Sunny Saturday Stroll

It’s 29 October and the sun is shining, there’s not even a whisper of a breeze. I’m in the town of Bomba; pronounced Bom-ba and not as I heard one Englishman once call it Bomber. So what can I do on such a lovely morning but take a stroll through the town.

The town of Bomba dates back to 1115 AD with documented proof being housed in the local council offices. It’s a small town, just 18 km2 (7 sq mi) and enjoys an elevated position over the river Sangro valley meaning from almost every part of the town you can enjoy amazing panoramic views .

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The town is divided by a main street, at the top end it is called Via Roma, and my stroll starts here. I stop and look down over the tiled roofs of houses that have a view of the lake, it’s around 11.20 and the streets are already filled with people going about their daily business. Looking down I watch as a small Piaggio: a 3-wheel Ape (a-pay) chugs up the winding hill with several crates of freshly picked olives. I turn and walk as slowly as the ginger cat that’s taking it’s time to cross the road. Local people wish me good morning as they pass me; some possibly wondering who the stranger with a camera is. I stop and pass the time of day with a man who has arrived in a small reddish-orange pick-up filled with wood.

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He’s unloading the wood and stacking it neatly inside his cantina, he tells me he’s done this every year since he was a small boy over 70 years ago helping his father replenish the family’s wood pile. I tell him my own wood pile is growing in preparation for the winter ahead and we both agree that there’s nothing better than the smell of a wood fire on a crisp winter’s evening.

I continue along Via Roma past the water fountain where locals buy their sparkling or still spring water for just 5 cents a litre – just bring your own bottle. I see a lady I’ve met previously and we pass the time of day, she comments on my lack of a jacket and I tell her the temperature this morning is quite similar to an English morning in May, to which she responds with, “Those poor English people having to live in the cold.”

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Via Roma changes to become Cso S. Spaventa and it’s flanked on both sides by tall buildings. Three storey houses and apartments keep this portion of the street in shade and there’s a sudden dip in temperature out of the sun. Entrances with steep steps lead to front doors and it again it amazes me how the aging Italian population take all of these steps in their stride. (no pun intended).

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To my right are streets with sharp inclines that make their way upwards away from the corso while on my left narrow streets become entwined with vici (alleys) in the historic part of town; here in this labyrinthine part of town small dogs bark at strangers who pass by and disturb their sunbathing.

 

One of the town’s churches sits in an elevated position and the road leading up to it is as slender as a wasps waist, yet still cars have managed to make their way up here; some with their wing mirrors pulled in so as not to damage them in these narrowest of streets.

 

I’m again amazed at the skill of these people to navigate these streets and their parking may look like a nightmare for some, but I’m certain there’s some pecking order / unwritten parking system here.

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I continue my walk, stopping occasionally to admire wood piles that are constructed with great precision, one house has what looks like an unused door to its cantina and here are stacked olive branches, each one cut to the same length so as to fit into the space exactly.

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My journey brings me along an alleyway where a scooter stands outside a house with an open front door where the aroma of cooking spills out infusing the air with a the rich tang of tomato sauce and basil. This scene is as Italian as it can get and again reminds me how the Italian way of life is so close to its perceived stereotype.

The alley opens up to the main piazza and here is an image of Italian life as it has been for centuries. Men fill the benches and sit around gossiping while the women see to the chores. One woman hands her husband a couple of euro to buy his coffee with as she steps inside the baker’s to buy their daily bread. There’s no expectation of change here, it’s not a misogynistic society, it’s just the traditional way of life here in central Italy that remains unchanged.

In truth if you asked most of the women if they’d like their menfolk to help with the daily shopping and cooking, you get a resounding, no. “Why let the men make a mess of things,” one lady once told me, “The wife would have to clear up her husband’s mistakes while making sure not to hurt his feelings.”

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I turn back towards Via Roma and make my way back to my friend’s house where again the aroma of cooking is carried upon the air, however this kitchen smell is very alien to this ancient town, as it’s chicken curry. I look across as a neighbour uses an electric winch to lift her shopping from the street up two storeys to her apartment and think to myself what a perfect way to spend a sunny Saturday morning.

