My brother, Chris, and my niece, Nicole, crossed the pond for a whirlwind one-week tour of Italy. Well, Central Italy anyway. It was their first trip outside of America and it was a lot of fun to show them our city, immerse them into the Italian way of life, introduce them to authentic Italian cuisine, and catch up. They spent three nights in Ascoli and it didn’t take long for them to see why we love it here. Then came the inevitable question. It’s a common refrain among visitors. “Where can we find souvenirs?” The short answer is, you can’t. Ascoli Piceno is (thankfully) not a “tourist town” and as such, we mercifully lack those shop-loads of trinkets that you find in every other town of this size. You know the kind I’m talking about; they all carry the same junk, it’s just got a different city’s name inscribed upon it. None of it is made in Italy, much less locally, and little of it bears any real connection to the place. You find the exact same items in shops in Siena, Rome, Florence, and St. Louis. The appeal, I guess, is that it is seen as “something to remember it by”. Knick-knacks, coffee mugs, and plastic baubles, you won’t find them here. You also can’t find a tee shirt, snow globes, or miniature architectural renderings in resin. About the only thing that tourists can buy are post cards, guidebooks rendered into questionable English, and, at one particular tabaccheria, gaudy key chains saying “Ascoli Piceno” along the top, accomapnied by a variety of first names beneath (all Italian names, by the way). I actually think the lack of such tourist trash is something to boast about, and if shops ever start carrying this crap, I will be sorely disappointed. I’ll also hunt you down if I find out that you are one of those tourists demanding such god-awful trinkets.
There are t-shirts and sweatshirts bearing the emblem and script of the Ascoli calcio team (soccer) but that can be a tricky purchase. If you take it back to the US it is one thing, I guess; no one there is the wiser. But to sport such a shirt here is to make a strong statement. If I were more in tune with calcio (which I’m not) or if I agreed with the politics of the team (which I don’t) then I might root for them or give little moral thought about making such a purchase. However. It came as quite a surprise to learn that many of the soccer teams here have political underpinnings, and that the fans of any given team are generally passionately allied with a particular party’s philosophy. Ascoli’s team, it turns out, is Fascist. I, like many others, thought Fascism in Italy was a thing of the past, buried along with Mussolini. There is, however, a modern version alive and well, though why anyone subscribes to it is beyond my comprehension. Our current mayor, we are told, is Fascist. There are also ominous groups who hold anti-everything stances (anti-immigration, anti-South, anti-government, anti-semitic) such as Forza Nuova, whose members very much resemble the photos I have seen of neo-Nazis.
Buying the team gear, therefore, just doesn't seem right, though it leaves precious little in the way of traditional souvenirs if you don’t happen to have need of a tacky key chain. But then, we always think the best mementos are those produced locally – a piece of hand-painted ceramics, local wine or biscotti, and carefully hand-made chocolates. Visiting the artisans, interacting with them and supporting their crafts create better memories than plunking down a few euros for a mass-produced tee shirt or made-in-China trinket, even if it does happen to have the town’s name emblazoned on it. Such personal memories are better than souvenirs, anyway.