The cardboards signs were understandably in Italian. They were hanging unceremoniously from the ends of rolls of fabric, one from each section in the compact, two-story fabric store in down town Milan. Yes, I mean the Milan in Italy, but I had only had about 10 days notice about the trip and that isn’t enough time to even begin to learn Italian. My partner in adventure for the week was doing her best to use her fluent Spanish combined with a few lessons in Italian and an Italian translator app on the iPhone. You know, trying to blend in.
The fabric store seemed unimposing. Quaint, even. It was crammed neatly with rolls and rolls of all kinds of fabric, from exotic woven cashmere to cute kiddie cottons. I was looking for something that would remind me of Italy, something I don’t see in the fabric stores in my town. The wide variety of wools were tempting, but the softer ones were expensive at $55 Euros per meter. Instead I chose a pretty stretch jersey that would make a nice blouse or dress. I took it off the shelf and began to carry it to the small table that looked like where the cutting was going on. As soon as I rounded the corner, one of the lady clerks began yelling at me.
Apparently shoppers were not allowed to take fabric off of the shelves. She violently grabbed a sign from one nearby wall and whipped out the English sign that was completely hidden behind it, shoved it under our noses, then stalked off, while I was still innocently chuckling at our mistake and trying to explain our mistranslation. But she charged past and told another clerk to speak to us, then gave us a glare to try to melt us on her way back to her table. Her otherwise pretty Italian face and cute figure were distorted by her anger.
The next clerk was brusk, but polite. She spoke about three words in English, which she used to let us know, again, not to remove the fabric rolls and that she would help us when she was “done.” We were left standing in the midst of the bustling basement wondering what “done” meant, trying to see if we were supposed to get a number and evaluating who was a clerk and who wasn’t.
But let’s go back to the sign for a moment. We had faithfully translated the sign. We know now that we “did it correctly,” because the English translation said the same thing. It said, “Do not unthread the rolls.” So, we only took them off the shelves carefully, being very careful not to “unthread” them, which in our minds clearly meant “unroll” them. I would have taken a photo, but I was pretty sure that I understood the pictograph of a camera with a red line through it. I wasn’t ready to risk the cranky lady’s wrath again.
So, we waited. And waited. And waited. We thought that maybe Americans just went last? We finally figured out that the “cutting” clerks were only identifiable because of a strap hung crosswise on the chest using like military ribbons that had scissors dangling at the hip. Some scissors were stuffed in a pocket instead of being left to the force of gravity. The surest way to know was to watch someone for a while and see if they went around taking rolls of fabric off the wall for someone, then took it to the table and pulled out scissors. There were a couple of gals carrying rolls of fabric around, but my friend’s Italian/Spanish was just good enough to find out from them that they were lowly re-shelving help.
After not discovering any rhyme or reason to how service was conducted, my friend got a very determined look on her face and went to hunt someone down. She barely cornered a fast moving cutting clerk, but only long enough for him to say that, no, he was busy and he pushed by. She then approached the second clerk again and was told that there were two people who would be helped, then it was our turn. Woohoo!
One of the ladies “in front” of us complained to us in a smattering of Italian and hand gestures about the helter-skelter system, so we felt better about our predicatment, the way misery loves company. And we felt less lost and stupid. It wasn’t just us ignorant tourists who thought the shop methods were medival.
When it was our turn (really my turn, as this part of the day’s adventures was for my benefit), the clerk helping us was all friendly, personable smiles. She measured my 4 meters of fabric by drapping it veritically in the air alongside a wooden meter stick, made a small cut in it, then laid it even with the edge of a little table to make the rest of the cut. No laying the fabric out flat. There wasn’t a cutting guide to make sure it was straight. Then, she wrote the yardage and price on a piece of masking tape and stapled it to the end of the piece. She was surprised that that was all I wanted, which I totally understand. Who would knowingly go through that horrendous experience for one piece of fabric?!
As she was working, we were questioning her about how much English she knew. My friend had been trying to practice her Italian all day at various places, which endeavor was complicated by Italian being just similar enough to Spanish as to cause her brain to switch unexpectedly to Spanish mid-sentence. The clerk said she didn’t speak Spanish, but then surprised us by pointing to a male clerk who did. While he was working near us, he and my friend conversed happily in Spanish for a few sentences. The highlight of that was when he quite openly and with little care for who heard, referred to the first cutting clerk, the angry one, as “devil lady.” Thus, we left for the upstairs cash register feeling the comfort of humor from shared pain.
The cashier was also nice and did not yell at us at all for not being able to read the sign in Italian that said the credit card machine was broken and they were only taking cash. He even pulled out the hand-held contraption to apologetically show us it’s lack of life. Fortunately, I had enough cash, so was able to leave with my hard-earned jersey knit with the pretty floral border.
I would still go back to this store, maybe. However, I hear there are other fabric stores in the Milan area. It would be interesting to see if they are also run like a para-military organization, or have a more organized, customer friendly way of doing things.