Tuesday, July 21, 2015

Evidence of globalization

 Image result for trattoria images

While in Florence, I ate at a small trattoria (restaurant or bistro, in English) at which I had eaten several good meals when I was in Florence five years ago (not the place shown in the photo).

The restaurant, located near Florence’s Cathedral and in the heart the tourist district, had changed. Five years ago, a mixture of locals and tourists ate at the very popular trattoria. It served excellent, traditional Italian fare at reasonable prices. Knowing restaurant Italian was very helpful in perusing the menu, which was printed only in Italian. The owner was generally present. He often sang while cooking in a kitchen separated from the dining area by a counter or, as time permitted and the spirit moved, strolled around the restaurant serenading guests.

Now, the restaurant is still popular and the prices are still reasonable. The menu, however, lists dishes by their Italian name and has English subtitles/explanations. The wait staff greets guests in English; presumably they would switch to Italian if the guests did not speak English. The clientele were all non-Italians, at least while I was there. And as I watched, many consulted their smartphone or pad, confirming that this was the place that they had located using TripAdvisor, Yelp, or another internet review service. The food is no longer as traditional and the portions, if anything are larger (the staff expected that diners would often want to share an appetizer, pasta, or secondi – something that I have not observed in Italy until this trip).

I’m not surprised that the restaurant changed. Five years can be a long time in the restaurant business.

I was mildly surprised that the internet apparently plays such a central role in the success or failure of this trattoria, and of many other places at which I ate during this sojourn in Florence. Some proprietors and wait staff openly solicit diners to write recommendations on various websites; decals advising prospective diners that the establishment is reviewed on TripAdvisor are now frequently posted alongside the menu on an exterior window.

I was disappointed that the restaurant had changed its business model from catering to a mix of locals and tourists to focusing primarily on tourists. I don’t visit Italy for a taste of Americana with Italian seasoning; I visit to experience Italy and the Italian culture. This move toward homogenization is a downside of globalization.

In addition to dining out, my partner and I have had some meals in the apartment that we rented for the month. We buy bread at a shop less than a block away. The small shop – about the size of a living room – primarily sells fresh bread baked in the back room that day. I’ve see two different women at the counter. One speaks no English and the other speaks only a little English. Most of their customers speak fluent Italian and appear to live locally. The bread is excellent!

I wonder how much longer the shop will survive. Both women are middle aged; the man who bakes the bread, visible from the sidewalk through a large door left open to allow ventilation, is also middle aged. Their breads are inexpensive to buy. My guess is that the next generation has little or no interest in taking over what seems to be a profitable family owned business that requires long hours and much hard work.

Outside the shop’s front door, a man from Senegal daily spreads his wares on a small cloth that is maybe three feet square. His wares vary a little from day to day. Presumably, he manages to sell enough to keep him alive. I don’t know if he qualifies for welfare or has anyone else to support. He is friendly and unobtrusive. He speaks almost no English.

During the course of a day here, I’ll see many such vendors. A few, generally in areas packed with tourists, push their wares. Most are more laid back and wait to speak until a passerby takes an interest in an item for sale. All appear to be from Africa.

This is probably one visible tip of Italy’s immigration problem. I admire the vendors’ entrepreneurial efforts to get ahead. Selling stuff is certainly preferable to begging. A higher percentage of beggars than of these vendors seem aggressive in their solicitations.

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