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Shopping in Spain

The “slightly out of town” shopping sites have changed the way millions of people shop (blame the Americans for that – they started it!) and many of these proliferations now exist in Spain where I now live.

“Polígonos” (the Spanish word for the industrial estate sprawls that exist on the outskirts of most towns) are the places for the Carrefours, El Corte Inglés, Ikeas et al., and millions of Spanish (and expats) now do their weekly shopping at these sites. However…

There are a huge number of older Spanish people who either do not have cars or do not want cars, so “out of town” shopping is a non-starter for them (thankfully). This has meant, that in many of the smaller towns and villages shopping has remained as it was years ago, in small shops.

To the stranger this can seem confusing, as in many villages (and with full knowledge of the police and the town hall – whose Mayor will have many “cousins”, brothers-in-law, etc. etc.) shops do not have signs outside declaring their purpose. In El Burgo, my old “home” town (I wrote of the fiesta there a couple of years back), my long-suffering wife Julie (she does have ME to put up with!) needed a hairdresser shortly after moving there…we couldn’t see one.

A quick word with Juan Carlos (the local bar owner) revealed there were seven hairdressers in town (and it is a very small town)! None of them had an outside sign as (according to their interpretation of Spanish law) “if you don’t have a sign, you don’t need a licence” – and didn’t pay local business tax. Wonderful.

Now we live just outside Sierra de Yeguas. This, again, is a very small town and does not boast a supermarket, nor a hairdresser, nor a… well, you get the picture!

This does not mean one cannot find anything you need… oh no! The hairdresser lives (and works) on the corner house of the street next to the roll-up garage door that houses a “secret” English food store (though they have recently gone “legal” – wimps! – and opened a larger “supermarket-type shop”, bar and restaurant). The “supermarket” sells only imported British foodstuffs they feel people cannot live without…like ready-mixed Yorkshire pudding batter (ugh!), Thai sauce mixes (British?), tinned custard and countless other essentials. (What the Spanish think of British food tastes, based on a visit here, I shudder to think.)

However, the best shopping experiences can be found. Fish is available from seven each morning (or ten, if the traffic from the coast is bad) and is fresh, varied and cheap. No rectangular frozen fish blocks here! (Though you can buy “Bird’s Eye”, etc., in the British shop.)

Bread comes from one of the three bakers in town (one even has a properly licensed shop!) and is baked throughout the day (except during the siesta). It is crusty, tasty and just wonderful, even without butter or other coverings.

Wine, very good wine, can be purchased from the sweet shop (kiosk), the butcher, the “bazaar” (who are Muslims and don’t themselves drink, but wisely cater for those of us who do), several other shops including the chemist, and from the petrol station (which, very conveniently, is right next door to my house).

That caters for the real essentials, but what about the other “desirable” items one may need? A trip to the “bazaar” or the “ferretería” (ironmonger) or the one general food store will usually find you successful in your search. This has its dangers, though, for the unskilled British shopper – queueing, for one thing…

Queueing is not something the Spanish are good at. I should rephrase that. They are absolute masters at it! Our first real experience of this phenomenon occurred in El Burgo, where we had a kind of “Mace” self-service store. The Shopper would select a shopping basket and place it on the floor next to the till. Then they would go to the meat section and enquire who was last in line (there was ALWAYS a line!) then they’d be off round the shop selecting their goods. When we came into the shop we’d eye the long line at the meat counter and patiently(?) stand there until (we thought) it was our turn. Wrong! This was the point at which the earlier (“Who’s last?”) people would rush over and start ordering. After they’d taken our turn here we would be served.

All was not over…we would then select our other goods and stand, ready to be served at the “checkout”. Along would come the lady/ies who had placed their baskets next to the till and who would then want serving first! It didn’t take us too long to adapt. Now we’re experts!

Julie, when we first arrived in Spain, didn’t speak very much Spanish. This prevented her from wanting to rush out to the shops on her own but, after a while she decided she would try flying solo… she took me with her (as the “donkey” – the hills were very steep and the shopping heavy) but with strict instructions not to “help” if she struggled over any words.

We went to the butcher for vegetables (yep! where else?) and she did pretty well with her potatoes, onions (struggled a little with her carrots – zanahorias) and then on to the fruit. Apples, pears, kiwis all arrived with no problem, then came the peaches!

Julie couldn’t remember the word for peach but thought she did!
“Dos pechos,” she confidently stated.
“Qué?”
“Dos pechos,” this time pointing over the counter top to the peaches…
“Melocotones?”
“No, pechos, dos pechos grandes,” this time holding her hands out with the fingers spread to indicate the size of the desired peaches. María, the girl behind the counter, giggled and picked up two of the huge peaches and showed them to Julie. Who gave her assent.

There was a crowd of old ladies (there was always a crowd of old ladies) had gathered to see what the strange foreigners were buying. They were in pleats of laughter, which Julie found strange.

Outside she asked me what she’d done wrong…this time I burst out laughing…at this Julie’s temper snapped. I had to tell her…

The word for peaches is “melocotón” (as María had correctly surmised Julie wanted). What Julie had “remembered” was that we had in the house a tin of peaches (we’ve still got it!) which we bought in France. On it was emblazoned “Pêches”, the French word for peaches. Knowing the Spanish end all of their words in “o” (hmmm!) or “a”, Julie had said the obvious thing… “pechos”. What Julie now knows is the word “pechos” means “breasts” (or a slightly more vulgar word rhyming with “sits”). So Julie had been asking for, and demonstrating the size required for two large breasts!

Of course, had there been an “out of town supermarket” we would have been denied this experience.

Small town shopping is good for the learning of a new language, too. In the same butchers Julie was eyeing the display of meat in the cold display. Operating under the “Don’t help me” rules I watched (taking advantage of the chair placed in the corner for the use of relics like me, who need to rest) “Chicken wings…no problem,” thought Julie. She knew the word for “chicken” but not the word for “wings”. Again, no problem, a quick demonstration was needed. Doing her own version of the “Birdie Song” Julie quickly received her bag of chicken wings…and a round of applause from the seven or eight old ladies who always squeezed into the tiny shop whenever we visited. Glowing with pride at achieving her goal (and from the embarrassment) she left.

“Tomorrow I’m going alone!” (I can do anything!)

Tomorrow came and, true to her word, off she went down the hill to brave the old ladies alone. Potatoes, meats, bleach, cakes, flypapers, a newspaper, a pair of sandals, all were ordered and received with confidence (this was the butchers, after all!). When the crowd had swelled to bursting point in the tiny shop, and there was no chance of squeezing more in, María played her trump card…
“Un kilo de tomates, por favor,” Julie said.
“Qué?”
“Un kilo de tomates, por favor!”
“Qué?”
“Tomates!”
“Qué?”
You get the picture?

Pointing frantically at the huge pile of tomatoes Julie pointed at them, puzzled by the blank look on María’s face. The crowd was hushed…then Julie realised!
“Oh no! You’re not getting me to do an imitation of a tomato!” The crowd roared! So Julie puffed out her cheeks (they were already red!) Even more laughter and Julie was accepted. She was out for several hours as each old lady wanted to show her round her home and offer a little drink. This experience could never be achieved in a modern supermarket, now, could it?

I’ve probably rattled on enough and I’m sure there are thousands of stories of international shopping all you expats could share with us, so let’s have ’em.

Bob Fretwell

Sierra de Yeguas, Málaga

[Editor’s note: Bob’s story is also published on our discussion forum. You can join in here:
British Expat Forum
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