The grocery store in Spain is the only place in the world I have visited where you can buy a six-pack of beer and three bottles of wine for less than one pack of tortillas. However, you can only afford such deals if you can survive such a daunting shopping experience. First, you must be in peak running condition beforehand as getting to my local market requires a fear-provoking lengthy jaunt across a highly trafficked freeway. Based on experience, I recommend avoiding rush hour and bringing a backpack – sprinting with ten pounds worth of grocery sacks in your hands surely slows your agility.
Next, you must have keen eyesight and a strong stomach. The prior skill will help you determine what products you are purchasing. You mustn’t choose mixed tuna in olive oil over tuna in natural juices, I’m positive you already know why. The latter skill you will need to withstand the pungent fish odor that drifts through the entire building from the open fish market at the back. Pulling a cart and trying to figure out whether you are looking at chicken, beef, pork or all three in one is impossible while holding your nose.
Finally, you must also be nimble and quick-minded. Once you approach the register, it feels like someone has fired a gun when the checker rings your first item because that begins the race to the finish. Frantically, you shove item after item into bags. Then make sure your cured pork leg doesn’t squish your bread. Then you remember that you don’t have time to think about what items belong together in what bags because now the checker stares at you waiting for payment. So you pay, but your bags aren’t completely loaded. So you load them. The next customers watch you impatiently as does the checker, who doesn’t help with the bagging. Then you are off and running across the freeway back home to find that your old school dorm refrigerator has frozen over.
In such incidences, you can always choose to eat at a restaurant instead. Special note: to venture into the mysterious realm of Mexican food in Spain requires utter gallantry. Like Monty Python on the quest to find the Holy Grail, I too have gone in search of fine and authentic enchiladas, burritos and tacos. However, my first of such trials came out entirely unsuccessful.
Having spent the past four years inhaling colossal-sized Freebirds’ burritos, you could imagine my disappointment when my waiter brought me a crusty tortilla one third the size of a Chihuahua filled with kidney beans and an unidentifiable form of gamey tasting meat puree for about seven dollars. I told myself, “I may have lost the battle, but I will win the war.”
Seeing as local gastronomy doesn’t always appease, I figured the customer service industry might be more reliable, however, patience must be granted to the person that serves you.
At a kebab restaurant once, the waiter asked me if the United States was next to Germany, or perhaps below Latin America. My friends and I reminded him that the continents are called North and South America for a reason.
One month later, on the other side of the Atlantic, I ordered paella mixta – a traditional Spanish dish that consists of rice, vegetables, seafood and chicken – for dinner in Salamanca. After eating halfway through the dish, I uncovered a small piece of yellow plastic, which looked like a milk jug seal. I considered the object foreign to my meal as, last I heard, plastic is not an ingredient legalized by the FDA in the U.S. However, as a paella virgin I wasn’t sure. Upon inquiry with the waiter, he shrugged his shoulders nonchalantly at the yellow object then proceeded to shove his stubby fingers into my rice dish, dig it out and fling it across the room over his right shoulder. A bit disgruntled, I asked him if he would have eaten it and, of course, he gave me the “dumb American” glare. Maybe finding plastic in your paella is about as fortunate as finding a wishbone in your chicken, then winning the bone breaking contest. I could only have been so lucky. However, at least I know where the United States is in the event that I ever want chicken again in my life. Someone told me once that the country lies just below China.