddler on her hip who is screaming loud enough to wake Socrates. No one else takes much notice either – it's a temper tantrum friendly kind of place.
I'm standing in the office furniture department, scrutinizing a small computer stand on rollers that seems to me just the right size to place next to my desk at home, I loosen the belt on my coat and unbutton it. It's warm. Unlike many stores in Italy in wintertime where the clerks sometimes stand hugging themselves and shivering – energy costs are so high – it's never cold in this one.
It's Thursday evening and I'm in the IKEA store on the Anagnina highway on the outskirts of Rome. IKEA has two stores in Rome, one north, one south. I've only been to this one and it's usually packed with shoppers. Italians, surrounded by more priceless antiquities per square foot by far than any other populace in the world, seem to like these huge boxy-homely stores that could be an antonym for what most people imagine when they think of Italy. The company already has twelve retail sites in the country and a couple of new ones on the way (
On the other hand, perhaps the famously design conscious Italians appreciate that design as object convenient and simple, not to mention easy to fit in the trunk of the car, is at the heart of IKEA's success.
I decided to ask my sister-in-law Silvia, who is an artist, if she likes IKEA products.
“Yes,” she said. “The design is modern but it's also a little bit artisanal and the pricing is democratic.” Then she laughed and added, “I think, perhaps more than anything, it's the price.”
Whatever, along with McDonald's ( which has restaurants scattered across Rome and a few hundred more across the rest of the country, it seems this icon of globalization is here and growing. Here along with American movies predominant in theaters, and the new shopping malls now popping up across the landscape as if spread by a flu bug.
I suppose I sound grumpy as I say that, someone who wants to turn the clock back, wants Italy to be only a tourist fantasy of Roman ruins, delicious food and wine, and oh so charming countryside dotted with pretty little villages. Well, yeah, sometimes I do, I admit. But the Italians have to share some of the blame for this. They themselves refuse to succumb meekly to becoming the usual identical, conforming consumer drones.
The truth is it's the Italian people themselves, the way they live their lives daily, the insistence with which they continue to value good living as the norm, who make Italy a place where visitors from all over the world want to come and then want to return again and again. So how can I or anyone else be blamed if we get a little worried when the usual suspects of popular mass culture begin to turn up here also.
Still, being the singular people they are – I'm not the first one to say that certainly – Italians have a way of transforming even these ever-replicating fast food and furniture chains into something uniquely theirs. Visit one of those new shopping malls here and you will see the same classic Italian social style as you see everywhere else in the country. At lunchtime, the stores empty as the Italians stop shopping and fill up the restaurants, pizzerias and the tavola calda. It's a leisurely time that stretches into a lingering over espresso and standing around in the mall's open spaces talking and visiting just as if they were in the piazzas of their own neighborhoods and villages. You might suppose the managers of the shops would be annoyed by this. But, for the most part, they too are Italian, so probably not.
There are some business types who look at this behavior and call it chaos. I just look at it and know I like it.
by Rebecca Helm-Ropelato
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