Life in Italy: ‘How our shopping habits have changed since we moved from the US’

Less packaging, more human interaction; it’s not just the quality of the produce on sale that makes visiting Italy’s markets an unforgettable experience. American writer Mark Hinshaw tells us how the way he shops has drastically changed since moving to Italy’s Marche region.

Life in Italy: ‘How our shopping habits have changed since we moved from the US’
Theres much more to shopping at Italy's markets than simply buying produce. Photo: Sunny Savina Bertollini

Sometimes it’s the thinnest of membranes that separate us from each other. 

This came to mind when I was contemplating our dramatic change of shopping habits over the last four years.

For most of my life, I have shopped for food in supermarkets and for clothing in department stores. This is, indeed, the predominant behavior pattern in most of North America. We are thoroughly used to purchasing things for our daily use in packaged quantities, whether it’s carrots in a shallow tub wrapped in clear plastic or a shirt folded, pinned, and tucked neatly into a plastic sleeve. I did not think anything about this until I stopped doing it.

READ ALSO: What you need to know about shopping at Italian food markets

We used to buy water in plastic bottles, along with juice, milk, and other drinkables. But we realized we could buy these things differently. We now fill reusable glass bottles with water every week and buy all our fruit and vegetables from vendors that sell it without packaging.

These are not weekend farmers markets, but shops or trucks where the produce is simply displayed in crates, baskets, or bins. As the customer, you announce what you want and a staff person picks out the items as you observe. 

Photo: Sunny Savina Bertollini

Similarly, we now buy our clothing largely from truck vendors that line the regular street markets in our village and other neighboring villages. The sweaters, shirts and pants are hung off of overhead hooks suspended from the projecting truck canopy, or laid out on tables. If you point to an item of interest, the vendor lays it out and sometimes puts out two or three similar items for us to compare. We are invited to buy it, take it home, try it on and if it’s not satisfactory to bring it back next time. We have done just that several times.

Last weekend a merchant did not have pants in my size and preferred color. This weekend, as we approached his truck, he proudly held up the pants he brought for me.

A lifetime of purchasing goods in the US taught us that opening and touching items for sale meant you were committed to buying them. Initially it made us nervous when vendors would lay open an item; we feared they expected us to purchase it. So we were tentative. Now we just dive right in to see how the product feels in our hands.

READ ALSO: ‘How our village kept its sense of community throughout lockdown’

But here is the real beauty of it all. In each and every one of these exchanges, we have a conversation with another human being. Sometimes it’s short, sometimes it’s long. It might be with the vendor or another customer. Or with a friend or neighbor who also happens to be in the same place. And while walking to or through the market, we run into people we know and have a chat. Sometimes strangers approach us to wish us a good day. Even with masks worn during the pandemic, the eye contact is precious.

While all of these little interactions take place in the public realm they can be personal in nature. Some people stop my wife and ask her about her herbal remedies for aches and pains, describing them in detail. Usually there is an inquiry about a family member not present. Often, I have been asked how I am recovering from an illness or surgery, when that is the case.

These repeated and renewed connections cement the relationships we have with other people in our village and the region. It’s a constant reminder that we are part of a community.

Photo: Sunny Savina Bertollini

Some of these patterns have evolved into rituals. In several towns, we always go to one particular coffee bar. Not just because we enjoy their brand but because we know the proprietors. They now know our preferences and move to meet them as soon as we walk in the door.

Several street market merchants now bring items they know we will like in order to inspect them. Sometimes we make the purchase, sometimes not. But we always express appreciation for the thoughtfulness. It’s one of many tiny social compacts that have accumulated over time.


The absence of packaging involves a more tactile experience. We can see the merchandise. If it’s food, we cannot touch it but we can examine it up close, as the displays are often close to eye level. With some items the merchant will hand us samples; that almost always clinches the sale. With clothing, the merchants will point out the fabric tag and, more often than not, offer a discount, if we are regular customers.

We often remark on the “entertainment value” of buying fruit and vegetables. When the trucks arrive, people gather about and chat, comparing fresh items and animatedly discussing what to buy. We wait our turn while elderly nonnas fill baskets with produce for the family lunch later that day. The vendors crack jokes and play around like kids, joshing with customers, including us. One of them likes to surprise us with new English words he has learned. 

