My peaceful reading and writing routine was disrupted that autumn when my wife decided to take a trip home.
“I’ll explain the shops to you,” she said before we left for the airport.
“How hard can it be to buy food?”
“You’d be surprised. So, there’s the food you buy from vendors, and the food you buy in shops…”
I knew about the bread man. He was impossible to ignore because he came in a van and sat in the alley blaring his horn at sunup. That agonizing drone, which sounded like someone fell asleep at the wheel, was a call that summoned old ladies from every doorway to purchase their morning loaf.
It wasn’t until I’d made a 5am airport run that I realized the bread guy was a sort of geriatric Pied Piper. As I stumbled out of my car and struggled to unlock the door, I saw flocks of old ladies I didn’t even know lived in our neighbourhood, all dressed in black, shuffling in unison towards his white van.
“Vegetable vendors come in a truck, but I never buy from them,” she said.
Some roved from neighbourhood to neighbourhood, while others parked in a roundabout and never moved. They all drove open-sided trucks with veggies displayed in baskets and boxes, enveloped in dust and black car fumes.
“Buy vegetables from the shop around the corner. It’s run by a young couple with their own farm.”
A good vegetable vendor knew exactly who grew what, how they farmed it, and which farmers produced organically. They sourced the very best local strawberries, eggs and snails, and they gave away parsley and celery leaves for free.
“Make sure you go on Mondays or Thursdays. That’s when the boat comes from Sicily. If it doesn’t arrive because of rough weather or a breakdown, the stores might be closed.”
“What about the Bigilla Man?” I asked.
This was a loaded question, because his very existence was a matter of dispute.
Bigilla is Maltese a snack made from crushed fava beans, with a sprinkle of chilli and olive oil; delicious when eaten hot and fresh off the back of the truck, spread on a cracker or a hunk of crusty bread.
The Bigilla man announced his presence with a recorded cry from the speaker atop his van. Tomoko swore this voice said, “Tal-bigilla!”, but I never heard it no matter how hard I tried, and I know she only believed in this because Josephine told her with great conviction.
I heard his ghostly recorded cry echoing down the winding streets and alleys around our house, reverberating off stone walls and seemingly coming from everywhere at once, and I followed it through the village core like the song of the Sirens, down dead end alleys and double-back streets until I was thoroughly disoriented. But in spite of my most earnest efforts, I never saw the Bigilla man at all.
“Are you listening? I left you a note but it’s easier to explain.”
“Yes, yes, yes,” I said, in the local fashion. “There aren’t any takeaways in this village. I have a strong incentive to learn.”
“Pay attention, then. There are different shops for everything. The butcher opens in the morning on Monday, and on Tuesdays he’s open after four.”
The other days were equally irregular, but everyone seemed to show up at exactly the right time. I don’t know how they kept it straight without a chart.
“The hours of the fish shop are a bit more unusual. Stick to the sea bream, that’s always fresh. Don’t bother asking how to cook it. They always say baked or grilled, with olive oil, tomatoes and capers.”
We could get good tuna, swordfish, octopus and squid, but such creatures were beyond my abilities in the kitchen.
“Oh, and by the way, Josephine won’t be able to come for the next three weeks, so you’ll have to clean. She’s having surgery and her doctor said she can’t work.”
“Is anything wrong?”
“She’s getting new tits.”
She grabbed her jacket from a hook by the door and shook it once. A black millipede fell to the floor.
“Okay, you’d better drive me to the airport. Boarding starts in half an hour.”