Friday, May 27, 2011


Sometimes, life in a foreign country can create labyrinthine difficulties for what would be the simplest procedures elsewhere.

Does anyone know the Italian for "sewing patterns" or "dress patterns"?

I am still more or less housebound, and am going out of my mind with boredom and I thought sewing might be a good time-filler that wouldn't be too physically strenuous. I need some new dresses for the summer and there's nothing in the shops that I can fit into. (Italian shopkeepers regard anything over a size 8 as XXL. It is flatly impossible to buy tights or stockings here that will make it up as far as my waist.)

The trouble is, that no matter how much news, political, medicine, cancer and reastaurant-related Italian I learn, none of it will be any use in a sewing shop.

I once was given the task for the parish of going to a sewing shop and obtaining iron-on pellon. I went to the shop and realised I was utterly at a loss. I spent 20 minutes in that tiny shop looking desperately around, unable to articulate to the shop people what I wanted, before I stumbled upon a packet of fusible interfacing, which more or less served.

Very specialised Italian is a bit of a problem for which dictionaries are useless. And I noticed that, as with most Italian shops, they don't mix the categories in the sewing world.

There's no such thing as "convenience shopping" in this country, and the boundaries between the types of things sold in different sorts of shops are very strictly maintained. It took me ages to figure out that although larger supermarkets will often sell barbeque briquettes and even the white firestarter stuff, they under no circumstances will sell you matches. Matches are sold only at tabacchi.

If you want to buy magazines, go to a newsagent. If you want to buy a packet of crisps and a soda, go to a grocery shop. If you want to buy shampoo and cosmetics, go to a profumeria. If you want to buy bandaids and mercurochrome, or fill a prescription, you have to to to a farmacia. The idea of combining these totally and rigidly separated categories of things into one shop and calling it a "drug store" or a "chemist" as we do in N. America and Britain, would be completely unfathomable to them. So, shopping involves a bit of skill in guessing, from what you know of the Italian mind, what sort of shop would sell the thing you want.

In addition, many of the shops you go to are the old fashioned kind, where the things you need are behind the counter and you have to ask the shop person to give you what you want. I'm sure this has to do with the Italian people-orientation. Italians, no doubt, consider our sort of shopping, where you just roam freely around the shop picking things up as you find them, intolerably impersonal and cold. Where's the human element? I can hear them saying. Well, yes, and I appreciate very much the lovely old-fashionedness of the ladies shops where you go up to the counter and ask the ladies there for your underthings. But it falls down as a system for us ferners when we get in there and realise there is simply NO WAY to describe the thing we want.

I went to that sewing shop in the Jewish section, which we would refer to as a "notions" shop, that sold all sorts of wonderful gadget-y sewing things (men, picture a 19th century hardware/fishing supply store and you will get an idea of the heart's little skip of delight and fascination involved for girls) and realised that neither they nor the fabric shop I had just been to sold dress patterns.

Now, I'm not such a clod that I can't draft my own patterns and come up with the clothes I want, but it does eliminate a step or two if you can start with a basic dress pattern in one's own size. But I have no idea where to get one, what Italian category of shop they might fall under.

For heaven's sake! If not fabric or notions, then what? What?!.