An Italian Day

A friend once mentioned to me that her neighbour went to the market or local shop everyday to buy provisions for that day’s lunch or dinner. She told me that if she did a weekly shop then she’d save herself a daily trip to the shops. I thought about this and spoke with an Italian friend about it and her reply was, “Of course we shop everyday, that way we know we have, cibo più fresco.” PING! on went the ‘of course’ light. In a society where seasonal is important, women have shopped daily for years to make certain they purchase the best and freshest produce.

Often people comment that Italian’s appear to be chaotic and disorganised, but that’s far from the truth. Italian’s are very organised in their day to day lives and as I think back to how my day has been today I realise I’ve adapted to some of these daily rituals easily and without actually thinking about it. So here’s a typical Britalian day for me and how it mirrors that of my Italian colleagues and friends.

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My day starts with strong black coffee and after breakfast I set off for work. Today I drive up into the mountains as I’m visiting the town of Torricella Peligna to take photos of an apartment that is being put up for sale. I have a pleasant morning with the owner and get the shots required to market her apartment. The sky is as clear and blue as a Ceylon sapphire as we leave the town and below us the road twists and turns through the countryside, with its patchwork of fields and olive groves. The car’s windows are open and the scent of jasmine is drawn inside making this journey a feast for the senses. We pass through the town of Roccascalegna and decide to drop in to check all is well with some new clients who purchased a house a few months back. I find that Sue, Keith and their beautiful daughter Sophie are settling in to their house well and are becoming happily embroiled into their Italian community.

It’s now one o’clock and time for that important of daily Italian customs, lunch.

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We drop into our local restaurant which is already filled with diners and after a ten minute wait we’re seated and ordering. Italian lunch is the most important meal of the day, it’s not to be rushed, it’s meant to be eaten in a relaxed manner to aid digestion. In complete contrast to the meagre Italian breakfast lunch is substantial. I order my primo;  chitarrina allo scoglio, a pasta dish made with the local Abruzzese square shaped spaghetti. The mussels and clams are sweet and the broth that lurks under the pasta has the fragrance of the sea. Around us the other diners are eating, drinking and chatting at a leisurely pace. Lunch isn’t something that should be rushed in Italy. More white wine: ice cold and fizzing in the carafe is delivered to our table and our dishes are cleared away in readiness for the secondo.

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Being an Italian restaurant there’s a television mounted on the wall and muted news reports are playing as the waiters clear tables and redress them in around 40 seconds for more waiting diners. My secondo arrives, a plump piece of salmon dressed simply with olive oil and a slice of lemon. My contorno (side dish) is slices of fresh tomato and wafer thin rings of red onion.

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Workers look at their watches in a relaxed manner, no one is rushing to get back to work yet; after all the standard time given over for lunch is two hours. I check the time and order coffee and stretch my arms above my head feeling happily full.

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After my two hour repast and having paid my €10  we leave and I go back to work. My afternoon is taken up with admin until it’s time to pack away the office for a few minutes and head off to the cantina. A short drive later, I’m loading boxes of wine into the boot of the car and I’m almost ready to leave when the assistant calls me over and gives me two free bottles of wine and tells me to have a good evening.

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Generosity seems to be an intrinsic part of the Italian psyche as is their cordiality, it’s customary to be told to have a good day, a pleasant evening, buon pranzo (have a good lunch) and all other manner of well wishes throughout your day. These salutations are never forced and they’re always received and reciprocated in a genuine way. I’m happy to say that there’s none of that dictated corporate bonhomie in Italy.

Back home, it’s time to sample the wine and a glass of excellent red is poured as I check the last of the emails for the day before setting off for the evening stroll in readiness for dinner. Passeggiata, the Italian custom of a stroll before dinner is a perfect way to catch up with gossip, and as soon as you get into the habit you realise it’s a perfect way to integrate with your community, it’s a sort of walking adhesive.

