The other day I had to make a trip to Jolly Sports Shop. I have a scary race coming up and needed new running shoes–my old ones no longer had the old spring in them and still bore the traces of the peat bogs of Patagonia and the maple-scented dust of Vermont.
A journey into downtown Torino involves waiting around for a bus, catching it and then looking at all the interesting people: tall African boys, young mothers in hijabs, old Italian ladies in elegant dress, men in djeballas, the odd rambunctious drunk banging on the window. On this occasion there were even dogs—a little auburn mutt growling at a goofy rottweiler puppy. A phlegmatic Italian man was imparting some wisdom to the owner of the auburn mutt, a rangy woman with long hair, also auburn, who was listening to him with scepticism. I couldn’t be 100% sure but I believe the tenor of his speech was that dogs should be left at home.
The world outside the bus was just as interesting as the people inside it: cobbled streets, fountains and statues, fancy architecture and vendors packing up after the morning market on Via Madama Christina. We got off the bus near Lo Scoglio (‘The Rock’) fish shop and spent a few moments peering in the window at the weird creatures: ricci di mare (sea urchins), acciuge (filleted anchovies) and trota iridea (rainbow trout) before turning the corner for Via Nizza.
When we got to the shop it was 2.30 and a big rolling metal door was pulled over the entrance. A lot of Italian shops close in the early afternoon from about 12-3 and sure enough a sign on the wall said it would open again at 3. This gave us half an hour to loiter in the vicinity.
Hungry as usual, I persuaded John to stop at a nearby bar (what we would call a café or cafeteria except that it also sells alcohol). I ordered a square of flat pie that the waitress called a torta salata and was very good. As I munched and John sipped his drink I gazed at the posters on the wall for Spaghetti Westerns, old Vermouth ads and signed photographs of Juventus squads from the 1970s and 1980s. A couple of women sat at another table, chatting over sandwiches. At the bar men came and went like stubbly reef fish in beige jackets.
When the clock struck three, we went back along to the shop. From the beginning, there were troubles. We stood outside the entrance wondering what the big arrow pointing to the right signified. After a consultation, we concluded that the arrow was on the left half of the door, we should try pushing the right half and proceeded to do just that. It didn’t work. A lady inside the shop came to let us in and then pointed a couple of metres along the wall to where there was another door—the entrance.
The shop was vast.
“Where do we go?” John asked.
“I don’t know, let’s just have a look around,” I said and turned left, little knowing that I was entering a three-dimensional Escher sketch. First there was a room of skis, then another one of ski suits, a hall devoted to skateboards. A woman asked me if I needed help, to which I replied, “Sì, dove sono scarpe da running?” She proceeded to give me instructions which amounted to ‘Turn right, then go straight ahead, then go down some stairs, then turn right again.”
We wandered along through rows of sports bags, tennis clothes, football jerseys, swimsuits and down stairs to the golfing section. I made a u-turn and ended up near a desk monitored by a very elegant woman. She pointed me straight ahead and said that I had to go through there and up another set of stairs.
Off we went and eventually ended up in sport-shoe central, where a couple of humanoid mountain goats were trotting around assisting customers. When I asked one of them for trail-running shoes, he looked surprised and pointed to the specialized trail-running-shoe display area in front of which we were already standing.
These shoes, I gathered from the labels, were examples of apex sporting technology. The soles had thick treads and were made of some chemically engineered for ‘maximum stickiness.’ The uppers were structured to give maximum support and the soles contained space-aged shock-absorbing gel. The whole was water-resistant.
I was standing there dithering when the other goatman approached, jittering like an adrenaline junkie stuck in a sports store. I gave him my shoe size and he vanished into the store room at the back. The shoes he brought back were very comfortable and what’s more they were ‘wild-orchid-and-Neptune’ colored, so I decided to get them.
He took the shoes over to a bench and wrote down the price on a little yellow piece of paper. He handed me the paper and the shoe box then pointed to the floor with an expression of quiet horror.
“Signora, sock.” Indeed, a sock had fallen out of my backpack. I laughed lightly and picked it up. The final straw.
“OK, let’s go,” I murmured to John.
“But don’t you need other stuff?”
“Yes, but there was a sock incident.”
“You don’t want to come all the way back here, do you? I’ll ask.”
“No, I’ll ask,” I sighed and went over to the other goat man.
“Mi scusa,” I opened. “Ho bisogno di un emergency blanket,” I attempted to mime it.
He nodded enthusiastically and pointed down the stairs.
“OK, grazie!” I said. He gave me the thumbs up.
I got an emergency blanket and water bottle. A different man wrote down the prices on a little yellow piece of paper.
Finally, I realized I had to go to yet another desk to look for running tights. I was beginning to feel as Odysseus must have felt sailing all around the Mediterranean and encountering various monsters. Next up was the elegant woman who’d previously given me directions to the shoes. She could be Circe.
“Buona sera,” I said.
“Vorrei comprare i pantaloni da running.”
“Spessi o medii?”
I seemed to remember that spesso means ‘thick’ so I said medium.
There commenced a lot of trying-on and finally I got two pairs of tights along with a pair of hiking socks, which the lady was determined to sell me. She enclosed all this in a plastic bag and wrote the price on a little yellow square of paper. Now I had a mountain of stuff and three squares of paper to take to the cashier upstairs.
After this excursion, we decided to stop by a place called Tiramisu around the corner. It was not the traditional Italian café/bar, more like a Japanese toy version of an English tea shop, with elaborate pink cakes, pastel teapots and chalkboards scrawled with quotes like ‘The diet starts tomorrow.’ The waitress was a smiling, friendly girl who looked like a high school student. She was something of a relief after the scornful ultra goats.
When I took off my jumper, John exclaimed, “My God, you’re covered in sweat!”
“Yes, well it was very intense,” I replied defensively. “There were a lot of interactions. Also language. It was difficult.”
“But when you ran the marathon you didn’t even get that sweaty.”
“There were very few interactions in the marathon and it was well sign-posted, unlike that accursed Minotaur maze.”
He shook his head, baffled.
The sweet girl came over to take our order and I ordered tiramisu. She brought back a deconstructed tiramisu: six ladyfingers, a cup of cold espresso, a bowl of sweetened mascarpone and a cocoa-shaker. Then she explained that I should moisten the sponge with the coffee until they were ‘bagnato’ (bathed), then pile on the mascarpone, then shake the cocoa over the lot.
After the magic of tiramisu I began to feel a little more philosophical about Italian life. On the one hand they have extremely stressful departmentalized sports stores but on the other hand they have delicious coffee-flavored desserts. La vita è bella!