Photo: Sunny Savina Bertollini

There is one additional benefit to this kind of socio-commercial transaction. Everyone involved feels a collective responsibility for the shared public space. If bits of refuse drop, people reach down to pick it up and take it to a waste bin. The merchants sweep the pavement clean when they are done, bringing it back to suiting other uses. And people look after each other, with vigorous people helping the older, less agile.

It is, after all, a shared public living room, with everyone acting as both hosts and guests.

I had never made such a visceral connection between packaging and social life. And how the absence of packaging sharpens the senses while engaging the soul. 

Mark Hinshaw is a retired city planner who moved to Le Marche with his wife two years ago. A former columnist for The Seattle Times, he contributes to journals, books and other publications.

Member comments

  1. Hi Mark,

    Great article. It’s not something I have thought about in as much depth, but I, too, shop at the weekly market here in Alba, whereas it was supermarkets all the way back in Britain. It is a much nicer experience…!
    If you are ever in Piemonte, look me up – [email protected]
    Have a great weekend there!

  2. It just goes to show how supermarkets are destroying the community in the U.S & U.K. We moved to Sicily in 2019 and always shop this way now, even through the pandemic.

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Ice to AC: Nine of the most common American misconceptions about Italy

Have your friends in the US mentioned any of these common beliefs about Italy? Some come close to the truth, but others are totally misplaced.

Ice to AC: Nine of the most common American misconceptions about Italy

It’s no secret that Americans love to visit Italy; the Washington Post predicted in December that the country would be Americans’ top foreign tourist destination for 2023, and the volume of US visitors who’ve arrived in Italy since then appears to have borne this out.

But while many Americans have a deep knowledge of – and love for – Italian culture, there are some surprisingly enduring myths about Italy that can be found in the USA specifically.

Some come close to the truth, while others fall wide of the mark.

There is no ice in Europe/Italian restaurants charge for ice

Fiction – Americans love ice, beverages are routinely served with it and refrigerators in the US often have some type of ice dispenser attached to the door.

But in Italy, ice is simply less prioritised. While ice in your drink will usually not cost you extra, you might need to specifically request it. Soft drinks in Italy are usually served without ice, so if you want your beverage iced, you need to request the drink con ghiaccio – with ice.

READ ALSO: Aperol and aperitivo: A guide to visiting bars and cafes in Italy

A classic Italian spritz should always come with ice.
A classic Italian spritz should always come with ice. Photo by Tomasz Rynkiewicz on Unsplash

Italian homes don’t have dryers

Fact (mostly) – Tumble dryers do exist in Italy, but they’re rare. A survey published by Italy’s national statistics office (Istat) in 2014 found that just 3.3 percent of Italian households had one, whereas 96.2 percent had a washing machine and 39.3 percent a dishwasher.

Those washing lines strung with laundry hanging above the heads of passers by aren’t there just to create a quaint backdrop for photos – people make wide use of the abundant sun to air dry their clothes and sheets.

That does not mean that Italians in cities don’t occasionally use clothes dryers though if they’re in a rush; some might take items to a nearby laundromat.

McDonald’s is healthier in Italy

Fact (sort of) – McDonald’s uses different ingredients based on the country, and the Big Mac in Italy is (slightly) healthier than the one sold in the United States. It is slightly less calorific, with 509 kCal in contrast to the American Big Mac’s 540 kCal per 100g.

The Italian Big Mac also has less salt and fat, but it does not compare to the world’s healthiest Big Mac (found in Israel). 

READ ALSO: Which stores across Italy sell American foods and drinks?

McDonald’s in Italy also uses EU-sourced ingredients, and the EU restricts the usage of additives and growth hormones. For example Azodicarbonamide which is used to bleach flour, is banned in the EU, but not in the United States, where McDonald’s was still using it as of 2016.

It is true, however, that you can buy beer in McDonald’s in Italy. 