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It’s now around 8pm and the cars have started to arrive at the local restaurant, the tables outside are populated by people drinking aperitivi as the waiters finish setting up for the evening service. And all over Italy people are preparing for dinner, the same way it’s been done throughout generations.

Confusing identity

Welcome to 2015, the first song playing on my iPod as I recount my first tale of the year here is Bitter, from the This Mortal Coil album, Blood, and for those back in the UK who think it’s all sunshine and red wine here, I’ll post you a photo of the snow we had earlier this month – needless to say it’s now gone and we’re back to red wine and sunshine.

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So for my first post of 2015 I thought I’d tell you about a conversation that occurred a few days ago. I was shopping and spotted an English acquaintance, we passed the time of day and as we did so a woman in the queue at the till kept looking over at us.

My friend left and I took up my position in the till queue, which here in Italy usually means a long wait, I put my proposed purchases onto the floor at my feet, and am waiting when the woman who had been looking over turns and says to me, “ You speak very good English for a foreigner.”

“Thanks,” I replied a tad confused but too engrossed in the sign advertising a 20% discount on bucatini: I’m not tempted as its probably the only pasta that I dislike .  

“Was it hard to learn?” I look up at her confused and reply with, “Not really, it sort of came naturally.”

She’s now at the front of the queue, her shopping is being scanned and tossed down to the bagging area to be retrieved and bagged by her friend, who has a look about her that reminds me of a spaniel that’s lost all of its toys. Before she pays, she turns and looks at me again and says, “Good for you, I’d have thought it was tricky, what with you being German.”

I look at my friend who is on the till, she mouths, ‘tedesco?’  meaning German? I shake my head and mouth back, ‘stupida’.

I don’t mind, but the woman in question had an accent that wouldn’t have sounded out of place on Birds of a Feather.

Hoarder or OCD

Friends always laugh at me saying my obsession with ‘being stocked-up’ is like preparing for a nuclear war. Today I was putting some pasta in the cupboard and realised anyone looking in from the outside would not be wrong in assuming that: [A] I’m partial to De Cecco pasta. [B} I’m a bit obsessive. [C} I’m a hoarder.

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  Yes I do like De Cecco pasta, in fact back in the U.K. a friend once called me a pasta snob, as I only ever buy this brand. At this    moment in time I have twenty-eight packets of the stuff ranging from boxes of lasagne sheets to linguine and tiny little stelle (stars) that you drop into soup.

  I don’t think I’m a hoarder, I don’t really collect things apart from music albums, oh and don’t forget the Staedtler pencil obsession. I used to keep all the posters, set lists and related paraphernalia from when I was in a band and amassed nine scrap books, however a flood saw to their demise and that ended my only collecting habit.

  OCD does feature in my life and this means I sometimes have unfathomable reasons for doing things. In particular I can never allow my stock of toilet paper to fall below four packets, I don’t know why it’s four but as soon as the fourth packet is opened I’m down the shop buying a new pack. Someone did comment that at least we’ll be okay if we get a sudden attack of dysentery. My current stash is five and a half packs on the window ledge in the bathroom. Another oddity is that despite not being perishable, they are used up in rotation, with newer stock going to the right-hand side at the bottom of the pile, as usage is from left to right. 100_8421-crop

I think I’ve always liked to see kitchen cupboards full, I’d hate to look for something and not find it. I always think it’s best to be prepared for every eventuality, sudden guests near lunchtime or an unequivocal desire for tinned carrots. My mother always stressed the importance of having a well stocked kitchen and I think it has sort of stemmed from there.

Don’t even get me started on the freezer, yesterday I was kindly given some crumpets brought over from the U.K. and there was only enough room in the bread section for six of them so we had to eat four of them so as not to waste them. (Yes there are sections, meat, fish, veg and processed food and even a section for home made soups and stocks.

Is it OCD that drives my desire to build up this food stock, possibly or maybe I’m more comfortable knowing that if anything did happen to prevent me getting to the shops I at least have enough stockpiled food to keep me going for a while.

Though what incidents are likely to necessitate this I’m unsure: sudden snowfall, illness, alien invasion?

