I live on Cąrrer de Diputació, a working class neighborhood with a number of small restaurants and cafés and a handful of little "specialty shops" that sell things from tree ripened fruit and decadent chocolate hedgehogs to the most stylish of home decor. Around the corner from my apartamento is un supermercado, an all in one market that sells everything that one might imagine. After surviving the first night on leftover and somewhat stale trail mix and armed with the knowledge gleaned from my first "immersion Spanish class", I decided that it was time to test my newly reinvigorated language skills and get myself some cosas para comer.
On the surface, a grocery store is a grocery store. I mean, how difficult could it be to buy some groceries? It's a visual activity, after all. Food is food. Spanish lemons look the same as American lemons, don't they? Bread is bread in any language.
In el supermercado there are several options for collecting your goods. Many people come into the market wheeling their own cart, colorfully stretched canvas atop a metal basket with wheels, but there are other options as well. There's a more typical, albeit smaller, version of a cart you might find at say, a Piggly Wiggly, and for those only running in to grab a "couple of things", there's a red canvas bag that you can sling over your shoulder as you quickly grab the lemons and capers that you forgot for the evening's meal.
Wanting to look like I belonged, I walked confidently to the stand that held the red canvas bags, grabbed one and headed straight into the mercardo to begin my shop.
That's when the trouble began.
I don't know about you, but I'm a creature of habit. I usually shop at the same store and start in the same place each time, wandering the aisles in succession, gathering my familiar, tried and true brands. I'm not a list maker (not that there's anything wrong with that). I just know what I want and I walk, aisle by aisle, starting in the produce section, moving to dairy and so on until I collect what I need. Occasionally, if I happen to stop in a different store, it might take me a minute to orient myself, but pretty quickly I'm on my way, grabbing the milk and the cheese and the bread from the usual places.
Not so in el supermercado.
For one thing, while it "looked" like a setup I recognized, it was, in effect, a maze of un-numbered, un-labeled aisles that did or did not necessarily connect to the aisle nearest it. There were aisles that dead ended, aisles that interconnected and aisles that seemed to go no where except back to the previous aisle. One aisle led, in fact, to a whole new section of the store, invisible from where I stood, up a ramp and around a corner. A bonus aisle of sorts. A section that only stocked cookies, soda and two different varieties of pet food.
Near as I could tell, there was no rhyme or reason for where things were placed. Laundry soap was next to produce. Bread was next to frozen foods. Jamón was next to, well, jamón. In fact, there was an entire aisle dedicated just to jamón.
It wasn't long before the red canvas bag was too heavy to carry and I had to go back to the front of the store, turning around and around until I finally found the right aisle, to get a small plastic tub on wheels, something quite reminiscent of a child's shopping cart, that was operated by means of a long plastic handle. The tub was a bit tipsy, and it was necessary and wise, it turns out, to maneuver very carefully as one wheeled one's cart around the supermercado, especially when heading up the ramp to the back part of the store, lest one's cart tip and the contents spill out on the floor, right in front of the fresh fish counter and a dozen or so Catalunyans who proceeded to look judgmentally at the sad and somewhat embarrassed cart operator.
Things to note while shopping in a supermercado:
Milk is not refrigerated. Don't ask me how or why, but it's not. If one is looking for milk, it comes in small boxes and is stacked rather unceremoniously by the toilet paper.
It is helpful to have a Spanish dictionary with you when you go to buy cheese. That way, you won't come home with something that you thought was goat cheese that in fact is not. What it is, is still to be determined.
There are limited varieties of almost everything except jamón. While there are two or three types of cookies, two brands of olive oil and only one kind of mayonnaise, there are, in fact, over a dozen different varieties of jamón. In fact, the deli is a jamón only deli. You can buy prepacked sliced jamón, cubed jamón (jamón tacos) and minced jamón (pancetta) or, for that special jamón occasion, you can get fresh sliced jamón, both serrano and ibérico, from the kind lady standing in the middle of the jamón aisle who will lovingly and methodically slice it right off the bone for you.
Of course, one need not shop in a supermercado to have the full jamón experience. There are any number of jamón only shops that dot my neighborhood. Truth be told, the jamón really is delicious, even if I have only managed to buy the prepackaged stuff. Despite three days under my belt of my immersion class, we still haven't covered measurements.
With my luck, I'll order too much and end up with enough jamón to feed my entire neighborhood.