An Italian institution may soon be dismantled. One change from a series of reforms that politicians and merchants have been squabbling about over months would take away the exclusive right that newspaper kiosks have to sell newspapers and magazines.
This is a huge deal. In the Bel Paese, if you want bread, you go to the bakery. You want cigarettes, head to the tobacconist. Need aspirin? Pharmacy. You want a newspaper? Kiosk.
Slowly but surely, the butcher/baker/candlestick maker set-up is going the way of gaucho pants.
It’s one of the first things that charms — then later annoys, frustrates and disgusts — foreigners who call Italy home. Finding good bread or a kiosk owner who will put aside papers when you’re on vacation or a pharmacist who’ll hand over the goods even when you don’t have a prescription are all part of getting plugged into the local network.
You make friends, receive gratuitous comments on your “cera” (lit. “wax,” meaning complexion, general health) and ask for advice.
Then you forget to pick up the papers — or they forget to put them aside — or you want decent bread on Sunday but the bakery’s closed or you discover there’s a generic version of the medicine you take and they never let on.
As a freelancer, I’m of two minds about the kiosk situation. There were times when if I didn’t talk to Vincenzo, who manned the newsstand a couple of blocks from my apartment, I could go days without speaking in person to another human being.
Easy on the eyes — think young Bruce Springsteen — once he found out I was a journalist, he would scan the papers for stuff he thought I might find interesting. From Nazi porn movies to crucifix gadgets and girlie calendar sales, he was a valuable source of information. And someone who would occasionally call for coffee from the café across the street when my cera necessitated it.
Then I moved. And the fairy who bestows amiable kiosk men on deserving journalists did not bless me with another Vincenzo.
My two closest stands are decidedly grim. The first is run by a sad old guy, recovering from some kind of throat surgery, who signs prices from his little cubby hole; and the second by a brassy-haired woman from whom I have yet, in many months of fraternization, to get a show of teeth. At this point, I’d be grateful to pick up the paper at the supermarket. Or buy it from a vending machine. Or even the bakery.
Pharmacies were one of the first targets on this liberalization campaign — a change I waited for gladly — so now, in theory, one can buy some over-the-counter medicine in supermarkets.
Naturally, pharmacy owners had a great racket going and weren’t going to take it lying down. They launched scare campaigns about people self-medicating themselves into stupors (or worse) and, more importantly, they lobbied politicians.
The result? No supermarkets in Milan sell pharmaceuticals. There are a couple of hyper-marts outside Milan with small selections of them — apparently with pharmacists manning even the aspirin — but that’s it. Newsstand owners have already signed this kind of truce and in most of these mega-supermarkets far from the city center you can already buy papers.
Here’s hoping this is a real reform. Or maybe the kiosk fairy sees fit to send me someone nice.