I do believe there has to be a modicum of obsessive compulsion involved, particularly with the toilet rolls situation and if you look inside my cupboards all the tins are in order and facing the front: which makes perfect sense as you can see straight away what’s where and what’s what. The maximum amount of tins per item in the cupboard is six any extra stock is stored in a separate place all together where no firm rules regarding numbers or position apply.

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Of course everything has to be in the correct place. Dried goods like pasta, rice and pulses have their own cupboard, as do cakes and biscuits; albeit a small one as we eat very few of these and tinned goods are never mixed with jars. Jars reside on the shelves made by a friend to fill a recess in the wall where the sink was originally and having just glanced at it maybe five jars of anchovies is a little excessive as are four of artichoke hearts. But as I’ve already said, you never know what will happen.

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I would imagine that due to the regimented way I store things and the number patterns a psychologist would determine that it is OCD rather than hoarding. But should the earth become subjected to an invasion from the far depths of space, during mankind’s panic there’ll still be a little house in Italy where you can get good quality pasta and soft toilet tissue.

Markets and a Comparison

One of the things that I really like about living in Italy is the abundance of open-air markets. In the UK, over the years there’s been a gradual decline in markets; mostly, in my opinion, due to the greed of the major four supermarkets and twenty-four trading. I think there’s nothing nicer than taking your time to look around a market stall that someone has set up in the ungodly hours and filled with their wares. Regular trips help to build up a rapport and pretty soon your shopping experience is peppered with friendly conversation and the occasional discount. I love to buy my fruit and veg at the market as often as possible, and try to use the same stalls each time. Our local market is held on a Friday morning and the man on the fruit and veg stall I use, always has a jovial manner and a quick chat often is repaid with a few extra veggies for free. A few weeks back he had run out of garlic so told me to go to the shop in town that is owned by the family. He leant forward and whispered, “Tell them Antonio sent you.” He winked and off I went. I reached the shop; whose name shall remain a secret, I was purchasing the garlic, when I remembered to say, “Antonio sent me,” and the sales assistant smiled and then promptly deducted thirty-five cents from the cost.

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Guardiagrele Market

I’m also partial to the small independent shops that have their produce stacked outside. I adore seeing garlic, chillies and onions hanging from nails banged into the wall and boxes piled high with purple aubergines, scarlet tomatoes and crisp white fennel bulbs. Invariably these shops are a few cents more expensive than the supermarkets, but if you ask, they always know the provenance of their stock. We have a fabulous fruit and veg shop on the road to Atessa where the staff can tell you exactly where the plums are from or how far away the broccoli was grown and each visit always facilitates a free bunch of odori, which is basically a few sticks of celery, some parsley and sometimes a couple of shallots as a thank-you for your custom.

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The one thing that I keep hearing ex-pats say is that food over here is expensive compared to the UK, I wonder where these people are shopping. I know of one couple who drive the 120 km round trip each week to the Lidl to purchase the handful of English food they stock, (no wonder they think its expensive). So I thought whilst I was over in England a couple of weeks ago I’d jot down some prices and make a comparison when I returned. For the purpose of this comparison I accumulated my data from two leading UK supermarkets Asda and Tesco and compared their prices to two Italian ones, Eurospin and Conad. So here are my findings, obviously I am unable to do a like for like comparison on named brands so have used fresh produce or the nearest equivalent.

Product UK Price £ Italian Price €
Fennel bulb 1.25 0,35
Half cucumber 0.85 0,21
Iceberg lettuce 0.75 0,31
6 pork sausages 2.49 2,25
1kg soap powder 4.99 2,99
Medium Cauliflower 1.25 0,97
6 chicken thighs 1.99 2,10
Prosecco 9.99 2,69
Red wine 2.69 1,26
Sacala pasta sauce 1.69 1,00
2 pork chops 2,89 2,57
Beef stock cubes 1.19 0,95
medium olive loaf 1.25 1,34
White Potatoes  1 KG 1,09 0,93
Tin of tomatoes 0.79 0,32

If I purchased all of these items, the English shopping would come to £35.15 and the Italian would be €20,24 which if converted into each currency at todays rate would mean that the English shopping comes out as £18.38 or €22,18 more expensive. I know you can argue the wines are more expensive due to UK taxes, but this illustration is purely based on shopping I purchased in the UK and continue to buy here, and is only a quick comparison. It is all a bit of swings and roundabouts, as electrical goods here tend to be more expensive; in Asda they had a bag-less vacuum cleaner on sale for £49.99 and the Italian equivalent is €99,99, but how often do you need to buy a new vacuum cleaner in comparison to pork chops.

