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lost in translation: my supermarket saga in Barcelona
Have you ever had an experience that lasted ten minutes but felt like an eternity?
Frantically, you search for your passport as boarding ends for your connecting flight. The airline attendants announce "last call" and an emotional procession begins. The rush of hurried sweat. The nervous laughter. The muttered encouragement to soften the blow.
Self-criticism and resignation grab the mic: “Of course, this happens to me now”. Your shaky fingers scramble through the same pouch multiple times—each time, you know the passport is not there, but you need something for those anxious, impatient fingers to do. So you assign them work, useless work, but work that keeps them from shaking in your face and making you more worried.
Busy work. Like the nonsense theatre you do at your desk when your manager brushes behind you in the office.
Anyway, I didn’t lose my passport, but I did have a ten-minute experience that was equally time-defying in nature. What should have been a paradise, a morning where I could wander aloof in a food playground, turned into an escapade where I had to defend my mandarins and decipher why a stranger was giving me attitude in a foreign language. I'll paint the picture for you.
It’s my first week in Barcelona, I’m buzzing from the love and adrenaline that shot me across the Atlantic Ocean to start my sabbatical. Three days into my trip, I realize it’s probably a good idea to buy groceries. Subsisting off paella and Indian takeout didn’t seem like a sustainable strategy. So I found a local grocery a few minutes from home. Perfect…or so I thought.
I’m one of those people who enjoys grocery shopping—I get inspired from the walks down the aisles. My former local grocery (The Market in SF) had this special freezer door that stored rare produce—think smoked turkey neck or pork knuckles—bits and bobs that weren’t always available. I loved building dishes off that freezer door. So I was excited to see what this new grocery store had to offer…so much so that I arrived right when it opened at 9am.
To my rude shock, I walked in and noticed other humans were present. Huuhn? I thought I had evaded the crowd and would have the playground all to myself. Aren’t the commoners at work at this time? I thought I could frolic through the aisles, moonwalk up and down the meat section and make my own applause. Put items in my basket, reject them on a whim, then shamelessly pick the same item again. (Welcome to the ridiculous mind of someone afflicted with main character energy). Of course, other people were shopping and buying their bits!
The Great Onion Mystery
But the crowd wasn’t my problem. I let my legs wander off to the allium aisle and picked up onions and garlic—my staunchest religious belief is that nothing good happens without that family. I had recently learned how to say “onion” in Spanish, so after dumping a bunch of them in my basket, I looked at the label to confirm my new vocabulary. I expected to see “cebolla” underneath the onion. But I saw “ceba”. Hmm. Did the word get a haircut? Was this a slang? Did the printer run out of ink?
Well, at least I knew using my eyes that this ceba was a regular red onion. I grabbed my garlic, too, and went off in search of the perfect addition to my bounty–peppers. My rudimentary Spanish didn’t have a translation for the word for “pepper” but I had a few clues. Years of watching cooking shows reminded me that “pimenton” is smoked paprika. And paprika is just ground-up red pepper. Somehow, I knew “spicy” as “picante”. So my brain was looking for a “pi—” sounding word on the pepper label.
But then, when I go over to the pepper section, I see some other strange word written on the label. It also starts with “p” but its shape and form look like it comes from a totally different word root. It didn’t seem right in my head. I look back in my hands and I’m convinced I’m holding a pepper. Something isn’t adding up.
Some of you might know what’s happening. But it took me a few minutes. Then it hit me like a bag of rocks.
The items were labelled in Catalan, not Spanish. I was indeed in Barcelona—the capital of Catalonia. While most of the city is labelled in Spanish and English, I ended up at one of the stores that was exclusively labelled in Catalan—something my pocket assistant, Google Maps, failed to tell me.
I had no reference point to figure out Catalan, which is a problem if you’re shopping. Spanish I could somewhat intuit…and some items are obvious. Rice is rice, right? I mean, rice is “arroz” but, once you see the grains, you don’t really need the label.
When you’re buying spice blends, canned items, or lesser-seen cuts of meat, however, sight reveals little. Marinara and tomato puree look like identical twins, but fresh pasta smothered in tomato puree is pleasing no one. Helpless, I returned to Google—I bugged the Translate app to help me decipher this new world. This red sauce in front of me—is it spicy or sweet? An ingredient or a condiment?
