Non è da signori. This was a veritable leitmotiv of my youth. It’s a phrase hard to render properly into English, non è da signori. I doubt is very much in use these days; from my point of view, I heard it mostly from my grandmother when she wanted to point out that something – my behaviour, a sport I played, you name it – wasn’t gentlemanly, or worthy of an educated person.
Markets, I thought in those rather gullible years, weren’t da signori. Perhaps it was due to the general shabbiness of our city’s own, which I only saw at the end of the school day when a few stalls were left and only the detritus of the morning’s trades were left; but if you asked me, markets weren’t a nice place to go to.
As it often happens, it wasn’t until I flew the nest (not too far, for it was less than 70 km to Turin) that I started forming a different opinion, based on my own experience rather than on the influence of others.
Porta Palazzo market was, and is, very much unlike the rest of the old Turin city centre. It’s a sprawling city district, its beating heart a belle époque gallery made in cast iron and glass where one can find fresh vegetables and Romanian wines, catch of the day and the smelliest toma cheese, cheap clothes and Moroccan take-aways. At its margins lie an Oort cloud of Chinese bodegas and Nigerian minimarkets selling everything from pre-paid SIMs to plantain. It’s also the best place to buy drugs and, when the Saturday Balon flea market takes place, it’s also where the pieces of your stolen bicycle are likely to be found on sale.
With Porta Palazzo everything I’d ever known about markets turned on its head. Porta Palazzo was the start of a journey that brought me quite far. Billingsgate, Tsukiji, Noryangjin, Besiktas. The bazaars of Almaty, Osh and Dushanbe. The Mercado de San Pedro in Cusco. Isfahan’s labyrinthine Grand Bazaar. Not once was I scammed, not once poisoned. Can’t say the same of restaurants or cafés in any of those cities.
There’s a market in San Telmo, Buenos Aires. It sits perilously on a very important divide, the great chasm between the real deal and the tourist trap. Nuwara Eliya’s Central Market or Madrid’s Mercado de San Miguel: which way will it go? Probably the latter, but perhaps not yet. There’s still a butcher or one of those shops selling everything from bread to washing powder where the retailers wear white coats.
Click on any of the photos to start the slideshow.
Markets aren’t just places where one can go shopping for foods that won’t turn his guts’ weather forecast to brown rain. They’re also the best way to take the pulse of a city, to sit and watch it come and go. Buenos Aires, I’d said it before and I’ll be saying it again, is the Real Madrid of people watching; San Telmo’s Mercado is its epicentre. And long may it last.