Chieti Baby Boom

Today it seems everywhere I have been there has been a pregnant woman. Yes, pregnant ladies everywhere today. I nipped to the builders merchant this morning and there was the man with a dirty pick-up collecting some bags of plaster. I’ve seen him almost every time I’ve been and his truck is dirtier each time. However today, standing in the yard and leaning against his mud splashed vehicle is a woman, heavily pregnant and smoking a cigarette. Inside the cab is an equally dirty child, its face smeared with what I’m hoping is just the remnants of a chocolate croissant. The man comes back, barks something at the woman. She then flicks the red ember from the end of her cigarette: an act we called ‘nipping’ when I was a teenage smoker. She pops the half smoked fag-end behind her ear and climbs into the pick-up.

On the way back I decided to drop into the supermarket for some mackerel for lunch. As I drive the iPod shuffles and Toyah, sings I Explode, my thoughts bounce back to the heavily pregnant smoker, and I picture her gorged belly exploding and hundreds of tiny smoking babies pouring out onto the ground. Maybe there’s the germ of a story in that thought.

I’m in the supermarket and browsing when I turn a corner into another aisle and there’s a young couple, possibly mid-twenties. He’s holding her hand and with his other hand is stroking her belly, she too is heavily pregnant. This outward show of affection is nice but it’s odd as it’s the girl who is carrying the basket containing their shopping. A woman spots them and she walks over asking when the baby is due. Suddenly she’s stroking the girls belly too. Why is it that when people see a pregnant woman, they feel the need to stroke the bump. I’m not sure how I’d feel if every person I passed in the store wanted to pat my paunch. As I leave the supermarket another woman walks over to the pregnant girl and more bump brushing takes place.

Later in the day I’m waiting for the ATM in Altino to become vacant, there’s a woman standing using it and after withdrawing money from it, lo and behold; sorry for the cliché, she turns around and is also pregnant. As my seedlings took a pelting in the previous days of stormy weather I decide to check out what’s available at the local shop. I’m wondering if I ought to buy some tomato plants now, or wait to see if mine perk up when another pregnant woman approaches me. This one has a baby in the crook of her arm, balanced on her hip, it looks to be around two-years old, she’s pushing a pram containing another younger baby and in her belly she is carrying the unborn addition to the family. The poor woman looks tired; ever likely. Her husband leaves the local store and calls to her, he’s short and round with enough wiry hair bulging out of the top of his shirt to stuff a mattress. He’s balding prematurely, a sure sign of powerful fertility and as I decline the chance to purchase some more tomato plants and wander away thinking about the tired looking woman, I wonder if her husband could be responsible for the recent Chieti baby boom.

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As I don’t have a photo of a pregnant woman, and because it would have been creepy to have taken any of those I saw today, I’ll leave you with a snap of our town. Casoli, CH.

Before posting, a friend just read this and in an Arnie Swarz etc. etc. voice said, “I’ll be back, the sperminator.”

Privato

The sun is shining, the egg is in the breakfast pan and, Well Worn Hand, one of my favourite tracks by, the Editors, shuffles on the iPod. All is good with the world this morning, but hang about, what’s that shadow? I look outside and there’s a woman wandering down the side of my house, she has a carrier bag in her hand so I assume she’s foraging. The pan comes off the heat and I’m outside with the swiftness I can muster this early on, senza caffe. I try to explain that this land is private property now, but she can’t seem to grasp what I’m saying. I gesticulate, waving my arms like a windmill in a gale and point, “Proprieta privata,” I say, “proprieta mia.” I’m jabbing myself in the chest, hoping it’ll lend some gravitas to my statement. She looks at me with a watery, aged eye and points to my land. “Si,” I say, “ casa é terra.” She shakes her head and asks if all the land is mine. I point to where mine starts and ends and she shrugs her shoulders and shuffles away.

