Page last updated at 11:56 GMT, Sunday, 27 December 2009

Boutique shopping joys of Paris, Rome and Berlin

Monsieur Charcellay
Monsieur Charcellay's Parisian butchery is loved by Joanna Robertson's daughter

Having recently moved to Berlin, Joanna Robertson fondly remembers relationships forged with independent shopkeepers in Paris and Rome, and looks forward to making new friends while shopping in other boutique stores.

Newly arrived, I go out to gather provisions, absent-mindedly naming to myself shopkeepers and market-stall holders in childish shorthand.

Here in Berlin, to cheer the daily round, I already have the "Ruddy Polish Farmer", the "Shy Egg Lady", the "Jolly German Farmer" and "Mr Marzipan".

Dashing in his white coat, deftly manoeuvring his meat cleaver, Monsieur Chancellay could transform any cut into a greedy feast

Not very imaginative but, with each name, they vividly appear like genies from a lamp, hovering in a mist of their wares.

In a new and lonely city, they are a quickly familiar world of regular characters. The act of daily marketing is comforting.

Back home with the groceries, the apartment - still littered with removal cartons - bears witness to shopkeepers gone before.

White plates made by Francesca in Rome. That was three apartments and two countries ago and where Franco, the carpenter, built our bookshelves.

Aldo Fefe made the coloured storage boxes in his small shop filled with paper and pots of glue.

What remains of our furniture was all bought from that whistling junk man near Porta Portese.

Different approach

I lift the heavy German bread into two baskets - souvenirs of our local bakery in Paris - and emit a sigh.

Bernard's shop

In Paris, Bernard's tiny shop had comics, bubble gum and slot machines with irresistible gummy aliens

Rome was south, Paris was west. Berlin, however, is east.

The Jolly German Farmer is precisely that, and I cannot imagine the Shy Egg Lady thawing much, despite her tentative smile.

Miranda, my small daughter, asks "Why doesn't the butcher here go 'Bang! Bang! Bang!'?

Because, I think, he is a meat-counter assistant - not a real butcher at all - let alone Miranda's beloved Monsieur Charcellay in Paris.

Dashing in his white coat, deftly manoeuvring his meat cleaver, he could transform any cut into a greedy feast.

Informed of my budget - frequently measly - he would always find something fresh and good.

"You have shallots? You have olive oil? Then, Madame, voila!"

And always, for the children, a saucisson and a sweetie from the jar.

Pastry names

The children miss other shopkeepers, too.

In Paris, Bernard's tiny shop had comics, bubblegum and slot machines with irresistible gummy aliens.

He had a knack for finding that exact marble and, each September, he would lift the multi-paged, meticulous French school equipment list from my hysterical hands and prepare the lot, perfectly.

Sweet shop
A visit to the sweetshop on Rue Vavin often ended in a family feud

Come Christmas, elderly neighbours - Monsieur Patrice, Madame Lerch and the like - were saved when Bernard would offer to find for them just what their grand- and great-grandchildren wanted, all just a few steps from home.

On black winter mornings, the glow of light from the boulangerie across the street was a lifeline.

Down the steep stone steps, one could watch the loaves baking in the blazing wood-burning oven: great, round miches at the back, croissants, pains-au-chocolat, and chaussons pommes at the front.

On their birthdays, the baker wrote the children's names in pastry on their buns.

Le Dome fishmonger had a thick glass tank to peep through, with peacock-blue lobsters lurking in the gloom.

At Monsieur Constant's, there was delicious passion fruit ice-cream.

And each Friday afternoon, a visit to the sweetshop lady on Rue Vavin: raspberry lollipops and aniseed for the children, interminable tales of family feuds for me.

'Grumpy Pasta Sisters'

In Rome, my elder daughter, Lilli, learned to walk with Luciano, the waiter at our local bar.

Berlin sweet-laden Christmas market

Berlin is brimming with sweetshops but I fear no-one gets to go behind the curtain

She picked up maths helping Cinzia with the till at the forno. She discovered books in the company of Claire at her most wonderful Corner Bookshop.

Urgent babysitting was provided by the Grumpy Pasta Sisters, who plumped Lilli down on the flour-drenched table while they rolled out the ravioli.

There were cats to stroke at the bookshop, singing canaries at the motorbike repair shop and a golden cocker spaniel at Antonietta and Lamberto's greengrocer's shop.

There I would sit and listen, long after my shopping was done, to their childhood memories of the streets round about and shopkeepers of the 1920s and 30s they grew up with: now-vanished carriage makers, soap makers, candle makers.

Special welcome

Discreetly curtained off, the small chocolate shop kitchens were the place for gossip.

As a favoured regular customer, one was invited to step across the divide and there, amidst the bubbling vats of sugar and the silent pools of chocolate, the conversation gained a fragrant steam.

At Christmas, the scene grew hotly frantic.

Signora Mameli would be creating plump marrons glaces; Signora Bernasconi making her signature pistachio torrone; and the somewhat ancient Signora Valzani, her mouth-watering mostaccioli alla Romana - all amidst a vociferous reprise of the year's more personal events.

Now, Berlin is brimming with sweetshops but I fear no-one gets to go behind the curtain.

For all that, there is one curtain I have my eye on: a tiny marzipan shop at the deserted end of Pestalozzistrasse.

Inside, an angel-faced man - "Mr Marzipan" - plays silvery recordings of Chopin amidst the trays of chocolates, hand-made in the kitchen behind that curtain.

The shop has been here since 1947 and the decor has not changed.

We have not struck up much of a conversation yet but, given time, who knows…

How to listen to: From Our Own Correspondent

BBC Radio 4: Saturdays, 1130 GMT. Second weekly edition on Thursdays, 1100 (some weeks only)

BBC World Service: See programme schedules

Download the podcast

Listen on BBC iPlayer

Story by story at the programme website

Has China's housing bubble burst?
How the world's oldest clove tree defied an empire
Why Royal Ballet principal Sergei Polunin quit


Sign in

BBC navigation

Copyright © 2017 BBC. The BBC is not responsible for the content of external sites. Read more.

This page is best viewed in an up-to-date web browser with style sheets (CSS) enabled. While you will be able to view the content of this page in your current browser, you will not be able to get the full visual experience. Please consider upgrading your browser software or enabling style sheets (CSS) if you are able to do so.

Americas Africa Europe Middle East South Asia Asia Pacific