Impressions of Rome: Shopping to Live, Not Living to Shop

I presume I am not alone in not liking to shop, at least not for food and clothing. Fortunately I live in community where items for cooking and cleaning are purchased in bulk by designated shoppers among us. Fortunately I am not one of the shoppers. Yes, I could do it if I was asked, but happy I am not being asked to do so.

The size of our Sant’Ambrogio community is currently seven monks and two lay persons, one who is our cook and the other the housekeeper. They normally join the monks for meals, so there is usually nine or more at our midday meal, called pranzo, and the evening meal, called cena. It is a great gift that those with a knack for shopping, cooking and maintenance are generously doing such works here.

Often the numbers at meals changes, according to absences, the presence of guests or for other reasons. Sometimes, for example, one of the monks in residence, doing full time higher studies, skips the evening meal in order to study more for keeping up with his classes or preparing for exams. On such days he will grab a bite to eat as he is able. The other student monk in the house is pursuing Italian language studies, and is not under as much pressure to study (there are no exams!), and thus more likely to be present at meals.

This reality of “give and take” is acceptable to all, and while Sant’Ambrogio is not a monastery in the ordinary sense of the word, our Abbot President has stressed that we are monks who live in community, hence we have a schedule of prayers and common life with the need for accountability if for one reason or another we cannot be present for common activities.

Even Saint Benedict in his “Rule for Monks” foresaw that there may be exceptions to the general norm. For such cases our practice is to inform the Abbot President or the Procurator of the house if one plans to be gone from meals, the Divine Office or Mass. A number of the monks here have had family or friends visiting Rome, so it is understood that absences for showing people some of the city will occasionally take place. Sometimes too monks of the house will attend Mass at other Catholic churches in the city, especially on Sundays.

Each morning one of the monks from Sant’Ambrogio is chaplain for Mass at 6:30 am at the nearby Benedictine sisters of Tor de’ Spechhi, called the Oblates of Saint Francis of Rome. The monk priest who celebrates Mass for the sisters has to miss Lauds and Mass at Sant’Ambrogio, which begins at 7:00 am, though he is still obliged to pray Lauds in private. He also takes breakfast sometime after he finishes with Mass for the sisters.

When I am chaplain to the sisters the Mass finishes just before 7:00 am. I am free to pray Lauds in private, but am usually able to reach the parish church of Santa Maria in Portico in Compitelli (on the way to Sant’Ambrogio) as the priests of the Order of Mater Dei begin their celebration of Lauds at 7:00 am.

Afterwards I return to Sant’Ambrogio for an informal breakfast of oatmeal and orange juice. What could be more American than that, I am regularly reminded by my confreres here, as they munch on cookies, plain bread or toast with jam and drink tea, coffee or hot milk for breakfast? Roman breakfast is a fairly simple meal. Mine is also.

Walking in Rome for daily exercise I can see that there are many small markets, with such names as PAM, Coop and Conad, to mention a few. I believe all of them are chain stores that sell basic staples. Many shops too are devoted exclusively to bread and other baked good, for example, as well as stores for fruit, vegetables, cheese, fish, wine, etc. There are also a number health food shops around the area where I live.

All the stores just mentioned seem to cater to local residents and tourists who presumably do not want to go too far afield for their shopping. I am guessing that people go to these local markets perhaps a number of times in the course of a week and tend to buy in smaller quantities. It is always good to bring a sack or bag for one’s goods, as a “busta” costs some cents at most stores.

Rome also is home to huge outdoor markets each day at Campo de’ Fiori, for example, as well as one in the Tesaccio neighborhood and others located elsewhere, with everything under the sun and generally with fairly good prices. These markets seem to attract vast crowds.

For even lower prices and larger quantity purchases in Rome, there is the Metro and other such stores that resemble Cosco or Price Club, common in the US and Mexico. These discount and bulk suppliers tend to be farther from the center of Rome, but people with cars can save on food and other purchases, such as cleaning and household supplies.

Reasonably priced clothing can be found for men and women at such retailers as OVS (not sure what the initials stand for), which specialize in adequate though not pricey clothing for both men and women. There are of course many other clothing stores throughout the city, with quality and prices that vary greatly.

If I need clothing, I usually head on foot to OVS in the Trastevere neighborhood, a fifteen minute walk for me. The store was there thirty years ago, with a different name, when I was a student here, but then as now serving the same purpose. In addition, there is a large supermarket in the basement, called Conad, with a huge variety and reasonably priced groceries. You name it and it is probably there.

On the edges or outside the city of Rome there are also larger outlet clothing stores, but I have yet to visit them. As you might imagine, I tend to stay closer to home, make use of what is easy to get to and has reasonable price tags.

What else might I need stores for (as the topic of this posting is “shopping”)? The only other reason is browsing for books in used bookstores, a decades-old interest of mine. I have found three good used bookshops, one of them only a five minute walk from where I live, called “Libreria Serendipity,” just up the street from the famous and beautiful church of Sant’Andrea della Valle.

“Serendipity” has a good selection of religious and art-related books worth looking over. Prices are fair as well. When I first went there I asked about the price of a book labeled on the back, and was told the actual price was half of the labeled one. This is the case for all the books. The selection is almost entirely books in Italian.

Farther away, but only by a few minutes, in the Trastevere neighborhood, is a shop that has existed for many years, called, “Open Door Bookshop.” It is not large and its religion section is quite limited, but worthwhile editions, in both English and Italian, can be found there at modest prices.

The third store is called “Libreria Yelets,” a good forty minute walk, near Porta Pia, and has a fairly large religion section, in English and Italian, as well as titles on a wide range of subjects. The books are reasonably priced.

All three of the shops just mentioned have friendly people working there, which of course is a plus.

I have explored some other shops advertised as “used bookstores,” but found them to be mostly consisting of new books, over-priced or not of much interest to me. I am guessing there are still other good used bookstores in Rome that I will eventually discover as time and energy permit.

When all is said and done, I am more for shopping to live than living to shop.