Google Assistant to the Rescue?
The little humans stashed inside my phone hiding behind the Google logo did their best (I know you’re in there!). Sometimes the translations were pretty good, but other times, they splashed words together that made no contextual sense. So I resorted again to the other kind of technology I had—the camera lens in the front of my face—my eyes.
I allocated myself a rough “budget” to buy mostly stuff that I was certain about. But my penchant for adventure had conflicting ideas. I compromised by letting myself buy a few things that looked appealing even if I didn’t know what they were. Unless they were vegetables. I’m still healing from a mini-trauma in 2020, when I bought summer squash on sale, a vegetable I never buy, then proceeded to pan-fry it into a sad, soggy mush. Sorry, I pan fried it because my oven door refused to open. Probably because I set it on a three hour cleaning cycle and forgot that three hours is a long time. I’m an eater, not a chef!
A Dramatic Checkout
At this point, my basket is full to the brim. I had filled it with all kinds of food—healthy stuff, processed stuff, durables, crowd favorites, unknown jars—and it couldn’t accommodate anymore guests. So I stepped up and joined the queue.
From the moment I got in line, I could sense the unease ahead. There was only one working cash register and the cashier was FLINGING the scanned items into the bagged area with reckless abandon. This wasn’t Trader Joe’s where the attendant would compliment your necklace, flirt with you, and pack your goods in perfect double-bags. Perfect for me because I am chronically unable to speed-pack groceries. This cashier’s whole body language was screaming “I don’t want to be here.” I sensed this was going to be a “fun” checkout experience.
It’s my turn now. Beep. Boop. Beep. Boop. Before I get the chance to even open the bag, she’s flung seven items to the bagging area. In response, I fling my packing plan away—I wanted to separate raw meats from ready-to-eat stuff but now I’m willing to take the risk of contamination. I worry the flaming embers from this attendant and the impatient Spaniards behind me might kill me before any rogue bacteria. Resigned to my fate of slowing the queue, I grab a few bags and do my best. She finishes scanning my stuff. Her facial expression is a familiar frown. It’s the same exasperated, impatient one that drivers sport when waiting for a pedestrian to cross the road when the walker has the right of way—an unthinkable crime.
Many moments later, I reach the finish line and pay with my credit card. She hands me a paper receipt.
Then….she starts speaking to me in Catalan.
I respond in my limited Spanish: “No entiendo, por favor”
She responds with even more Catalan—this time, it’s paragraphs with pauses where she expects me to reply. I have no idea what she’s saying. But I can glean from her body language she wants something from me. An autograph? My phone number? Surely, she would ask for those things with a different tone.
Her tone got more impatient. We’re at a standstill. She repeats herself, or it sounds that way. I tell her I don’t understand. Then silence. But then, the floodgates open–a walking cane clatters to the ground right by my foot. I look back and see an older gentleman leaning to pick it up. I grab the cane and hand it back to him. He thanks me, but then he reaches for my mandarins on the conveyor belt. Uhh, excuse me? He grabs one fruit and tries to put it in his pile. Then, three of us–the shopping attendant, the person behind the old gentleman in the queue and myself manage to convince him that those were my mandarins, thank you very much. He accepts he was mistaken.
Then, I finally hear what the attendant was saying. In the midst of her words, I pick out:
“DI-EZZZZ” …followed by some incomprehensible noises
A neuron in my brain flashed bright–“DI-EZ” is kinda like “DIX,” which means “ten” in French. The penny dropped and I got the message. But… ten what?
I saw the payment confirmation go through so I knew it wasn't the bill. Loyalty points? I didn't have a membership so not that. Hmm, ok what else could it be? My ID? I wasn't buying alcohol. My mind raced through the options as the heat of the impatient queue began to close in on me. I grabbed my receipt from the packed bag and motioned to explain that I had already paid.
And then it hit me. Of course, of course. It was right there in front of me hiding in plain sight.
She wanted ten cents for the plastic bag. I handed over a few coins to her and she thanked me in Spanish. Her expression relaxed for the first time in ten minutes.
I grabbed my groceries, and I uh… never set foot in that grocery store again.