I’m not really good at cooking but I must eat something, nonetheless. I get dressed quickly and I go to the market of my town. Being a small village, I assume I will find less people than in a shopping centre. It is a simple market, with few street vendors offering local products. The mix between lockdown and market make me immediately think about one of my trips to China, a flashback and my mind goes over that day.
I remember Andrea, Andrea Paolo Milano, my mentor, unforgettable and unforgotten friend, who stared at me with a smile, sly and worried.
“Are you sure to go?”
“Of course, I can’t wait! As you know, for me the exciting and crucial part of the trip is immersing myself into the local culture”.
“I know, I know, travelling with you is always a challenge!”
“I don’t like traditional tourist attractions, I’d rather discover traditions, meet people, go in search of small shops, discover local medicaments in pharmacies, strolling through markets. And whoever travels with me shouldn’t be too picky! Do you remember such typical restaurant that your hands stuck to the table? ”
“How can I forget! I have never met such a reckless person, enjoying indigenous food and unusual combinations as much as you do! ”
We immerse ourselves into the crazy, crowded and unregulated traffic of the freeway. Cars, lorries, motorcycles with one, two, three, sometimes even four people all together, vans so full of goods that they seem to defy the law of gravity, darting left and right.
We leave behind the skyscrapers and the astonishing lights of the metropolis and go into the rural China. Kilometres and kilometres of open, uninhabited, flat spaces. The vastness of Chinese spaces is incredible, it gives you the quivers. Then, suddenly, like a mushroom growing in the night, a new urban settlement.
Skyscrapers and shacks, causeways streets and dirt roads, trickles of putrid water, men in elegant clothes and others in traditional clothes. Everything merges and becomes confused.
We go to the end of the street, struggling to gain space in the crowd, where a sparkling sign in Chinese characters points out our destination: a wet market.
“They are called wet markets because of their floor, which is soaked by water and ice used to keep the goods fresh or wash the stalls after slaughter” Andrea explains. He amazes me every time for his culture and knowledge of everything in the world.
“These places play a central role in Chinese social life, they offer fresh food at affordable prices, but they are also places of meetings and relationships, where traditions are handed down and where sellers give information on the beneficial properties of different types of meat.”
I get close and then I enter, with curiosity, but also, I must admit, with suspicion.
All my five senses are upset and overwhelmed by a wave of colours and smells.
The colours of the products, properly displayed on the stalls, are bright, vivid, it is like stepping into a painting by Miró.
Smells are sour and pungent, it is impossible to describe all those ones pervading the place, even if the typical smells of blood and soy are certainly the most intense. Smells for strong stomachs.
I taste a few bites of food I was offered, mostly sweet and sour, even if sometimes I get a spicy sensation. Men and women hurry among sellers, they touch, taste, select, buy. Children run barefoot among foods, they eat ravioli, fried cockroach skewers, duck tongues. Real local delicacies. They look at me and laugh, they touch my clothes, I am something new, it is not usual for them to see a Western woman.
A confused shouting in a guttural language fills the air. I listen and I think that, after all, the world is the same all over: we are in China, but we could be in a market of Naples or Palermo, with the confusion and the shouts of the seller overlapping.
I am impressed by the variety of live animals enclosed in their cages or basins of water, turtles, birds, snakes, scorpions, rodents and many parts of slaughtered animals arranged in piles shaping a pyramid, chicken heads, legs of veal and pork, pieces of lamb but also of crocodile or squirrel.
Then it is a moment, something like a primordial scream. I turn around and I make out a sudden, precise gesture. A severed head, dripping blood, bowels on the ground, faeces. The meal is ready. I didn’t know what I was looking at, now I know. Covid19 and me were face to face.