McDonald’s burgers are marginally healthy in Italy compared to the US. Photo by Brett Jordan on Unsplash

Italians drive small cars

Fiction (increasingly) – Think of Italian cars, and you might picture a classic Fiat 500 puttering around picturesque cobbled streets – but that’s all changing.

2021 was a historic year for the Italian automotive industry: the sale of SUVs surpassed those of medium-sized sedans for the first time, claiming 48 percent of the market share compared to the sedan’s 45 percent.

That may not match the US, where SUVs and pick-up trucks currently account for around 73 percent of vehicles sold, but it’s a huge increase from 2012, when SUVs made up just 17 percent of vehicle sales in Italy.

There are no free public toilets

Fact (mostly) – You will occasionally find an Italian town or city that offers some free public toilets. For the most part though, you’ll have to pay, including in train stations – and even paid public toilets are few and fair between.

Instead, you’re better off heading to one of the many caffe-bars found all over the country and paying for a euro for a bottle of water or a coffee so you can use their facilities – if you ask nicely, you might even be allowed to go for free.

Metro stations, supermarkets and grocery stores tend to not have any toilets at all, and neither will most clothing stores. One place you will find plenty of free public bathrooms, though, is a motorway service station.

Something that strikes many visitors to Italy as odd is the lack of seats on public toilets. Exactly why this is the case is debated, but there’s a general consensus that the phenomenon has rapidly accelerated in the past couple of decades.

A street sign at an antiques fair in Turin. Free toilets in Italy are few and far between. Photo by rashid khreiss on Unsplash

Italy doesn’t have air conditioning

Fact (sort of) – There’s not no air conditioning in Italy – in fact data from Italy’s national statistics office showed that one in two Italian households had AC in 2021.

It’s far less popular than in the US, though, where 90 percent of households have air conditioning. There’s still not much of a culture of AC in Italy, where many believe it will give you a colpo d’aria leading to at best a sore neck and at worst pneumonia – so even households that have a unit tend to use it sparingly.

READ ALSO: The illnesses that only seem to strike Italians

If your hotel or Airbnb doesn’t specifically mention AC, you can assume it doesn’t have it.

Coca-Cola tastes different in Italy

Fact – While Coke is available almost everywhere in the world, the actual ingredients in Coca-Cola are different in some countries, which could lead some Coke connoisseurs to notice a difference in taste between the products in the US and those in the EU. 

The biggest difference is the regular Coke – in the US this uses high fructose corn syrup while in Europe cane sugar is used to sweeten the product, resulting in a significant difference in taste. 

READ ALSO: Is Diet Coke really banned in Europe?

You’re much more likely in Italy to come across Coca Zero, the zero-sugar version of Coca-Cola, than Coca-Coca Light, the European version of Diet Coke, which has always been hard to find and which some online sources say Italy stopped distributing altogether in 2022.

Coke in the US: different to its European counterparts. Photo by Cody Engel on Unsplash

You don’t need to tip

Fact – It’s not necessary to tip after a restaurant meal in Italy. However, this is a matter of personal choice and you are free to do so (tipping certainly won’t cause upset).

Diners do often leave some change after a particularly enjoyable meal. In terms of how much to give, some people round up a bill to include a tip, while others give what spare change they have.

READ ALSO: What are the rules on tipping in Italy?

Some people may also opt to tip other professionals as well, such as taxi drivers and cleaners, but again – this is optional and typically not a large quantity. In some apartment buildings, residents may give a Christmas card with money inside to the portiere (doorman) as a kind of annual tip.

All cars are stick shift

Mostly fact – In the United States, stick shift vehicles are becoming a thing of the past, but in Italy they are still very much being bought and driven.

As of 2018, around 20 percent of new cars sold in Italy were automatic – which is much higher than the less-than-one percent sold in the 1980s, but still a lot less than the US’s figure of 96 percent.

That said, around 70 percent of SUVs sold in Italy use automatic transition, so with the popularity of these larger vehicles on the rise, you can expect to see more automatics on Italian roads in the future.

What do you think? Have you noticed any other common beliefs or misconceptions about Italy in the US, or elsewhere? We’d love to hear from you in the comments section below.