Now part of me feels a little sad that the lady can no longer forage on my land, it’s not that at the moment it’s anything more than may hundred square metres of untamed wilderness, but; and here’s where I stand on the issue. First when I’ve cultivated it, do I want all and sundry thinking it’s a free-for-all in my cabbage patch. – No, and second, these unwelcome visitors always come down the steps onto what will upon completion be our patio and outdoor space. Now I for one don’t want to be having a shower with some old lady popping her head around the window. Or there’s the (remote) possibility I may have the outside door open and be engaged in some bedroom gymnastics, and no unsuspecting field forager wants to see that in the early hours.

So there’s nothing for it, I have to buy a sign. The Italians love their signs, they have them all over the place. Beware of the dog, for sale, for rent, you name it and the houses are plastered with them. So with iPod installed, and Linkin Park, playing With You, I set off for Lanciano, a mere 20km away. I take the scenic route, rather than the direct route as I like the views as the car climbs upwards revealing the lush fields below. I read somewhere that Abruzzo is often referred to as the lungs of Italy. In fact the header photograph to this blog was taken from the road up to Castelfrentano, and later Lanciano.

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We reach Ikasa, part of a company called Brico, a sort of hardware cum electrical cum you name it we sell it store. My OH, Dutch heads off to look at wooden kitchen surfaces and I hone in on the signs that are rotating in a display. I flick the carousel round until I come across three signs. One is an A4 piece of plastic with a red no entry symbol and large black letters that shout out Private Property, another is an A4 landscape, blue and white one that simply says Private with a blue no entry sign. I dismiss this one immediately as being too passive. The final one is just 6 inches long by 3 inches wide. It simply says Private and has a small no entry sign. “So, what do you think?” Dutch says, when I walk over, signs clutched in my hand. “Pine or not?” I give him one of my bemused, or quite frankly gormless looks. “For the kitchen.” I’m non-committal, Kitchen surfaces can wait for another day, today is all about a private property sign. I hold up the two I have and ask which he thinks we should get. I’m favouring the bigger one that screams, ‘this is my land so bugger off’, Dutch just points to the small one and says, “This one.” I’m about to protest when he informs me that he thinks the smaller one is more dignified. “But,” I mumble, “the big one will fit on the post and stand out, I’ll have to trim down the smaller one to fit on the post box.” He nods and says, “Exactly,” then turns his attention back to the work surfaces on show.

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Back home and with the self adhesive sign trimmed and in position, I mumble to myself as I walk the few metres back to the house, “Just one more unwelcome visitor and I’m going straight back for the big bloody sign, and it’s not up for discussion.”

Sweets in the Freezer

When I’m out shopping there’s one thing that really annoys me. Its when people pick something up from a point of sale, walk around with it for several minutes then decided they don’t want it and instead of putting it back where they picked it up from just drop it down randomly, expecting someone else (store staff) to return it to its correct place.

Yesterday whilst walking around a local supermarket, iPod on shuffle as usual the fabulous Funkadelic began to play, The Electric Spanking of War Babies, I was enjoying the track when I spotted a woman take something out of her shopping basket and drop it into an open freezer. Upon closer inspection she had dropped inside a now unwanted packet of Haribo sweets. I proceeded to watch her and she stopped at the veg stand and dropped a bag of Brussels sprouts into her basket. Later as the song shuffled and PiL began playing Public Image, I spotted the shopper again. This time she removed the sprouts from her basket and put them down onto a soap powder display and made her way to the tills.

I hate this nonchalant store littering, how can we expect kids to see littering out of doors as a negative thing when they follow their parents around stores and see them do the same thing with discarded produce. If you don’t want anything or are unsure, leave it out of your basket until you are sure. The poor grunt on minimum wage has enough to do already without lazy shoppers adding to the daily workload.