Day 42: life in Italy under lockdown. A walk away from the wildlife side

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by C. Flisi

Today is Saturday, which was the main street market day in my town until five weeks ago. When lockdown began in mid-March, all openair and enclosed markets had to close because it seemed that people couldn’t keep the one-meter distance mandated by the government. On April 10 Rome modified that rule and decided that open-air markets could re-open but only for food. The other things sold in such markets, including the one in my town, were still verboten.

So I walked by the big parking area near my home where the market is traditionally held. One of the vendors imports a brand of taralli from Puglia that I can’t find in any supermarket or specialized food store, and I love to snack on them: better than chocolate and less caloric. I had long since run out and was hoping that stand would be open.

But no. Not that stand, not any stand. No market, period. The region of Lombardia decided not to re-open its markets at this time. Each of Italy’s 20 regions has flexibility in implementing the guidelines issued by Rome, just as US states have discretion in implementing government guidelines issued by Washington (not that there are many of the latter) and the region where I live is being more cautious than some others. For understandable reasons: of the 22,745 deaths to date from corona virus in Italy, more than half (11,851) have occurred in Lombardia.

And yet . . . open air street markets are a fact of life in Italy. (Maybe I should say WERE a fact of life). They have been part of local culture for centuries. As we have seen from countless films, marketplaces were the gathering point for commerce, communication, and cultural exchange in medieval times. In Sicily, with its Arab influence, souk-like markets have existed since the 9thcentury.

They were originally showcases for farmers’ foodstuffs and livestock, and also for handicrafts and specialized items that villagers could not easily or at all produce on their own — textiles, jewelry, ornaments, metalwork, glass, foreign spices, farming equipment.

Data from 2018 recorded about 200,000 registered operators of open market stands, representing 22 percent of Italy’s commercial enterprises two years ago. By then less than 20 percent of stands were devoted to food; the rest was almost evenly divided between apparel (clothing, shoes, textiles) and miscellaneous (personal products, items for the home, plants and seeds, gardening equipment, etc.)

Many market businesses were single-person enterprises, and the overwhelming majority of them (78 percent) operated in the province where the individual entrepreneur was born. This was much more likely to be the case in the south. Anyone who has ever been to one of Sicily’s famed markets in Palermo, such as il Capo or Ballarò, knows you can’t duplicate that energy and ambience — not to mention the local dialect! — anywhere else.

Northern Italian markets, if they are not for seasonal events, like Milan’s December Oh bej Oh bej,or special sagre (occasional markets with a theme, such as for truffles or olives), tend to be more bland and generic. Yet Lombardia has the second largest concentration of ambulanti (itinerant vendors) in Italy, with about 20,000. Bland or not, markets in my region have decided economic and social importance.

As they do all over the world. Some of my strongest impressions of countries have come from the impact of their markets: Dordoi, the largest market in Central Asia, located in Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan; sprawling Otavalo Market in northern Ecuador; hot and steamy Makola Market in Accra, Ghana.

And then of course the by-now-infamous wet markets of China. Actually the term “wet markets” is a misnomer, since most Italian food markers are also “wet” in that water is used to wash off fruits and vegetables and make them glisten appealingly for consumers. Seafood, alive and dead, can be found up and down the peninsula’s markets, from Catania to Como. The big health problem is not “wet” markets per se but wildlife markets where exotic and undomesticated animals are removed from native environments (or from “farms” in rural China, where pangolins, civets and bats are sourced), then cramped together in tiny enclosures as nature never intended, and sold for edible consumption. It is in these markets, forcing proximity among unlike mammals that would not have interacted under “normal” circumstances, that viruses have the opportunity to jump species and become SARS, Ebola, MERS, avian flu, and COVID-19.

When it was open, the market in my Italian town sold live octopus and eels along the food corridor, and parakeets and goldfish along the corridor reserved for gardening and home improvement. They used to sell puppies as well, (for pets not for panini) but the conditions were so bad that local government intervened. As upsetting as it is to see intelligent octopi cramped in tiny buckets with dirty water, at least they aren’t interacting with snakes, rats, and bats . . . all of which I have seen in Asian markets.

So while I would love to see my taralli again, I can’t help but having mixed feelings about open-air emporia. But no ambivalence about wildlife markets anywhere in the world: they should be verboten for good, not just for lockdown.


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